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Tamagotchi to Xbox: Why The World Can t Resist Phatic Technologies


By Laura Richardson

Phatic communication, a term first coined by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, is the international linguistic phenomenon of small talk; that is, exchanges meant to provide a social connection rather than transmit information. Think about your last ride in an elevator: did everyone suffer silently, or did someone attempt a connection by offering some idle chatter about the weather? That man was engaging in a bit of phatic communication.

The need to connect phatically is almost, but not quite, universal. A recent study from the University of Kansas, for example, found that Germans don t typically engage in phatic rituals. But the researchers found that phatic gestures are commonplace in the United States, Japan, and even Iran. And our tendencies to exchange social niceties influence the sort of products we design and use.

Some of today s most successful products have phatic properties that allow us to connect socially.

Consider iChat; often the content of the messages is secondary to the fact that people simply appreciate being pinged by their online pals. And sometimes just seeing your pals in the list, knowing they are there, is enough to feel socially connected.

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Our innate affection for phatic interactions is best exemplified by the Tamagotchis. First introduced in 1996, these Japanese virtual pets satisfied the profound, hitherto untapped phatic desires of 14 million people to connect to lifelike avatars - hatched, grew, ate, and pooped before dying a slow death, only to be reborn with the click of a button like some digital phoenix rising from LED ashes. Today s Tamagotchis, equipped with infrared technology, can marry or create offspring by connecting with other pets in close proximity. So now we can connect to other owners, not just our virtual pets. These new Tamagotchis have upped the phatic quotient.

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Phatic interactions abound in the wired community space as well. The advent of camera phones and sites like Flickr only reinforce the trend to moblog the world with mundane photographs. We are wired to connect socially with others, so of course sharing photos is addictive. Similarly, the Xbox Voice Communicator encourages phaticism between gamers. Most of the chatter consists of nothing more than sound bites like Nice shot! or Die, sucker! Meaningless verbal exchanges can occur during game play, on an elevator, or while out with the kids. A mom can use a walkie-talkie wristwatch to stay connected when her children are out of ear shot You there? Okay, just checking. Love you.

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Products with phatic properties also allow us to connect with our inner selves. Like an updated Tamagotchi for the health-conscious consumer, the StressEraser relies on biofeedback to improve a user s breathing patterns and ultimately reduce stress. How s the weather in there? we ask our body, Are we sunny or cloudy today?

Clearly, manufacturers and consumers alike recognize the profound response to phatic technologies, but ironically the mass consumption, proliferation and market penetration of so many phatic devices herald the tipping point of their acceptance.

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As phatic devices deluge our daily lives with cheery interpersonal messages, we will eventually develop an immunity to the power of the social network. Just like email, the more messages we receive, the shorter, more selective and delayed our responses will be. Even now, some people choose to hide behind their headphones, brandish their iPods like Harry Potter s Invisibility Cloak and donate their Tamagotchis to Goodwill. For phatic products to have a place in society s future, they need to allow the device user to choose an appropriate level of phatic engagement—we might not be able to turn off the guy in the elevator, but we should be able to turn off the banter of a fellow gamer or the bleeting of our own virtual pet.

Laura Richardson is a Senior Design Analyst in frog s Austin, Texas studio.

The frog Design Mind column appears every Monday on Gizmodo. Read more frog Design Mind.