The mobile experience is temporary in that, as the subject is in a more dynamic situation than is usual for communication technologies, the moment of connection is ephemeral and far shorter than the usual experience of, say TV or the web. But it is also temporary in that the forms of discourse itself tends towards the ephemeral – gossip, comment or diaries rather than longer writing forms. This kind of public discourse is nothing new – Juliet Fleming, in her book ‘Graffiti And The Writing Arts of Early Modern England’ , traces a similar kind of public discourse played out over walls, windows and other architectural elements in the 16th Century:
“I imagine the whitewashed wall as being the primary scene of writing in early modern England … The writing that survives from the Elizabethan period was produced by people who had the technological and financial resources for the laborious procedures of securing paper, pen and ink. The poor, the hurried and those (it may have been practically everybody) unconcerned with the extensive circulation and long survival of their bons mots wrote with charcoal, chalk, stone and pencil”
Fleming here describes a wealth of literary activity that, transplanted to a different kind of accessible technology, mirrors the huge amount of writing that takes place over mobile networks via SMS. The success of SMS, viewed as part of a continuum of ephemeral public writing stretching back at least as far as the graffiti of Elizabethan England, is less surprising than currently appears. It seems that the lure of a white wall, or a blank screen that serves as such, is irresistible to a public that wants to communicate, however ephemeral or banal that communication may be.
Although it is ephemeral, this kind of writing occasionally seeks to reach a more public level of discourse, and with it some kind of longevity. In graffiti this is marked by a transition in scale, from the tiny etching on windows of Elizabethan ‘writing rings’ or names scratched on a school desk to huge slogans painted onto the side of a building. This kind of transition tends to be signified architecturally – in Rome, four ‘speaking statues’ are historical focuses for such samizdat ‘publishing’ – a location that has accrued a status as a ‘speakers corner’, where individual comments become public pronouncements. There are examples of these spaces enabled by current technology, such as hellomrpresident, but another example may be blogs, where the boundary between unheard comment and public discourse is defined not by scale or architecture but by a complex network of attention and reference (linking).
By definition, this kind of ephemeral public discourse, even when scaled in size by physical or virtual architectures, is lost to history. Is this a good thing? What gets lost when these complex networks of intimate public discourse are erased, either by whitewash on a wall or deletion from a server?