What’s Good for a Business Can Be Hard on Friends

What’s Good for a Business Can Be Hard on Friends

Doug McSchooler for The New York Times

Brandy McDowell, left, and her longtime friend, Kezia Chandler, have
seen their relationship change as their cellphone carriers changed.

By ANGEL JENNINGS
Published: August 4, 2007

A month ago, Brandy McDowell sat down
with her longtime friend, Kezia Chandler, and told her she had switched
cellphone carriers. Their relationship has not been the same since.

 
Now, they barely speak. Ms.
Chandler rushes Ms. McDowell off the phone when she calls during her
lunch break. And long conversations about schoolwork and relationship
woes have been reduced to sound bites.

Maybe they should blame
the cellphone carriers. The carriers, after all, set up plans that
encourage subscribers to talk mainly to people in the same network. The
companies say they are simply trying to recruit and retain customers.

But
what was set up as a purely business strategy is having an
unintentional social effect. It is dividing the people who share
informal bonds and bringing together those who have formal networks of
cellphone “friends.”

That is most true for people younger than 25
because they are the ones who see the cellphone as an extension of
themselves. They are constantly sending text messages, making calls,
checking the time, scheduling appointments, calculating math, taking
photos, playing games or looking up something on the Internet.

Those
who talk the most on the phone are ages 18 to 24, according to a study
of cellphone use by Telephia Inc., a San Francisco research firm that
follows cellphone trends. In the first quarter of 2007, this group sent
and received on average 290 calls a month, the study found. Text
messaging was highest, Telephia said, among 13- to 17-year-olds, who
averaged 435 messages a month.

By contrast, cellphone users 45
to 54 years old spoke on the phone 194 times, on average, a month and
sent only 57 text messages.

David S. Hachen, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame
who looked at cellphone use and its effects on people’s relationships,
said he had found that cellphone networks tend to be a reflection of
friendship networks.

“Friendship networks,” he said, “tend to
be larger in younger groups, but they have weaker ties with those they
talk with. But as they get older, the networks are smaller and they
have stronger ties.”

Some experts worry that cellphones will
replace face-to-face contact, said Scott Campbell, who teaches
communication studies at the University of Michigan.

But after he conducted research on the impact of cellphones on social
networks, Mr. Campbell said he concluded that cellphones actually
enhanced the bonds between users.

“Who young people talk to
says something symbolically about who they are tied to,” Mr. Campbell
said in an interview. “And who they are talking to the most are their
close friends.”

Rich Ling, a sociologist at Telenor’s
communication research institute in Norway, who wrote a book on
cellphone use called “The Mobile Connection: The Cellphone’s Impact on
Society,” added that cellphones blur the lines of when an encounter
starts and when it ends.

“Young people are not just talking for
two hours, but they are continually connecting through the day,” he
said. He cited the young couple who send text messages and call each
other all day to set up details of a date. “When does the date start,
or does it start when they are sending messages back and forth?”

Mr.
Campbell describes text messaging as the equivalent of passing notes in
class, though they are more fragmentary and more frequent.

“A lot of people think these messages are meaningless, but they are actually symbolic gestures of friendship,” he said.

Unlike
traditional landline telephones, which once made callers distinguish
between local and long distance, cellphone carriers divide the world
into in-network and outside. And because basic plans from the three
major cellphone carriers, Verizon, Sprint and AT&T,
are all about the same price — under $60 a month — the deciding factor
for young people, in particular, is what network friends are on.

Carriers
are giving customers more options to stay connected with people outside
their network. This year, T-Mobile introduced a plan that allows
customers to choose five telephone numbers outside its network that
they can call free at any time. Sprint offers night minutes that start
at 7 p.m., two hours earlier than competitors.

“We are trying to avoid restricting customers to just people on their network,” said a Sprint spokeswoman, Emmy Anderson.

But while these plans may allow callers to talk free, the person receiving the call is still using daytime minutes.

Steve
Bufford, 24, of Manhattan, said he constantly monitored his
out-of-network minutes. And he had to cut back on conversations with a
few of his friends — “until the weekends, then we become the best of
friends in the world,” he said.

As for Ms. McDowell and Ms. Chandler, the two who rarely talk on the phone now, they say they visit each other more.

“We used to talk every day all day,” said Ms. McDowell, a 21-year-old student at Indiana UniversityPurdue University Indianapolis. “Now I only hear from her after 9 p.m. so she doesn’t use her minutes.”

In the cellphone world, minutes mean money, a lesson young adults
say they quickly learn when they move off the family plans and sign
their own contracts. While they once talked freely when their parents
paid the bill, they become penny pinchers when they have to pay their
own way.

Elisa Joris, 23, of Walled Lake, Mich., said
that was exactly what happened to her. She became a Sprint customer in
high school when her mother added her to the family plan. Now, seven
years later, she stays with the carrier because the people she talks to
the most — her brother, her former boyfriend and best friends — are all
on the network.

Ms. Joris said that because she no longer
shared minutes with her parents, she signed up for the plan with the
lowest cost even though it had the fewest minutes. For $30 a month, she
gets 300 daytime minutes, but it is the free calling within the network
that makes the plan a real bargain.

In June, she used only 200 of
those peak-hour minutes. But, she said, she spent more than 800 minutes
on the phone with other Sprint customers.

“I have seen bills
where I have used 1,500 minutes,” she said. “I try not to talk to those
who don’t have Sprint. I don’t have minutes to waste.”

And while
her attitude has yet to affect her relationships in a negative way, Ms.
Joris said it had brought her closer to someone she now considered a
friend who might have been an acquaintance if she were on another
network.

“One reason she talks to me more than her other friends is because we both have Sprint,” she said.

Some
cellphone users say they have found a way to change carriers without
losing touch with friends. As they switch to new companies, they try to
encourage their friends to move with them.

Ms. McDowell said she followed her friends as they hopped around.

In high school, she said, all her friends had the T-Mobile Sidekick
— the sleek, palm-size phone with a full keypad. So she signed a
two-year contract with the cellphone provider so she could send them
text messages at no cost.

Then in college, she said she and her
friends switched to Nextel so they could “chirp” to each other on their
walkie-talkie phones.

Last month, she returned to T-Mobile after everybody in her circle migrated back for the new Sidekick 3.

Her friend, Ms. Chandler, got lost after the second move. She still has Sprint, now part of Sprint Nextel, but she said she planned to leave once her contract expired. Ms. McDowell persuaded her to move to T-Mobile.

“As soon as I can, I am on my way,” Ms. Chandler said.

 

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