Bad Phone Behavior or Locatable?

Is Mom’s phone open 24/7 for notifications?

A phone with a text message that says "Where are you?" Do we need to be locatable all the time?
Is it Bad Phone Behavior if we are not always Locatable?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is this bad phone behavior or am I right? Is it necessary to get up in the morning and check first thing for messages? My son drives a truck for a living and lives a few hours away. He got mad when I didn’t look at an early morning text he sent from the road. He was nearby and planned to stop in for breakfast and a swim in the pool. But I had my coffee, read the newspapers, and did an errand so I missed him. He was upset. Stella, Vallejo


Dear Stella, I love getting questions about “bad phone behavior” but in this case I can’t decide if the “bad phone behavior” is on him or on you!

I imagine that you are from a generation that does planning in advance, and is not accustomed to last minute changes in the itinerary. That makes sense in the days before smartphones, and that was barely twelve years ago. If you had to meet someone, say at a train station or in a foreign city, you set up a fixed spot (always under the train clock!) where you would find each other. And, you demarked the precise time. If one of you got delayed, you had a backup plan like circle back to the clock in two hours time.

In fact, an early study of flip phones communications showed that most of the messaging back and forth was advance planning of places and times to meet.

Just in Time Meet-UP:

Now, with smartphones that exigency has flown out the window. We can do “just in time” meet-ups or even let someone follow our travel route in real time. There are fewer slipups and we can be more spontaneous about getting together as your son was. But, it also means that we can be more capricious. Perhaps you have friends that want to set up a time to meet, and then, just a few minutes before, they text that they are stuck in traffic, etc.

But, your question about “text in the morning” gets to a deeper question. At what time, or times of the day are we required to be “reachable” by phone, and what time of the day are we off-line? Previously I have lauded The Digital Sabbath, Tiffany Shlain’s counsel that we take family time once a week, to be completely offline.

BuFFER TIMES:

Perhaps we need additional buffer time, say early in the morning and late in the evening to be offline too? It is not a new idea, and thought leaders like Cal Newport have cited the need to bring deliberation and focus to these bookended hours. Imagine the bookends as an OFF switch in which you stay ON!

Clearly if you are in sales and you are expected to be online, you and your boss have to work out the hours in which you will take a call. And, if you drive a truck and are on the clock, you are scanning for traffic and your next haul. But, if you are drinking your coffee and reading your newspapers (yay), then I don’t see why the inner voice to check messages takes precedent.

TWO APPROACHES:

Fortunately, there are two ways that you and your son can connect better for the future. One is old tech and the other is new. First, new tech. Phones have a feature called “Do Not Disturb.” Here, under settings, you set a time period in which you will not receive phone calls and notifications. However, you denote exceptions for certain people, like family members or emergencies. If you organize your phone’s settings this way, the notification from your son will ring through.

The other way to connect with him is old-school but it makes planning airtight. Ask him to ‘put a ring on it.’ It’s an old idea but a single ding-ding call now and then can replace a thousand texts and misunderstandings.

Digital Content and Newspapers

A cartoon from newspapers.org suggesting that newspapers are key during a pandemic, along with soap and sanitizer.
Digital Content and Newspaper Subscriptions. Source: newspapers.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I see your point about civics and reading a newspaper or magazine with kids at home (I have one in college and three at home).  But, it’s really impossible to get it delivered where we live. The paper ends up not coming most days, and when it does, it lands in a boggy part of our lawn. Sometimes it just disappears. So, what’s wrong with digital content and newspapers?  Ollie, Oakland

Dear Ollie, Here’s the irony. Publishers believe that people are turning to digital content for newspapers because they prefer it.  Actually, the exodus from tree pulp from starts with the little things like a dialogue with the overseas call center or a wonky web site. It’s hard to reach a human and stop or start a delivery. Often, as you note, the paper doesn’t come at all. 

Shared experience

The major reason I advocate that you and your children still read a physical newspaper is that it can be a shared experience. If you read the news on a phone or a tablet your children don’t know whether you are looking at a story, browsing for a new car, scrolling Facebook, or playing a video game. And, reciprocally, as a parent, you don’t know what they are doing either. With that in mind, you might if the budget allows, reserve a laptop for their schoolwork and a separate device, say an Xbox, for social and games. That way you can keep better tabs.

You also want to read the physical newspaper because context matters as well as content. Say you are reading topical news stories about the subway collapse in Mexico City. Your children might be afraid to ride BART and take public transportation after they see the pictures. You have the opportunity to provide background, and impart them with knowledge that this is a very rare event.

Reading light and deep

But, another reason for reading the newspaper, think academic again, is that it inculcates better reading skills. With a digital paper, readers are more likely to skim and not go in depth- despite the opportunity to use outside links and sources. I have previously written about the differences between reading in print versus reading digitally. But, if your kids are doing research, the digital paper might be valuable, particularly for highly visual articles and timelines. 

On the Internet- when Facebook or Twitter delivers the news, we experience a “filter bubble,” so named by A. Parnisi back in 2010. Based on your expressed interests and past viewings, an algorithm predicts stories that will engage you. It winnows the news stories into into a handful of items that you will click on. That click, in turn, initiates ads, targeted just for you. When you read a print paper, the “filter bubble” is bigger- an editorial staff picks and prints say 30 stories a day and there’s no linking between ads, clicks, and customers.  And, there is the serendipity of discovering something you and your family would not normally see or read. 

Breaking the Breaking Cycle

That said, Facebook and Twitter are the hands-down winner when it comes to hearing late-breaking, real-time news stories. The print newspaper cannot compete. However, and it’s a serious question, are we the wiser for this, or is it another type of distraction? Almost all breaking news stories are of a distant environments that we cannot act upon or control. Should there be  a news event of local significance, say an out-of-control fire or a traffic jam-up, you are likely to get notifications on your phone.  Watching a distant breaking new story, in this case, news of the Boston Marathon bombing, was associated with impacts on mental well being.

So, summing up, what do you do when the newspaper doesn’t quite make it to your doorstep. Perhaps you can subscribe to media that comes in the post, like a weekly magazine. Or you can make a fun trip on foot or in the car to get a latte and a newspaper. Both cost about the same, and you can share the latter.  Most public libraries have both print and digital editions of papers, but that is not going to help you with the family time.

Fake Location, Real Takeout

Cartoon sketch of delivery person on bike and smartphone where orders are sent in.
Fake locations and takeout. Image: perceptionsystem (2020)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: A fake location led me to find real takeout! I just moved to a new neighborhood and decided to get takeout for dinner. A delivery app helped me pick a local barbecue and the food was delish. In fact, so good that I popped the name into my GPS. It turns out that the restaurant is not in my neighborhood at all. The barbecue is prepared offsite and delivered from a central kitchen. Are fake locations popping up everywhere or is this a one-off? Phillip, Brookline

Dear Phillip, The abbreviation for barbecue, BBQ, is sometimes used to spell out “Better Be Quick! ” This is the ultimate convergence of food and delivery! 

Now, two possible reasons for the fake-take:

First, delivery services, like Grubhub , Postmates and DoorDash have been said to contrive this as a “growth hacking” strategy. (sorry, I can’t check the source to know the veracity). They create restaurant listings on their platforms- even though individual restaurants have not partnered with them. It helps the delivery services expand the number of restaurants customers see, and it helps businesses that are in cahoots with them. You mentioned you were in Brookline –  they create a bogus listing for “Brookline Barbecues” and cook elsewhere.

That said, “Brookline Barbecues (BB1)” could be an offshoot of an established restaurant say “Boston Barbecues (BB2).” The tech savvy team at BB2 wants to expand their reach so they set up links on their website that lead you to the wrong location, literally!  Google has rigid rules for linking business accounts with physical addresses, but there would be ways to mislead customers doing an online search, particularly if they were new in town like you.

Death of Distance

The “Death of Distance” is not a trivial problem. This past summer I answered a question from a reader who lamented that her vacation planning was limited by choices she got from the search-engine. It turned out there were other options but they had not been “up-listed” (i.e., paid) to show up. At the end of the day, we want to help and support local businesses but it’s the bigger companies, and the younger, more tech savvy owners that know how to optimize SEO to their advantage.

Identifying a local business is no longer as simple as thumbing through a print catalog called the yellow pages. Even back then, the business addresses were a combination of listings that were no-fee and paid-fee. Going forward, you might want to combat Internet with Internet. Consider using a platform, say Nextdoor, in your new community. First, they will verify your physical address. If you read posts carefully and slowly you can usually sort out real recommendations by real people.

Delivery by Foot

But back to the dodgy barbecue. We all want local businesses to succeed, and that’s the reason so many people have ordered online and used delivery services during the pandemic. The delivery practice you describe ends up hurting small businesses with minimal or no internet presence. Without constantly checking around for new sites or listings, it’s impossible to know whether someone’s created a duplicate site to mislead customers into thinking they are ordering directly from an on-site restaurant. The best advice is to get out your walking shoes, take a stroll, and check out the new neighborhood.