Connecting you now

Mark A. Hadley

When Vodafone set out to promote its telephone network to Australians, it began by creating a slogan that represented what customers truly wanted from their mobiles: 'I want to be connected.' Call it fortuitous fluke or marketing brilliance, that line has come to perfectly encapsulate the philosophy fuelling the explosive growth of mobile usage both here and overseas. What no-one could have predicted more than a decade later is just how 'connected' those pocket-sized silver-and-black rectangles would allow us to become.

On New Year's Eve I was sitting on the edge of Kiama harbour with my wife and boys, anticipating the fireworks that would herald the New Year. We were two hours drive from any of our regular relationships but between the waves lapping on the shore I heard the mobile in my pocket chirp. Family friends had sent us a rousing voice memo wishing us all the best. Without thinking twice, we recorded our own greetings, attached a photo of us crowded on our blanket, and sent it back via MMS. Technology had delivered its first warm glow for 2008. It had also demonstrated in microcosm how integral mobiles have become for developing and sustaining personal relationships.

Australians love mobile communication. In 2005 mobile telephone penetration of the Australian population had reached 94 per cent with 19 million subscribers nation wide. But that's old news. In 2007 alone Australians bought just over ten million new handsets. The average Australian household now owns two mobiles with growing numbers forsaking land-line services altogether in favour of mobile handsets. One in two children - the next decade's customers - already use a mobile an average of 19 minutes a day.

The mobile is now an integrated part of our professional and personal communications. Ask someone under 40 what they would have to pick up before they could comfortably leave the house and you can guarantee their mobile ranks at least as highly as their keys. Mobile telephones have become modern day talismans, their presence being enough to assure us that nothing will go wrong or, if it does, that we have the means to deal with it. Like the charms of a previous age they have assumed a personal value to their possessors that requires them to be constantly fondled, checked, interacted with. And like talismans they are difficult to disregard. The mobile telephone is fast becoming a widely accepted excuse for suddenly ignoring the person standing in front of you.

But mobiles are no longer just communication devices, they are the means by which we stay connected to our most personal communities. Consider what the mobile represents to the majority of users under 30. Mobiles are a repository of life moments in the form of photos and frequently re-read SMS messages. They are also the music collections, address books, diaries, and entertainment centres at the heart of their communities. Above all, they are a truly personal means of communication. The computers many people rely on to communicate are often shared or maintained by others; the telephones they use, fixed and so exposed. But the mobile can be carried to a private place or used to send sensitive messages with a few thumb movements. Most importantly, the younger generation may 'share' mobile content, but they don't tend to allow people - especially parents - to click through them at will. Understanding the many personal ways their contents link them to their communities, it's easy to see why their loss or theft causes so much distress.

Ministries that seek to communicate the Gospel to the next generation will need to develop creative ways to tap into these life repositories. Paper reminders, even emails, may have to give way to the SMS. A recent study of technology use in the highly connected realm of South Korea discovered that the average email is read within 24 hours and responded to within 48 hours, whereas an SMS is read within a minute and responded to within five. Workers at St Andrews Cathedral have discovered that sending an SMS to members the same day as an event is likely to result in more attending than a barrage of traditional reminders.

The SMS and MMS are part of what I like to refer to as the 'thousand touch theory'. Today we use these short messages to build relationships a few dozen characters at a time. The mobile photo is the equivalent of the post-card; the SMS the note under the door. They are the personal touches that demonstrate our care and allow us to slide more easily into significant conversations when we finally come face to face. We often use them to organise not just the details of our meetings, but the type of meetings they're going to be. For Christians the mobile also provides the means of firming the thoughts you suggest long after you've parted company. Its portability ensures that the challenging or comforting messages you pass on are likely to stay in their pocket to be read and re-read as they compare their community with yours. One thing is for certain, as Christians we can no more ignore the way mobiles are being used in our societies than we can ignore the language we use to connect with each other.