Field Research: Smart Phone Usage in Philly Bars

Locations- Maxis Pizzas, Subs, and Bar; Dirty Franks Bar

Maxi’s- 1926 Liaqouras Walk, Philadelphia, PA

Dirty Frank’s- 347 South 13th Street,Philadelphia, PA

Vantage Point: Maxi’s

I sit toward the back against the new far wall of the annexed dinning area. From here I can observe about 6 groups of people drinking and eating around tables. All the groups seem to consist of friends either stopping in for lunch or to just grab a few drinks in between or after classes. The area is well lit and there is music playing over the digital jukebox, loud but not too loud to impede conversation. There are 5 flat screen televisions positioned around the establishment; two on either side of the bar, two positioned on the front wall of the storefront and one in the newly annexed dinning area.

Vantage Point: Dirty Frank’s

From where I sit I can only observe about half of the bar and the people in it. I am with two other people my girlfriend and a mutual friend of ours. The bar is very crowded and it is difficult to move about but from time to time gaps open up and it becomes easier. The music is just audible enough for me to recognize the song. Most of the ambient noise is coming from the people in the bar. I sit in a booth toward the back of the establishment; I can view the actions of groups around the bar and the booths that are on either side of us.

People: Maxi’s

The vast majority of patrons here are students at Temple University. There are a variety of races genders and ages range from 21 to approximately middle aged. Most of the observable people at the bar are a part of a group of friends or coworkers. For the sake of this study I focused on three groups of students and one large group of construction workers that have been working on the new science and engineering building annex on campus. Most of the students had mobile smart phones ready and sitting on the table and were often used to check social networks and emails, sometimes used to choose a song from the jukebox. Often times there would be long pauses in the conversations between the students because all of them were on their phones. The construction crew appeared to have smart phones as well but most of them remained in their pockets or holstered on their belts and unused throughout their stay.

People: Dirty Frank’s

The majority of the people at this bar were older white collar types mostly Caucasians. There is an even mix of genders. Most of the people there I would guess are in their mid to late 20s or early 30s. Most of the people I observed were in groups with friends conversing. From what I could observe there was a variety of smart phones and standard phones with text and call capabilities. I did not see many people using their devices while I was at the bar.

Interactions: Maxi’s

As mentioned before the majority of the people at Maxi’s were of college age. Of those three groups I observed very similar behavior. They would engage in conversations for ten to fifteen minutes and from time to time these groups would experience a break in the discussion. During these breaks the students would all almost simultaneously pick up there smart phones which were poised in front of them, as if they were ready for this situation. The few screens I could see from my vantage point when such a situation arose I could see the students would visit their Facebook page, Twitter feeds, or their email. From time to time I would see people pick up their phones and idly scroll up and down, not actually doing anything on their phone just merely acting as if they were using it. The construction crew I observed surprisingly enough never participated in such actions and didn’t experience any awkward silences nearly as much as the students. The only times they would use their phones while in conversation with their group was when they had to answer a phone call or check the time. This phenomena of using a phone as stimuli in a non stimulating situation seems to be localized to the younger student population.

Interactions: Dirty Frank’s

Interactions at Dirty Frank’s seem to support my hypothesis. Because the majority of patrons at this establishment were older most of them didn’t seem to be as fixated on their mobile devices as the younger patrons of Maxi’s. Much like the older construction crew most of the patrons only used their devices to take calls and check the time and rarely ever used them for extended periods of time. There were a few exceptions however. I noticed that my girlfriend and our mutual friend would use their devices often to alleviate lulls in conversation. I also observed what appeared to be a date in progress in the booth next to us. The two were in their mid twenties and the female did not seem to care too much for her male counterpart and the conversations they were having. She seemed preoccupied by her phone which is what I assume was a way for her to not have to listen to him speak, however I cannot be certain about this assertion.

What’s the social justice issue?

Through my observations at both bars I noticed that to many people mobile devices take the place, for many, of human interaction whether there is a current lack of interaction or an unfavorable interaction. This seemed to be more prevalent in younger people that I observed. Those being of college age and in their mid to late twenties were most likely. However, this pattern failed to emerge in older parties such as the group of construction workers at Maxi’s and the older patrons of Dirty Frank’s. It seems as if because of smart phone technology, social networks, and digital communication spaces, there is a steep decline in interpersonal communication even in locations that have historically thrived in this type of communication. I propose a means to bring the interpersonal and physical aspects of communication back to these locations they have thrived in the past through the very technologies that have driven people apart.

In a bar there are a plethora of drinks to be had and many friendly faces to meet, so I propose one of the oldest methods of socializing in this type of environment; a drinking game. This game is one that I have adapted from an old game that I used to play while at restaurants with groups of friends in high school. Basically the application would require every participating member to sign into the game and would be able to sense when you use your mobile device. The object of the game  would be to interact with your phone as little as possible. The first person to use their phone would lose that round and be responsible for purchasing the next round of drinks. This game could aid in keeping people focused on the real life social setting they are currently in and could ultimately train players not to resort to external stimuli when the conversation breaks.

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One thought on “Field Research: Smart Phone Usage in Philly Bars”

  1. Before jumping too quickly to the claim that “because of smart phone technology, social networks, and digital communication spaces, there is a steep decline in interpersonal communication,” it would be important to parse out a bit more the relationship between age and the phenomena you saw. All of the non-students you mentioned had phones as well, and given the ages you describe most grew up with Internet, home computers, and mobile phones (though certainly not the same types of mobile devices that exist now). It is also worth pointing out that the “Millennium Generation” encompasses those in their late-20s and early-30s as well as those in college now, so you’ll need to explain in more detail the generational divide you note. Are there things beyond the devices that might explain the different behaviors you describe? In turn, are there other things you might incorporate into the design to promote interaction (assuming you are taking at a starting point that not talking to people around you is inherently bad…a position you imply in this report).

    For example, late teens and early 20s are a markedly different cognitive development stage from late 20s and early 30s (Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development might be a useful frame, but there are others). More research on uses of mobile technologies in public spaces will also be useful in your proposal and paper. See for example the work of Loi Sessions and Keith Hampton. Also, given your project idea some research on behavioral psychology will be useful to frame your design. Moreover, the readings from the social interaction week should be useful in this project.

    The design itself has a few shortcomings. It’s largely punitive, rather than promoting engagement (which is where behavioral psychology will prove helpful). It’s sort of the equivalent of me saying I’ll deduct points every time you look away from the front of the room in class, but never providing you anything to pay attention to. It becomes a bit of a staring contest or game of attention chicken, which could be problematic and doesn’t seem to be the spirit of the idea. It’s also a design that only works for a population that 1. has money and 2. is of a legal drinking age. Are there other things you can do with the app that would not only discourage turning to phones in lulls, but actively promote conversation or interaction?

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