Cell Phones as Fashion Statements
This announcement was brought to my attention via email from Norway-based Rich Ling, one of the earliest social scientists to follow the adoption of the mobile phone. When I asked Ling what he thought the DVF Mobile meant, he referred to Georg Simmel, who observed the psychosocial aspects of fashion at the beginning of the 20th century: "Following from Simmel," Ling replied, "fashion consists of two types of tension. The first is the tension between individual and group identity. The second is the tension between the avant-garde and the dowdy. With the first of these, individuals are involved in trying to develop their own special ways of being or façades while at the same time also using their display of clothes, language and other artifacts (including the mobile telephone) as a sign of membership in a group. With the second of these, the individuals are, in effect, trying to surf on the edge of a dynamic change in society. If they are too far ahead, then they are discordant. If they are too far behind they are an echo of that which has come and gone. The ownership and use of the mobile phone (as an object of consumption) allows one to show their competence as a 'correct' (or perhaps not so correct) consumer of up-to-date technology. In addition, the device is a networking tool that in itself helps to develop and maintain group interaction. Further, the way we use it, the way that we display it and the way that we place it in our presentation of self provide others a sense of our fashionability."
This goes beyond expensive, jewel-encrusted phones that are designed for celebrities to attract attention even when they're pretending to guard their privacy. Regardless of what phone people use, the way it changes our interaction with the outside world is important, even if we don't fully understand all its implications yet.
Constructing identity by wearing symbolic objects is the inward tension associated with fashion. The outward face of the tension between identity and society is the public dimension of telephone use – the act of conducting a private conversation with a physically absent partner, in front of copresent strangers. The performative aspects of our personalities find a new dimension of expression with the mobile phone, but in the act of using it, we are changing the nature of the stage of public behavior. As Fortunati put it:"life is still a theater, but the difference between when we are acting and when we are being ourselves is on the whole less distinct, if only because the mobile gives us the possibility, when necessary, to stage ourselves."
The first time I saw someone walking down the street talking on a moblie phone with a hands-free handset, I thought she was having some kind of a schizophrenic episode. Now it's commonplace. When one talks on a cell phone in public, they're sending a message to others, whether it be "Don't bother me," or "I'm important," or "I have a lot of friends." In fact, studies have shown that men often flaunt cell phone use as status symbols, just as they would a luxury car, a Rolex, or a "trophy wife." Note that it's the use of a cell phone that conveys status and importance -- not the device itself, which is a fairly pedestrian commodity these days.