by: danah boyd
Last fall, Hiyam Hijazi-Omari and Rivka Ribak presented a paper called "Playing With Fire: On the domestication of the mobile phone among Palestinian teenage girls in Israel" at AOIR. They studied teen girls who received their mobile phones from their boyfriends and hid them from everyone else.
Through this lens, they examine how the mobile phone alters social dynamics, relationships, and the construction of gender in Palestine. In short, they document how culturally specific gendered practices (not technological features) frame the meaning and value of technology.
All too often, we think of technology as empowering or restricting. We focus on the technology and its features rather than the ways in which it gets embedded in the lives of people. The phone has always been a gendered technology. (If you have any doubts, read Claude Fischer's "America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940.") While the story of the mobile is quite different, even the tensions between its use as a business tool and its use as a tool for family communications have been narrated through the lens of gender.
Palestinian boys give their girlfriends phones for the express purpose of being able to communicate with them in a semi-private manner without the physical proximity that would be frowned on. At the same time, girls know that parents do not approve of them having access to such private encounters with boys - they go to great lengths to hide their mobiles and suffer consequences when they are found out. While the boys offered these phones as a tool of freedom, they often came with a price. Girls were expected to only communicate with the boy and never use the phone for any other purpose. In the article, Hijazi-Omari and Ribak quote one girl as expressing frustration over this and saying "I did not escape prison only to find myself another prison." These girls develop fascinating practices around using the phone, hiding from people, and acquiring calling cards.
For teens, the mobile phone is a key device for negotiating intimate relations throughout the world. Studies done in the U.S., Jamaica, Japan, the U.K. and elsewhere all point to the ways in which teens negotiate private relationships using their mobiles. Mobiles are a critical tool for being in a relationship. Yet, most of our studies focus on the ways in which offline intimacies are extended across space and time through the mobile. What Hijazi-Omari and Ribak are finding with Palestinian girls is that the mobile is allowing them to have private encounters and relationships when these would be otherwise impossible.
This article helps elucidate the ways in which youth from different cultures are navigating social relations through the mobile. It is well-written and filled to the brim with fascinating data that tickles the brain. A must read for anyone interested in cultural difference involving the mobile!