The origins of mobile communication research
Rich Ling and Leopoldina Fortunati
The growth of the mobile communication research community is intimately related to the establishment of the ICA Mobile Communication Division.
As one might expect, research examining the social consequences of mobile communication was a reaction to the diffusion of the technology. According to Bento (2012), mobile communication first appeared in the late 1970s. It began to gain a foothold in Scandinavia in the 1980s and was also adopted in the Global North (e.g., Europe and Japan but not the US) in the 1990s. After the millennium shift, diffusion extended to other parts of the world, including Asia (particularly China and India) and Africa (ITU 2018).
This diffusion pattern is mirrored in the growth of mobile communication research. In broad strokes, after some pioneering research, the research community had its nascency in the early 1990s in the work of European scholars. These people were often employed by network operators and the work was developed in European-based projects such as the COST 248, 269, 298 actions and the Eurescom P903 project that are described below. It was in these projects that several of the early researchers first came together, including Leopoldina Fortunati (University of Trieste), Leslie Haddon (London School of Economics), Chantal de Gournay, Zbigniew Smoreda and Frank Thomas (France Telecom), Enid Mante Meier and Jeroen Heres (KPN in the Netherlands), Annevi Kant (Telia in Sweden), Santiago Lorente (Telefonica in Spain), Leila Klamer (Telecom Danmark), and Rich Ling (Telenor in Norway). As time went on, it grew to include researchers in North America (e.g., Scott Campbell and James Katz) and Japan (e.g., Mizuko Ito), and then developed into a global research community.
Development of a community
Mobile communication research followed somewhat in the path of research on landline telephony. There was small academic literature in this area (e.g., de Sola Pool 1971; 1983) as well as industry-based studies of the technical, market, and social dimensions of mobile communication (Johannesen 1981).
The earliest academic analyses of mobile communication, published in 1993 by Lana Rakow and Vija Navarro at the University of North Dakota, examined the potential effects of mobile communication on the role of women and the eventual development of “remote mothering” (1993). Klaus Lange (University of Berlin) also wrote on mobile communication’s eventual impact on residential markets (1993). Leopoldina Fortunati wrote on mobile phone practices of use (1995). These studies were done in the US, Germany, and Italy, respectively.
Early projects examining mobile communication research in Europe
Starting in the mid-1990s in Europe, there was an increased focus on the study of telephonic communication patterns (Haddon 1994; Haddon and Silverstone 1994), and more specifically, on the social consequences of mobile communication (Berg 1996; Haddon 1996; Lohan 1996; Haddon and Silverstone 1996). The line of work and some of the scholars who formed the core of this research came together in the European COST 248 action. The final report of this group, Communications on the move: The Experience of Mobile Telephony in the 1990s (Haddon 1997c), contains a series of research articles that examined, among other things, the diffusion of mobile communication in Europe (Bakalis, Abeln, and Mante-Meijer 1997), the public understanding of mobile communication (Fortunati 1997), as well as the analysis of local use patterns and consequences (Ling, Julsrud, and Krogh 1997; Ling 1997). There were also several small conferences and seminars focusing on the social consequences of mobile communication arranged by the pan-European research organization Eurescom (Mante-Meijer et al. 2001; Klamer, Haddon, and Ling 2000). This led to Eurescom sponsoring the so-called P903 project, a pan-European qualitative and quantitative analysis of mobile communication use by a sample of users. The studies were developed by many of the same people who had participated in the Cost 248 project.
Perhaps not surprisingly, at this time, there was research on the social consequences of mobile communication in Finland, the home of Nokia. Specifically, Pirjo Rautiainen and Eija-Liisa Kasesniemi at the University of Tampere, Finland (2000) worked on the role of mobile communication in the lives of children (a theme that continues to this day). Also, Timo Kopomaa (2000) wrote one of the first single-author books on mobile communication entitled The city in your pocket. And cross-cultural research was conducted at the European level by Fortunati (1998) in five countries, namely France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and the UK.
Research in other regions of the world
At the cusp of the new millennium, mobile communication research developed in other corners of the globe. In the US, James Katz and Mark Aakhus convened a conference and produced an edited book entitled Perpetual Contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance (2002). The journalist Howard Rheingold also wrote a popular book on mobile communication entitled Smart Mobs (2002) that drew on research up to that time and has a special focus on mobile communication practices in Japan.
In 2001, Leopoldina Fortunati organized a conference on mobile communication and fashion entitled “The Human Body between technologies, communication and fashion.” This was in Milan at the Triennale of Milano and included researchers from European and international universities (Fortunati, Katz, and Riccini 2002)
Starting in 2002, the Hungarian philosopher Kristof Nyiri started a series of quasi-annual conferences in Budapest (with the associated proceedings) on the social and philosophical consequences of mobile communication (Nyíri 2002; 2003; 2005; 2008b; 2008a; 2009). There was a strong European focus at these conferences, but there were also a significant number of researchers, including Mark Poster, Kenneth Bergen, Shin Dong Kim, and Fernando Paragas from other parts of the world (e.g., Australia, Philippines, Israel, Korea, Singapore, and Japan). Another conference on “Mobile Technologies and Health” was organized by Leopoldina Fortunati in Udine in 2004.
As the decade continued, US-based researchers such as Scott Campbell (2003) and Adriana de Souza e Silva (2003) began to discuss the social construction of mobile communication and the idea of mobile-enabled hybrid spaces. Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda examined mobile communication in Japan in their edited book Personal, portable, pedestrian: Lessons from Japanese mobile use (2005). The analysis of Japanese use was also seen in the work of Larissa Hjorth (2003) around this time.
Rich Ling’s book, The mobile connection (Ling 2004), was published in 2004. It examined various dimensions of mobile communication, including its use in everyday micro-coordination, its use in securing our safety, its disruptive dimensions, its role in the lives of adolescents, etc.
The interest in mobile communication research continued to spread during the middle of the decade. There was work reporting on the situation in Australia (Goggin 2005), on mobile communication and bombings in Israel (Cohen and Lemish 2005), youth in Taiwan (Wei and Lo 2006), working women in China (Wallis 2008), texting around the world in the book edited by Harper et al. (2005), adoption practices (Wirth, Von Pape, and Karnowski 2008), and the analysis of, among other things, the psychological, linguistic, and economic impacts of mobile communication in a book edited by Ling and Pedersen (2005).
Perhaps most significantly, there was a growing understanding that mobile communication was not limited to analysis of the Global North. Indeed, the work of Jonathan Donner during this time showed how mobile communication was being used in innovative ways in Africa (2005). This thread is also seen in the work of Arul Chib and colleagues (2008) and their analysis of mobile communication and the provision of health services in rural Asia.
In 2007, Manuel Castells and his colleagues (2007) published a book that gave us a broad overview of mobile communication as it had spread into society on a global basis. They took up its impact on family life, remote working, multitasking and the compression of time, political organization, technological “leapfrogging,” etc.
Looking back over this period, mobile communication research seems to have found its footing in the various projects and seminar series in Europe, spread to North America, and Japan, and from there into the various corners of the globe.
Growth of the ICA Mobile Pre-conference
As noted above, through the first decade of the millennium, there were a series of small research seminars that focused on mobile communication. In 2002, there was what can be seen as the first Mobile Communication Pre-conference associated with the ICA meeting in Seoul that year. There were other independent seminars held in the next years (e.g., at Rutgers and in Budapest). The alignment between the Mobile Communication pre-conference and the general ICA conference truly came at the pre-conference in Erfurt, Germany, before the ICA conference in Dresden in 2006. Along the way, the mobile communication preconference provided a synergy between mobile communication researchers and the wider communication studies community. The main conference drew together a large group of scholars wherein mobile communication scholars could both cultivate the sub-discipline at the preconference and then participate in the wider general conference. The preconference provided the space to develop bonds with others interested in this area of study while also placing the work into the context of communication studies. There were attempts to integrate mobile communication studies into other divisions within ICA (e.g., Communication and Technology). However, the differences in focus were apparent (e.g., the theoretical framing and the methodological approaches), and these attempts foundered. This is perhaps fortunate since it provided the space for mobile communications to establish its own footing. Had the two groups merged, there would not have been the same institutional development we have seen.
Through the years, the organizing committees have included both international scholars as well as scholars from the host cities. In some cases, the venues have been the actual ICA conference hotel (e.g., San Francisco 2007, where Mike Traugott, Jonathan Donner, and Rich Ling were on the organizing committee), Chicago 2009, and San Juan 2015.
In other cases, the preconference has been held at local universities such as Rutgers University (New Brunswick, 2005), associated with the New York ICA, hosted by James Katz, Arizona State University (Phoenix, 2012), organized by Adriana de Souza e Silva, London School of Economics (2013), hosted by Leslie Haddon, University of Washington (Seattle, 2014), hosted by Katy Perce and Brett Ostegaard, University of California, San Diego (2017), organized by Colin Agur, Institut Polytechnique de Paris (2022) hosted by Christian Licoppe, and University of Toronto (2023), hosted by Jeff Boase. It has also been held at museums in Prague in 2017 and Washington in 2018 (when the conference was interrupted by a tornado warning), a library in Singapore in 2010 (hosted by Arul Chib and Trisha Lin), and research organizations (Microsoft Research Boston) in 2011, organized by Katie Cumiskey.
Along with the development of the ICA mobile preconference, there was also a movement towards publishing papers in recognized academic venues. There had been a tradition of publishing the papers from seminars and projects in edited collections. The sub-discipline gained its footing using the venue of edited collections, but this also limited the exposure to the wider academic community. During the latter part of the millennium’s first decade, there were an increasing number of articles on mobile communication published in peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Communication, New Media and Society, and the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication (Campbell and Kwak 2011; Campbell 2007).
The development of publication venues for mobile communication research
Based on discussions at the 2009 mobile pre-conference in Chicago, Veronika Karnowski and Thilo von Pape started to draft a proposal for the journal Mobile Media and Communication. Along with Steve Jones and me on the editorial team, the first issue was published in 2012. This has provided a venue for the publication of scholarly, peer-reviewed articles examining the social consequences of mobile communication. In this way, it has also helped to establish the identity of the mobile communication research community. In addition to being a publication venue, the journal is an arena where the identity of mobile communication research is examined and developed.
In 2013, Rich Ling, Gerard Goggin, and Leopoldina Fortunati established the “Studies in Mobile Communication” book series with Oxford University Press. Whereas the journal Mobile Media and Communication published articles, the book series focused on book-length research. The connection with Oxford University Press also led to the production of the Oxford Handbook of Mobile Communication and Society (2020). As with the journal, these activities have contributed to the identity of mobile communication as an academic community.
Into the Future
Mobile communication research has established itself as a subdiscipline within communication. There is a global community of scholars who have started to develop unique theoretical and methodological trajectories. Now, there is canonical literature in the area, just as there are institutional homes for mobile communication research in conferences, journals, and book series. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, students are taking up the study of mobile communication at the graduate and undergraduate levels.
As the subdiscipline continues to evolve, it is also important to ask, why should we care? What does the research on mobile communication contribute to the wider academic project and, indeed, to society? Using this lens, how can mobile communication research help us to understand the ebb and flow of social interaction? How can it help us to understand how power is exercised in society, how economic interactions work out, or how cognition operates?
What is it that the study of mobile communication contributes to these issues that cannot be gleaned otherwise? In a sense, mobile communication research is at a transition point in that the uniqueness of the phenomenon made it an obvious focus of research in earlier research. The simple contrast between the pre-and post-mobile society provided new insights (see, for example, Ling et al. 2017; Aricat and Ling 2020). Going forward, there is a need to discuss mobile communication in a world where it is ubiquitous rather than partitioned (Scott Campbell et al. 2023; Jones et al. 2023). Thus, there is a need to have expansive theorizing regarding mobile communication. It will also be the springboard for nuanced investigations into the interaction between mobile communication and its social consequences.
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 Rich Ling has been involved in the study of the social consequences of mobile communication for the past three decades. He has been a researcher at Telenor (the Norwegian Telecomm provider) and a professor first at IT University in Copenhagen, and then at Nanyang Technological University.
 Leopoldina Fortunati is aggregate professor of Sociology of Culture and Communication at the University of Udine. She is a member of the Academia Europaea and an ICA Fellow. She wrote almost 300 academic works.
 This was largely due to regulatory issues.
 For example, TeleDanmark, KPN in the Netherlands, Telecom Italia, British Telecom (BT) in the UK, Telenor in Norway, Telia in Sweden, France Telecom, Telefonica in Spain, etc.
 COST stands for European Cooperation in Science and Technology)
 Others from this group who have written on mobile communication include Zbigniew Smoreda and Frank Thomas (2001), Anne Jorun Berg (1996), Leslie Haddon (1997a), Rich Ling, Tom Julsrud and Erling Krogh (1997) and Maria Lohan (1996).
 There had been earlier seminars at Rutgers, USA, hosted by James Katz, in Grimstad, Norway hosted by Rich Ling, in Heidelberg, Germany, following the P903 project, and the series of seminars in Budapest hosted by Kristof Nyiri. There was, however, no direct connection between these seminars and the ICA.
 This conference was a bit before the actual ICA conferenced (about two weeks). It featured discussions with Manuel Castells.
 Rich Ling organized both pre-conferences.
 There had been an earlier book series based at Transaction Press edited by Scott Campbell and Rich Ling. This focused on publishing edited books that included (Ling and Campbell 2011).