About a month ago I was on an overground train going home from visiting a friend when a teenage mother and her little daughter sitting in front of me caught my attention. Fastened to her pram, the baby girl unsuccessfully attempted to loosen the belts around her torso while repeatedly calling for her mom, trying to attract her attention.
While the baby was moving and making noises, the mom was static; headphones on, her face was immersed in the exchanges she was carrying out through text messages. I couldn’t tell if she was ignoring the calls coming from the baby or was, in reality, sealed-off from the surrounding noises and visual information.
In my memory, these dynamics – a baby fastened to a pushchair attempting to contact her motionless mother – lasted through several stations, but suddenly the mother broke from that trance-like state to carry a brief interaction with the person sitting next to her, who, until that point, was also barely moving, with headphones on and also exchanging text messages.
They were friends and their trance-like state was temporarily suspended while the mother expressed her disappointment with one of the people she had been communicating with through text. She was annoyed that this other person accused her of ending a conversation with an ironic “fine”.
Rapidly and while the friend sitting next to her was still paying attention, the young mother recorded a voice message to the other person demonstrating the correct tone that she supposedly meant, “- I said ‘fine’ [sweet voice] in a nice way and not ‘fine’ [bored voice] in an ironic way… asshole!” And as the girl friend next to her laugh, it became clear that this last word had not been recorded; it was just for her friend to hear.
For the purpose of this blog post, the above exchange is relevant because it shows how the abundance of communication platforms – which constitutes a state of polymedia – favours the creation of idioms of use. Notice that the mom had many alternatives to follow up in that conversation: she could have simply texted back or called the person. Instead, she chose a new solution – a voice message transmitted similarly to a text message.
The point of the notion of polymedia (Madianou and Miller 2012) is that it helps the researcher to reflect about communication strategies and also to formulate hypothesis about how certain social relations are being configured. A state of polymedia is produced when a person has at least half a dozen possible ways to convey a message (through mobile or computer), knows how to use them, and won’t pay more for choosing a certain solution given that the costs will be the same (since the broadband plan has a fixed monthly price).
In this case, for instance, maybe the mom wanted to be seen by her friend as intelligent and a bit “wicked” (by displaying publically how she understood and controlled the channel of communication); and she achieved this goal while also providing a quick reply and avoided a possible confrontation that could happen through a phone call. This can be speculated based on the idiom of usage that she chose to apply.
Madianou, M and Miller, D (2012) Migration and New Media. Routledge