“I’ve had the best breakfast ever” – say it using 14, 140 and 1400 symbols

On: October 10, 2009
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About Hania Piotrowska
My New Media interest grew out of studying Media Studies and Marketing during my undergraduate education at Maastricht University. After obtaining my Bachelor's degree I took a year off to work at a Public Relations company in Warsaw, Poland. This is where I had a possibility to Media Studies with Marketing, as the company's PR projects were executed mostly online. Using Internet platforms like blogs, Facebook, flicker and such to create a company's image was a really interesting experience and I think I'd like to further explore possibilities of combining New Media with marketing.


Phatic communication is a term first used by anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski to describe a communicative gesture that does not inform or exchange any meaningful information or facts about the world. Its purpose is a social one, to express sociability and maintain connections or bonds. We can call it small talk.

Are words in Phatic Communion used primarily to convey meaning, the meaning which is symbolically theirs? Certainly not! They fulfil a social function, and that is their principal aim, but they are neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener. Once again we may say that language does not function here as a means of transmission of thought. (1)

Phatic messages are not intended to carry information or substance for the receiver, they concern the process of communication. The fact of saying something is more important than what exactly is being told. They are meant to establish an atmosphere or maintain social contact rather than convey content. Examples of such phatic communications include courtesy titles in letters (“sincerely yours”, “all the best”), inquires about health or weather and a simple “how’s it going?”. (2)

With the enlargement of our social networks caused by greater connectedness we require the means to maintain sociability without spending too much time on it. The receivers of our messages do not necessarily need to be provided with “true” content. Sometimes an interesting link in a person’s status with a short comment can be more desired than an elaborate update on their daily lives. With such platforms as Facebook, private communication can be executed by the means of “private messages” while phatic communication can take place on the “wall” and through “status updates”. Platforms such as twitter provide solely for the need of phatic communication, enabling no private exchanges and limiting users to 140 symbols for status updates. Those small communicative gestures are not meant for exchanging meaningful information but for expressing sociability and maintaining interpersonal connections.

According to Vincent Miller it should not be assumed that “these phatic communications are ‘meaningless’, in fact, in many ways they are very meaningful, and imply the recognition, intimacy and sociability in which a strong sense of community is founded. Phatic messages potentially carry a lot more weight to them than the content itself suggests. However, although they may not always be ‘meaningless’, they are almost always content-less in any substantive sense. The overall result is that in phatic media culture, content is not king, but ‘keeping in touch’ is.” (3). In this spirit we can assume that the point of twitter is the maintenance of connected presence and sustainability of this presence, even though it is almost completely devoid of substantive content. The medium of twitter encourages the “disconnectedness” of communication. The above-mentioned 160 character limit and lack of private messages promote generic ‘announcements’ over dialogue or targeted conversation.

In the spirit of Marshall McLuhan we could even assert that when it comes to such electronic media as twitter or Facebook, “the user is the content”, as our phatic communication is a perfect source the marketing industry’s data mining. The shortness and density of communication enables for creating databases and key word searches. Lev Manovich argues that we are in the process of a shift from narrative forms (as novel/film) as the key form of cultural expression, to the database as the prominent cultural logic of the digital age. Narratives, he argues, are finite works with beginnings and endings. They can be also characterized by following a linear path which establishes cause and effect determined by an author. Databases, on the other hand, are “structured collections of data organized for fast search and retrieval by a computer” (4). Following this logic Miller concludes that:

“The movement from blogging, to social networking, to microblogging demonstrates the simultaneous movements away from communities, narratives, substantive communication, and towards networks, databases and phatic communion.” (5)

Manovich fits in perfectly within this observation, as he states that new media is dominated by cultural objects and products which:

“do not tell stories, they do not have a beginning or end, in fact, they do not have any development thematically that would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other.” (6)

This is essentially what twitter is all about – individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other. But if twitter helps us realize our needs for phatic communication while providing us with such a limited platform, what would you say about a 14 characters limit? Playing on twitter’s question: “what are you doing right now?” squeaker lets you tell your friends “what RU doing right now”. The authors hint you towards the possible uses of the platform:

What can you accomplish in 14 characters?

  • – u cn use abbrs
  • – no room 4links
  • – … b creative


Squeaker is obviously meant as a parody of twitter. Join The Company, LLC. are the people behind both squeker and woofer. In case you hate small talk and don’t perceive being asked “how’s it going” (which is usually followed by the inquirer walking away without even waiting for your answer), you can shift to the latter platform. Woofer, while still playing on the concept of phatic communication, let’s you express yourself within… a minimum of 1400 characters. Join The Company, LLC. are not the only ones to parody twitter. If twitter is a microblogging site then woofer is a macroblogging site, while squeaker and flutter would be called nanoblogging sites. Flutter is an evil twin of twitter, enabling you to express yourself within the limit of 26 characters. “Let’s say my friend tweets something, like working on some new designs for the album cover and watching project runway in my underwear lol!” – the employee of fictional flutter explains that such a message could be automatically shortened by the site to “wrking 4 project underwear”. The joke mocumentary was created by the Slate Magazine to poke fun at our addiction to microblogging and the resulting shallowness of communication.


As with everything, it’s all about balance. I’m not a twitter user and I don’t really see where exactly its charm lies but I’m convinced it’s got to be somewhere out there. And I really don’t see anything harmful in a little small talk and announcing who had what for breakfast, as long as there are people who want to read about it. Phatic communication has been with us since the dawn of human kind. It might not be full of content but sometimes it’s nice to throw a solitary “man, the weather sucks”. Especially when you live in Amsterdam, where it seems to rain all the time.


1. Malinowski, B. (1923) ‘Supplement 1: The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages’, in C. Ogden and I. Richards (eds) The Meaning of Meaning, pp. 296–336. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul. p. 315

2. Miller, V. (2008). New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. 2008; 14; 387

3. Ibid.

4. Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press. p. 218

5. Miller, V. (2008). New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. 2008; 14; 387, p. 396

6. Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press. p. 218, p. 213

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