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Convivial practices, gossiping and the materiality of the smartphone

By Elisabetta Costa, on 10 March 2013

photo by philcampbell (creative commons)

photo by philcampbell (creative commons)

I received my first Smartphone as a Christmas gift a few months ago. I know, you will probably think this may come as quite a late development for a researcher working on social-media and digital technologies! Probably, as a way to express my distaste for the predominant techno-enthusiastic attitude I tend to avoid promptly adopting new communication technologies as soon as they enter the market. I am often sceptical and I prefer to let others test it first! I had always been astonished at the view of those social gatherings where enthusiastic participants would hold a smartphone in their hands and use it to chat and communicate with someone else and simultaneously with those nearby. I myself was shocked when I saw a group of ten teenagers sitting on a little wall and communicating on the smartphone instead of talking with their friends sitting nearby. I thought it was shameful!

However as a Facebook user who spends many hours using social-media every week, I started to be amazed at the new opportunities I was presented with the use of Facebook on the bus, in the toilet and in the kitchen whilst having lunch. The smartphone has changed completely the way I use social networking sites and in just a few months it has created a new normativity (Miller 2012). I now find myself easily checking the results of the Italian political elections and reading political comments and analysis on Facebook while I am having dinner with friends. Most shockingly, it’s not even considered rude or inappropriate. As pointed out by Horst (2010) digital technologies are very quickly domesticated as normative. Yes, it is true! I am not annoyed anymore by those friends who use the smartphone in front of me. Facebook, together with WhatsApp, Skype and other applications have been creating new forms of face-to-face sociality and conviviality. The smartphone is bringing into being new convivial social practices. It connects people sharing the same ‘off-line’ space in the same way that a table game, a card game, or a pint of beer can do.

When I was in Istanbul studying Turkish I used to meet a language exchange partner in a cafe’ or a pub twice a week. Our main activity was gossiping about acquaintances or friends while looking at their Facebook profiles. We used to spend hours sitting and drinking coffee gazing at the smartphone in her hands talking about them on the basis of what we read on Facebook. The result of this was that I learnt Turkish and I also greatly improved my gossiping skills!

Facebook’s effects are strictly entangled with the materiality of the technology supporting it. As also noted by Xin Yuan Wang in a previous blog post, the humility of things (Horst and Miller 2012) is one of the main characteristic of the material culture around us, meaning that things and technology are often ignored by those who use them. Indeed the smartphone has made Facebook a type of social media that has been impacting practices of ‘offline’ conviviality and in most of the cases it is doing it very silently.



Miller, D., Horst., H. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.

Horst H. 2010. Families. In Hanging out, messing around, geeking out: living and learning with New Media, ed. M. Ito, S. Baumer, M. Bittanti, d. Boyd, R. Cody, B. Herr, H. Horst, P. Lange, D. Mahendran, K. Martinez, C. Pascoe, D. Perkel, L. Robinson, C. Sims and L. Tripp, 149-94. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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