How About an E-mail On That?

A recent Swiss study finds that as the communication options available to us expand, we tend to narrow the uses and audience for each

Cell phone users spend lots of time talking into their devices, but they generally communicate with very few people. Just how few? Would you believe four?

It's one of the surprising recent findings of a study carried out in Switzerland. In the last few years our communication environment has been expanding at a very fast pace. The lone fixed-line telephone has given way to multiple fixed and mobile phones, e-mail, instant messaging (IM), text messaging, voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) free (or near-free) telephony and videoconferencing, and other interactive channels such as blogs and wikis.

This expanded communication environment raises some questions: Are people "specializing" their use of different communication channels? For example, do mobile-phone, fixed-line, and e-mail users differentiate their usage of those tools in terms of content, communication partners, and habits? Are new channels affecting how existing channels are used?


  Stefana Broadbent, an ethnologist working for Swisscom Innovations, a division of Swisscom (SCM), Switzerland's largest telecom operator, says the answer to each of these questions is yes. Broadbent studies the economic and social aspects of telecommunications. In recent months she and her team have closely observed and studied a few hundred consumers in their interactions with technology—interviewing them, mapping the location of communication devices in their homes, collecting timelines and usage schedules, and asking users to keep detailed communication logs. And, she says, what this has revealed is that people "are very good at choosing the best media for each situation."

What would that be? "SMS is to tell you I miss you, e-mail is to organize our dinner, voice is to say I'm late, and IM is to continue our conversation," says Broadbent half-jokingly. Here is how she explains it in more detail:

• The fixed phone is the collective channel: "a shared organizational tool for the whole household," with most calls done in "public," because they are relevant to other members of the household. Only 25% are done "privately," from one's bedroom or study.

• Mobile voice is "the micro coordination channel": It is "the preferred channel for last-minute adjustment of plans or updates on where people are and what they are doing." Surprisingly, "80 percent of all exchanges are with only four people."

• SMS, or short messaging, is "for intimacy, emotions, and efficiency. Only the most intimate sphere of friends and family are contacted by SMS, and the content of the messages is often related to 'grooming' and emotional exchanges."

• E-mail is "the administrative channel," used to support online activities such as travel reservations and shopping, for coordination with extended social groups (clubs, friends, acquaintances), or for exchanging pictures, music, and other content with close social networks.

• IM and VoIP are "the continuous channels": "users open an instant messaging channel for the day and then just keep it open in the background while they do other activities; they multitask—and step in and out of a conversation." This starts to apply to VoIP as well (think Skype).

• Blogging is the broader networking channel: "Personal pages are often primarily a center of communication with friends and people online in general."

Some of these findings are very surprising. In particular, I asked Broadbent how certain she was that 80 percent of mobile voice calls are with only four people. She answered that she's "quite sure of it: maybe we're talking about five people, but it's consistent across studies," including research done in other European countries such as France (where, as in Switzerland, the penetration of mobile phones is much higher than in the United States, nearing 100%).


  So do new channels affect how existing channels are used? According to Broadbent, yes. Each new channel or media that appears slowly redefines the uses of the older existing media, she suggests: IM is currently redefining usage of short messaging; blogging is redefining the usage of e-mail; VoIP is changing the nature of a phone call. New patterns of communication emerge slowly, stabilize for a period, and then change again when new channels come along.

What role does cost play in shifting usage from one channel to the other? "Cost does play a role, but it's not absolute." She cites as evidence the fact that we use cell phones from home although it's more expensive and we have alternatives available. The cost is offset by convenience: With phone numbers stored in a cell phone's memory, it's more practical to take the device out of our pocket and push a button to place a call.

Even if it is just to call the same four or five people over and over.

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