Toward a media theory of gaze

What was most surprising about a recent ‘interdisciplinary’ LSE workshop on Attention, organised by the Anthropology department, was the absence of sociology as well as media and communications researchers; most participants were either anthropologists or psychologists.

You would expect that media and communications which is primarily concerned with media industry, media text, and media audience would be interested in the notion of attention as a prerequisite to any act of mediation or communication. Also, if sociology is ultimately about meaningful social action, attention must be seen as the first phase of any social action.

The truth is that there is no social account of attention developer by social theorists; an account which can explain the initial orientation which makes any social action possible. Can we speak, listen, read, write, love or hate without an orientation toward another person or institution? Is it possible to imagine a social act without an orientation toward a social actor?

This initial orientation, also known as attention, is the foundation for any relation between social objects, i.e. actors, institutions, or artefacts, which we call social action.

Before any social action, there is a relation between an attender and an attendee which we call attention.

Gaze capital, gaze relations

Here I would like to propose a different concept instead of attention to extend this idea of social semiotics. A concept which will be particularly useful within media and communications but can also be applied to sociology.

Gaze is a an inherently relational concept referring to the link between a gazer and the gazed. What gives gaze an advantage over attention is its critical nature. Gaze is already theorized as a theory of power relations by various scholars such as Lacan, Foucault, and Mulvey. While they mostly see gaze as negative, a disempowering or rarefying relationship, they open up the possibility of a positive kind of gaze which empowers and enables the gazed.

It is the power dimension of the notion of gaze which makes it a perfect tool to theorise media and communications. All communication is gaze, I claim. Gaze in this sense is not limited to what eyes do when they look at something or someone; it is a a focused attention embedded in a power relation. Thus, it includes any act of focused listening, smelling, touching, etc. Ironically, humans and other animals with vision, usually accompany gaze when using other senses. When we hear someone calling our name, we immediately and unintentionally look at the direction of the sound. That’s also true when something touches us or when we smell something; we always orient our vision toward our perceived source of that sense. Even blind people always orient themselves toward the source of sounds, as if listening is impossible without gazing.

If the media text is built upon relations of meaning between symbols, reception of that media text happens in a gaze relation. When you read or watch or listen to a media text, you establish a gaze and at the same time a power relation with that text.

Here I need to introduce the idea of gaze capital to be able to explain negative or positive gaze.

Gaze capital is the sum of all negative or positive gazes a person or even an object have accumulated. For instance, celebrities are those who have received millions of gazes from other people with little gaze capital. That’s the very essence of their power. By the same logic, a popular website is a website which has received a lot of gazes from other websites through hyperlinks. So is a viral social media post. Viral means a media text which is continuously gaining gaze capital.

Negative and positive gaze

Now the tricky question is what differentiates negative from positive gaze. When does a gaze disempower the gazed and when does it empower it?

I propose that a negative gaze happens when the gazer has immensely more gaze capital than the gazed. Positive gaze then will be when the gazer has vastly less gaze capital than the gazed. In other words, it is the inequality of gaze capital which determines the nature of the power relation underlying the very gaze relation.

With this definition, when an ordinary man in the streets gazes at a female celebrity it will not objectify or disempower the celebrity. However, when an ordinary man gazes at another ordinary woman with roughly the same gaze capital in the metro, it will make the woman uncomfortable and objectified and powerless.

On screen, a female actress will not be disempowered by millions of film viewers whose individual gaze capital is massively less than the collective gaze that the actress on the screen is accumulating. But she will feel disempowered if a more famous male director gazes at her on the set. the same disempowerment will not necessarily be the case when the cameraman gazes via the camera lens at her

This may explain why major celebrities do not bother much if their sex tapes or private photos are leaked as long as they are not gazed at by more powerful gazers such as the law enforcement institutions.

A complex example of negative vs. positive gaze happens online. The difference with the offline world or non-interactive media forms such as television is online gazes are multifaceted. For instance, when someone leaves a comment or clicks on the Like button, they leave a trace of their gaze which can itself be gazed at by others.

The gaze theory can still explain this: Hurtful comments that ordinary people (i.e. people with low gaze capital) under other ordinary people are often painful to the original author, especially when they are algorithmically given more visibility, which means more ordinary people gaze at them.

That is also the case when famous online figures, with major gaze capital, face thousands of hurtful comments under a post. They often do not care and sometimes they somewhat enjoy the attention, despite its malign nature. But when one of these comments gains more gaze than others through the platform’s algorithmic intervention, the authors may feel threatened so they either erase or hide or reply to that comment.

Quoting other tweets creates similar but more complex dynamics. With this theory of gaze capital and gaze relations, quoting is a two-fold gaze: first is the gaze of the quoter at the quoted tweet, second is the author’s invitation to her followers to gaze at that tweet by another author. Each of these sorts of gazes generate a different power relation whose mutual impact ultimately determines the final power relation.

Gaze, data and platforms

Having introduced concepts such as gaze relation and gaze capital, I can now define mediation as gaze relation and the media as systems where these gaze relations are negotiated and ultimately regulated. A newspaper is where gaze relations between the producers, audiences, and texts are negotiated, configured, and regulated.

If conventional media are systems (or figurations) of gaze regulation, the digital platforms add data relations to this figuration. The data relations which platforms systematically establish between users, producers, advertisers, etc. through surveillance and classifications will be used to regulate the gaze relations between them. Thus, platforms can be seen as where data and gaze relations are regulated through complex automated technologies.

Conclusion: a new model of communication?

Communication, and thus media, is a social practice which has so far been mostly theorised around psychological accounts of signs and thereby semiotics. The transmission model, including its more advanced versions such encoding/decoding, still views mediation as a semiotics system between signs and interpreters of signs. The gaze theory, proposed in this article, generates a social account of communication which happens between human subjects; thus I call it a social semiotics. Concepts such as gaze relations and gaze capital can enhance our understanding of media and explain the complexities that are emerging in the platform society.

— —

*Hossein Derakhshan is a PhD researcher at LSE.

Post-Television Prime Time: A qualitative study of everyday uses of mobile devices


This qualitative research investigates the experience of prime time on mobile devices, as part of a wider question about continuities and discontinuities of linear television, with its three dimensions of technology, cultural form and social practice vis-à-vis the platform-dominated internet. The focus of this research is on the third dimension through an investigation of routine temporalities of mobile device use. While avoiding media-centrism and representational-only theories, this research uses purposive sampling, in-depth interviews along with brief think-aloud protocols, thematic coding, and thematic analysis to generate three main categories of daily routines, shared routines, and meanings as well as a few minor themes on notifications, usage rules, and stigma. The analysis shows that, despite the emerging new routines and temporalities linked to mobile devices, the usage and the meanings of these practices have remained similar to the television era. However, as the singular prime time tied to linear television seem tired, a plural, distributed prime time for mobile devices has emerged, which is worthy of deeper, wider, and more ethnography-oriented research in the future.

The full-text of my MSc dissertation, ‘Post-Television Prime Time’, is available, (PDF).


As a general rule, usage is more archaic than the tool.
– Regis Debray (1996, p. 23)[1]

Striking similarities are emerging between social media and television. Their celebrities, their reliance on advertising, their sensationalism, the devices used to access them, and even their prime times were converging[2].

Raymond Williams (Williams, 2003; Van Dijck & Poell, 2013) provides the best framework to think about this convergence, with his theory of television as a technology, a cultural form, and a social practice.

There is already evidence on the tv-internet convergence in the first two of those dimensions. As for technology, research (e.g. Sandvig, 2014a) shows how the technical infrastructure of the internet is ever more approaching the broadcast architecture through the emergence of local multimedia content servers (CDNs), in spite of its initial decentralised many-to-many design.

As for cultural form, the text of social media, has been perceived to be converging with television’s. (Leaver et al., 2020; Aiello & Parry, 2019; Cook & Garduno Freeman, 2011; Frosh, 2018; Meikle, 2016; Miller et al., 2016; Serafinelli, 2018).

In this research, I would like to investigate the third dimension, i.e. the social practice of using smartphones vis-à-vis television. My previous investigation, including a pilot study prior to this research, helped me find a suitable and perhaps an original angle to explore the social practice dimension: temporalities of routine use.

I will explore continuities and discontinuities with mobile device use compared to television viewing, with a focus on their temporalities and particularly the notion of prime or peak time, which can be defined as a time with maximum simultaneous media audience. I will explore how people experience this peak time on mobile devices and how this experience is similar or different from that with linear television.

My approach will be non-media-centric (Couldry, 2012, pp. 57–88) and not-only-representational (Krajina et al., 2014; Moores, 2020). This means I will investigate routine practices that are both directly and indirectly related to media, and I will locate meaning in everyday routine practices in and of themselves as well as in the language and symbolic representation of people’s lived experiences

There are two potential contributions by this research to the field: First, it can connect a rich but now abandoned tradition of media and communications research (television studies) to a newer one (internet studies); it conjoins the rich body of knowledge on production, text, and audience of prime time television around the world since the 1980s (e.g. Cantor & Cantor, 1980; Denton, 1988; Gitlin, 2000; Hill, 2005; MacFadyen, 2007; Morley, 1986; Roman, 2005; Rutherford, 1990; Silverstone, 1994; Zhu, 2013) with the new body of work on production, text, and audience of social media platforms (Brunton & Nissenbaum, 2015; Bucher, 2018; Cheney-Lippold, 2017; Cohen, 2012; N. Couldry & Mejias, 2019; Nick Couldry & Hepp, 2017; Dijck; Dijck et al., 2018; Eubanks, 2017; Gillespie, n.d.; Noble, 2018; Zuboff, 2019a).

Second, it is focused on the routine practices around media in everyday life (Ang, 1996; Bird, 2003; Moores, 2000a; Silverstone, 1994), which is a less popular object of inquiry in the field, compared to media production or media text, which are experiencing their own prime time recently over the general moral panic, tied to ‘post-truth’ era. (Livingstone, 1994, 2019)

No research is ever complete, but the unusual circumstances that the Covid-19 pandemic has imposed on life have certainly affected all research, including this one. I have tried my best to overcome these problems and inspire future investigations into the topic by this research.

Literature review

Routines and temporalities

Physical and psychological needs have made routines inseparable from human life. Recurrent predictable embodied practices around eating, sleeping, cleaning, parenting, etc. have always structure our lives, spatially and temporally. They have also enabled us, as Anthony Giddens describes, to overcome our ‘ontological anxiety’ (Giddens, 2013), which is perhaps deeply connected to our fear of death. On an individual level, minor disruption to these routines can cause major anxieties and threaten deeply founded aspects of our personality, and on a social level, they can disrupt major aspects of social order (Bausinger, 1984). The social dimension of this seemingly individual need is noted by Giddens who sees the continuity of the individual daily routines dependent on ‘the constant vigilance of the parties involved’ (Giddens, 2013, p. 98).

Routines have such as special place in social life that Giddens (1984), in his ‘structuration’ theory, views them as constitutive of social institutions, while being constituted by the very institutions themselves:

The reversible time of institutions is both the condition and the outcome of the practices organized in the continuity of daily life, the main substantive form of the duality of structure. It would not be true, however … to say that the routines of daily life are the ‘foundation’ upon which institutional forms of societal organization are built in time-space. Rather, each enters into the constitution of the other, as they both do into the constitution of the acting self. (p. 36)

Additionally, as Moores (Krajina et al., 2014; Moores, 2020) notes, routines are capable of generating meaning in and of themselves. While he questions the structuralist monopoly of symbolic representation and language on generation of meaning of the world, he draws on Ingold’s (2000) anthropological notion of ‘dwelling perspective’[3] and claims that ‘meanings can emerge from routine practices, through our practical, embodied and sensuous engagements with lived-in environments’ (Krajina et al., 2014, p. 694). Merleau-Ponty (1962)calls this kind of practical know-how, as Moores cites, a ‘knowledge in the hands’ (p. 166). This resembles Giddens’ notion of ‘practical consciousness’ (1979).

Pre-modern everyday routines were structured by natural cycles such as sunrise, sunset, and seasons. Time was often linked to place and thus was imprecise and variable. ‘”When” was almost universally either connected with “where” or identified by regular natural occurrences,’ Giddens (2013, p. 17) observes. He notes that the invention and dissemination of clocks, which coincided with modern transportation and communication technologies, led to a time-space dissociation which is the driving force of modernity.

Modern life, with urbanism and industrialization at its heart, imposed new routines which would become peaks, if many people conducted them simultaneously. Cafes, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, supermarkets, shops, schools, kindergartens, gas stations, hospitals, gyms, stadiums, post offices, car parks, places of worship, etc. were all affected by daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual routines of use and their respective peaks—for which they had to be prepared. Urban policy, planning, and management, on micro or macro level, are affected by these rhythms and routines (Hassard, 2016; Schönfelder & Axhausen, 2010). Inspired by Giddens, Scannell (1986) distinguishes three layers of temporality in every moment of modern social life: clock timewhich is a ‘continuous flow of day-to-day life’, life time which is ‘temporality of the life cycle of living organisms’, and longue durée which is borrowed from Braudel (1982) and refers to the ‘slow, glacial movement of institutional time’.

Media have been involved in these routines. From newspapers to books, and from radio to television, they adapted to the daily routines of their target audiences and tried to reach a maximum number of them. Not only to entertain, but as Dallas Smyth (1981) famously argued, to sell them as commodities to advertisers. They invented concepts and methods to measure and study their audiences and in 1920s audience measurement and research started on both sides of the Atlantic (Moores, 2000b), despite the epistemological limitations associated to these systems of rating (Ang, 2006).

Knowledge about the audience led to the notion of scheduling (Ellis, 2000) on the production side, and dayparting on the marketing side. A daypart (Beyers, 2004; Sherman, 1995; Smith, 1990) is a consecutive block of time where a bundle of homogenous content are tailored for a homogenous audience along age, gender, and class demographics: soap opera and talk shows during the daytime, news after people return home from work, and sitcoms for after dinner.

Series of surveys, which the audience research section of the BBC regularly conducted since its emergence in 1939, found three major ‘bundles’ of routines in Britain: First. bodily self-maintenance (BBC, 1978) including sleep; second, obligatory time or work at home, office, school, or factory; and third, free time for personal activity or leisure. Scannell’s reading of the report is that everyday media routines are primarily determined by age and gender (1986).

The most valuable daypart for marketing purposes is the one with the highest number of simultaneous audiences, which in the United States, as the pioneer of radio and television broadcasting, came to be called ‘prime time’ for television (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.) (Newcomb, 2014) and ‘drive time’ for radio (a morning slot from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and an afternoon one from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.).[4]

The dependence of dayparts on daily routines hints at a cultural link and thereby different primes times in different counties. In the UK, this daypart is called ‘peak time’ and it starts from 6 p.m. and ends at 10:30 p.m. (Ofcom, 2018). In Spain, peak time is 10 p.m. to 12 p.m., as well as 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. which exposes its social construction (Melero Salvador, 2019) [5].

If prime time is a shared practice in time, the prime time of linear television assumed a ‘mass audience’ (Abercrombie & Longhurst, 1998) who watched the same shows at the same time in the evening. The internet was constructed by a new audience which was ‘diffused’ in time, as Abercrombie and Longhurst observe. Now with mobile devices and the process of datafication and personalization (Nick Couldry & Mejias, 2019; Turow, 2008, 2012, 2017; Zuboff, 2019b), we have a combination of the two audiences which is both mass and diffused, which can be called ‘mass personalized’ audience.

Television viewing modalities

Until mid-1980s, most of television research had focused on the production, the text, or the effect of television programmes (Nick Couldry, 2012; Silverstone, 1994).

Following the cultural studies tradition and Stuart Halls’ focus on reception (2000), David Morley’s work was one of the pioneers in concentrating on the viewing and its modes, i.e. in ‘the how of television watching’ (1992, p. 113). While his earlier work, a study of Nationwide show (Morley, 1980), had concentrated on the individual viewer responses to a daily BBC show with the same name, he came to realize that, first, the mode of viewing was more important than what was watched on television, and second, watching television was often a collective practice at home and therefore he had to study families rather than individuals. Lodziak (1987) also stressed the significance of studying television in the domestic space and emphasized on the political economy of time, particularly leisure time, which was monopolized by television.

Morley’s work challenged the dominant assumption, including his own, that class was the main structuring factor of viewing practices; the evidence showed that gender was the key determinant. Gray (1987) also found gender to be ‘the key determinant in the use of and expertise in specific pieces of domestic equipment’ (p. 187), and noticed that leisure time for women did not revolve around television or video cassette players, but around outdoors activities since, for them, the home is the space for work, not for fun.

Lull, a sociologist, was a pioneer in using ethnography to study television viewing (Gauntlett & Hill, 2002). His extensive research (Lull, 1990), which took a total of three years, entailed living with two hundred American families and observing their daily routines of tv viewing for a few days each. His findings reinforced the non-media-centrism that Morley and Couldry (Nick Couldry, 2012) emphasise: social use of television was primarily in two types. Structural viewing referred to when television was used as an ‘environmental source’ such as in the background to overcome the sense of loneliness, as well as a ‘regulative source’ which temporally structured daily routines. Relational viewing was when television was used by the family members in relation to each other, for affiliation or avoidance, for harmony or conflict, for ‘social learning’, or for ‘competence/dominance’ (Lull, 1990, p. 36).

Tunstall (1983) classified television viewing in the UK into primary (fully attentive), secondary (partly attentive), and tertiary (random attention with a constantly turned-on television) viewing.

Similarly, Lembo (2000) finds three types of television use in his research in the US: discrete use refers to a purposeful turning-on of television to see a precise programme, undirected use is when tv is turned on and off at different times with nothing specific to watch, and continuous use which refers to when tv is always on from the morning. He also distinguishes between narrative-based viewing, which is to go along the internal narrative discourses of television content; critical viewing, which entails a distance from the internal discourse of the narrative;  and image-based viewing, which implies a disengagement with the narrative discourse of television programmes and primarily relate to the images and sounds of television. This latter type of viewing, he concludes from his qualitative research, is itself categorized into simultaneous viewing, channel switching, and image-play (Lembo, 2000).

Edward Hall’s (1984) distinction of monochronic and polychronic cultures has been applied to domestic television viewing by Byrce, generating another non-media-centric account of viewing which sees television ‘as part of place, as embedded in movement and as experienced within the flow of everyday life’ (Pink & Leder Mackley, 2013, p. 689):

Television viewing, like all other family activities, cannot escape the power of the family’s organisation of time… The sequencing of viewing, its place in the mesh of family activities, reflects a choice, an organisation, a negotiation process about which very little is known. (Bryce, 1987, pp. 122–123)

Mobile socialities

The modern city, Simmel (2012) argued, emerged as a place where the private was spatially and temporally detached from the public through daily routines of work and leisure, coordinated by a universal clock time. Stretched in time and space, the city required citizens to travel for work and for leisure. This kind of mobility often took place in an imposed proximity to strangers, violating the modern principle of individualism. As a result, visible and invisible walls surfaced to protect the individuals during their public presence. From ‘civil inattention’ (Simmel, 2012) to reading newspapers to small automobiles, various techniques or technologies were used or invented. This inspired Raymond Williams (2003) to theorize this process in terms of ‘mobile privatization’:

the dual satisfactions of allowing people to simultaneously ‘stay home’, safe within the realm of their familiar ontological security and to travel (imaginatively or ‘virtually’) to ‘places that previous generations could never imagine visiting’ (Morley, 2006, p. 199).

Cautious about ‘presentism’ (Morley, 2015), which has long dominated media studies, David Morley quotes Rybczynski (1991) to remind us that before Walkman or iPods, there was print; it allowed us a mobile, yet private media experience. Mobile phones, especially smartphones, indicate the continuity of the notion of mobile privatization.

Green (2002) notes that mobile technologies are reconfiguring space and time, thereby prompting an‘individualization and fragmentation of availability, duration, cycles, and rhythms’ of late-modern life (p. 290). However, she concludes her ethnographic research on mobile temporalities with stressing that ‘mobile technologies also introduce opportunities for new continuities across space and time, previously disjoined through centralization’ (p. 290).

Originally developed by Goffman (1990), the contemporary notion of co-presence has exceeded face-to-face communications and now resonates with the experience of time, space, and sociality in mobile communication. As Postill and Pink (2012) observe, ethnographic research proposes to locate the sociality of mobile media in practices such as retweets, sharing, likes, hashtags, comments, etc. instead of paradigms of communities and networks.

Conceptual framework

This research seeks to explore the temporal and spatial experience of everyday practices around mobile devices and locate the similarities and differences of that experience with the experience of television viewing, while avoiding the traps of media-centrism as well as structuralism which, together, reduce television and its meaning to its relations of production, text, or effects.

The literature review above concentrates on the theoretical debates and tools which can guide such exploration and provide an interpretive framework for the research design, collection of the data, and its analysis. Consequently, three areas of routines and temporalities, television viewing modalities, and mobile sociality are the basis for this study:

First, it is important to establish what everyday routines mean to human life and how they are constructed in relation to socio-technological changes. Then we need to investigate the place of media in these daily routines, in addition to an ontology of media practices that more common in each part of these routines, especially when it comes to broadcast technologies.

Second, the practices of viewing television and their contexts are explored to prevent a media-centric approach which has often overlooked some inattentive or mindless modes of viewing.

Third, to locate the sociality or collectively of mobile device use, we need to find other ways than network or community analysis. Previous ethnographic research suggests a wider account of co-presence instead, which includes common social media practices such as messaging and sharing. This is a key aspect in this research, since mobile devices, unlike television screens, are essentially private. Collective or shared use of television or radio, which is still somewhat common in many households, rarely happens to mobile devices. Therefore, we need new theories and methods to locate and interpret the continuity of collective use of mobile devices.

Objectives of the research

This study does not intend to explain, but rather to explore; no causal relationships generalization will be drawn. Its aims are twofold: First, to investigate the continuities and discontinuities of social practice of mobile devices vis-à-vis television. Second, to bridge between the rich and extensive body of research into all aspects of television production, text, and audience, and the younger tradition of internet studies.

My ultimate motivation is a concern about democracy in the new era of social media platforms and mobile devices compared to the era of linear television. (Curran & Seaton, 2018; Dahlgren, 1995; Denton Jr, 2000; Kellner, 2018; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019). Especially because, as I laid out in the introduction, from technological and formal standpoints, the new internet has been approaching television in the past decade. Thus, it is key to investigate the social practices around the new emergent internet.

As a result, I found the experience of prime time on mobile devices to provide an interesting angle to investigate these questions and hence, my two research questions:

  • How is the prime time experienced in the age of online mobile devices?
  • How is this experience different from the traditional television prime time, if any?

Research Design and Methodology

Research strategy

This research, based on a small pilot study conducted earlier, looks into people’s interpretation of their experience of routine practices around media, particularly mobile devices; it is not an attempt to directly access those routine practices through a quantitative research with claims on objective truth about these routines.

Therefore, epistemologically, it is designed within the paradigm of social constructivism (Andrews, 2012; P. L. Berger & Luckmann, 1991), rather than positivism (Rubin & Rubin, 2011; Ang, 1996). As a qualitative research, I found it most suitable to use active and relational interviewing (Gubrium & Holstein, 1997) to other methods of data collection, for listening to people is a justified method to access the processes of meaning making. (Fujii, 2017a; Wilson, 2009).

While ethnography could have been a natural method of choice for this type of research based on the literature review, I preferred interviews; mainly because mobile devices are used more privately than television, making it ethically and logistically challenging to conduct ethnographic observation at the context of use, particularly given the limitations that the pandemic has caused.

I preferred individual interviews to group ones, because people often give a more varied and detailed account of their practices, feelings, opinions, and practices in private, without the presence of others (Bauer & Aarts, 2000; Gaskell, 2000; Schaefer & Avery, 1993; Schrøder, 2003). I also chosen semi-structured form of interviews because they enable the researcher to explore some pre-existing areas without closing her mind to potential new ones which may arise from the data analysis.

I am aware that there are disadvantages to individual in-depth semi-structured interviews. First, it is the accuracy of the data, given that it is reliant on participants’ recollections and descriptions and their ability to communicate their interpretation to the researcher, in particular when the research is about mundane and habitual everyday routines (Höijer, 1990; Rubin & Rubin, 2011). In an ideal research situation, this could be overcome by individual diaries (Alaszewski, 2006; Berg & Düvel, 2012) as well as though think-aloud protocols (Ericsson & Simon, 1998) beside the interviews.

Second risk is about the researcher’s potential biases in the process of interview design, as well as collecting, coding, and analysing them. Self-reflexivity by the researcher on her political, social, and moral standpoints, as well as her transparency in all phases and processes of the research, help alleviate this risk (Nicolson, 2003).

Third is when participants try to adjust their answers to the perceived views and values of the researcher (A. A. Berger, 2018, pp. 135–152). A careful interview design along with neutral and disciplined behaviour by the researcher could minimize that.

Fourth is the very nature of the interviewing as a face-to-face personal process, as opposed to the impersonality of surveys, etc. Sometimes participants may thus feel uncomfortable to share those emotions or experiences that are thought to be unconventional, unpopular, or abnormal (Gaskell, 2000). A careful design of the interview protocol could also minimize this.

Avoiding two epistemologies

My research strategy in this study is aimed at producing an account of daily routines that are neither media-centric, nor representational-only (Nick Couldry, 2012; Krajina et al., 2014; Moores, 2020). Consequently, my questions are oriented toward a broader take on weekday and weekend routines. These routines do not necessarily involve media, and this approach helps me spot media-avoidances as well as media-use. For example, a media-centric assumption about relaxation posits that listening to soft or uplifting music may help people relax after work, while driving back home. But as one of my participants says, she only needs silence to relax. Such meaningful avoidance may not be discovered in a different research design.

My other strategy, to avoid the representational-only epistemology, means that I look for meanings embedded in actions in addition to those in words (Krajina et al., 2014; Moores, 2020). Evidently, I do pay attention to subtle emotions, silences, and direct or indirect interpretations that participants express during the interviews. I even ask direct questions at the end of each interview about emotions associated to different practices. However, certain routine practices, such as keeping a mobile phone under the pillow rather than next to bed, are intrinsically meaningful, regardless of whether a participant speaks about them[6].

Moreover, the pilot study helped me understand the importance of space as well as time and that is where I will briefly use think-aloud technique in the interviews. Space and smartphones have three layers of spatial relations: place of device, routinely used (e.g. on the train, in the toilet, etc.), place of apps which are routinely used on the device (e.g. Twitter on the second screen, WhatsApp grouped among other social apps on the first screen), and places of routinely used features in apps (e.g. Stories or feed on Instagram, DMs or notifications on Twitter, etc.).

Methods and procedures

Given the exploratory nature and non-positivist epistemology of this research, I did not intend to generalize or causally explain the findings of this research (Fujii, 2017b; Patton, 2002). Therefore, I made a selection, rather than a sample of the population. An inclusion criteria (Robinson, 2014) made up my sample universe: Adult UK residents with access to a video chat software, due to the limitations of face-to-face interviewing during the pandemic. Homogeneity in the selection was set to be possession of at least one mobile device, and heterogeneity, inspired by the literature (Morley, 1986; Scannell, 1996), was maintained to be in gender, age, and class. The size of the selection was kept to eight participants to keep the study small, yet variant enough, but in an ideal research situation there should have been twice as more.

Having got the ethical approval from my supervisor, I began my purposive selection (Emmel, 2020; Mason, 2017) with disseminating a casual announcement among a few friends, while I asked them to nominate relatives, colleagues or acquaintances with the inclusion criteria in a limited snowball manner. I recruited the first few participants and after they signed the consent form, I conducted a 70-80 minutes interviews in English language with them via video chat softwares such as Skype or Zoom, for which I got their verbal consent as well as for recording and using the material. I also verbally reassured them about the possibility of stopping the interview or asking me not to use all or parts of it. I assured them about their anonymity by assigning them a pseudonym along with their age and general job title.

Having produced a topic guide, I began conducting more interviews, at the same as I was recruiting new participants based on the variety I needed. However, I found it challenging to recruit male participants and only managed to include two of them. An explanation may be that men were less interested than women to talk to another man they do not know about their daily routines, especially on video chat. A gender balanced selection would have been ideal, however given the literature about the determinacy of gender, my analysis revealed having children at home is a key factor in how women use their mobile devices.

The final list of the participants is as follows, identified by a pseudonym I chose, loosely according to their ethnicity:

  1. Darius, male, 45 years-old, café owner
  2. Maryam, female, 43 years-old, café manager
  3. Nancy, female, 48 years-old, beauty specialist
  4. Michella, female, 19 years-old, college student
  5. Michael, male, 22 years-old, warehouse manager
  6. Nassim, female, 38 years-old, embassy deputy staff
  7. Katia, female, 28 years-old, finance relationship manager
  8. Mimi, female, 64 years-old, NGO director

I conducted the Interviews without much rapport with most participants because of the limitations of video chat compared with face-to-face interviews. However, they all went smoothly and took more than an hour, without visible signs of fatigue. The interview guide was helpful, but I did not stick to its order and the follow-up questions opened new areas which affected the next interviews and thus, modified the topic guide. I also used the think-aloud method briefly when I asked about the place of apps in phone screens and the app features routinely used.

Having transcribed all interviews and using the notes I had made during the interview, I coded the transcripts using Open and Axial technique and began a thematic analysis to find patterns and themes, and to construct the core category of analysis. Both inductive and sometime abductive approaches (e.g. for the theme of ‘stigma’) were used to generate a deeper understanding of the data (Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006; Flick, 2013).

The main point of self-reflexivity is linked to my motivation to do this research which arises from a wider concern about a potential bias of privately-owned television (and of social-media platforms) against the process of deliberative democracy. I am aware of my desire to show that the social practice of television is not much different from that of mobile devices. However, as the pilot study challenged some of my assumptions, I have tried my best to remain open to surprising findings for this research as well.

Another issue was how far I could go into the personal daily routines, in categories such as place (e.g. toilets) or purposes (e.g. dating apps or porn watching). I decided not to deal with these challenges for this study, but for an ideal research with a larger scope, ethnographic approaches could help some of these themes to be explored more easily, provided that ethical concerns are resolved.

The last point is that in the pilot study I only interviewed friends who knew about my life story, values, and politics. In this research, only one of the participants was aware of these and therefore, concerns about the potential conformity of participants to the researcher were minimized.

Results and Interpretation

A thematic analysis of the data, with the core theme of ‘temporalities of mobile device use’, has induced three main categories: daily routines, shared routines, and meaning and emotions. Several other sub-categories were also induced (e.g. notifications) or abducted (e.g. the stigma) from the body of data.

Daily Routines

All routines are linked to a specific time of the day, week, month, or year. In this study, I concentrated on the daily and weekly routines and tries to compare temporal patterns of mobile device usage with that of traditional television viewing to explore the potential dis-/continuities in their structure or meanings.

Early morning: Reconnecting to the world

Most of the participants used their phones for wake up alarm, except for Mimi (64, NGO director) who said she wanted to wake up ‘naturally’, and Darius (45, Café owner) who said his ‘body wakes him up’ around 6:30-7:00 a.m. and takes him the bathroom. Some younger participants set multiple alarms with five- or ten-minute intervals so they are forced to get up— perhaps as a substitute for their parents when they were younger. They usually stayed in bed and snoozed the phone a few times until they finally rose, as Katia (28, relationship manager) explained:

I’m probably worried that I might not hear one alarm or I’m scared to miss it. So it’s better for me to have two or three alarms each morning to… I’m not a morning person, to be very honest with you.

The proximity of the phone to the body is a common theme and hints at an interesting discontinuity. Apart from bed side radio clocks, media devices such as radio, television, and computers have rarely been kept close to bodies, especially during sleep.

What people do after waking up, particularly while still in bed, has become a key part of the modern daily routine. Most participants spend some time in bed using their phones before they get out of bed. Most of them have their phones handy next to their beds to be charged as well as easy to reach. Most, however, said they were aware but complacent about the potential hazards of having a phone close to where they sleep. But only one, Nassim (38, senior embassy staff), said she put it a few meters away and switched it to aeroplane mode (disconnected from the cellular and wi-fi networks). Among them, Michael (22, warehouse lead) keeps his phone the closest—under his pillow, without expressing any concern about its harm, unlike others.

What participants do in this short time period varies, but most of them share one purpose which is what Use and Gratification (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1966; McQuail et al., 1972)  approach calls surveillance— reconnecting to the flow of events which was disrupted by seven or eight hours of disconnection during the night sleep.

However, such surveillance does not necessarily mean consuming conventional news produced by journalists. That is not what the world means to many people. For most participants checking their personal messages on social media such as WhatsApp or Instagram precedes work messages, and for those interested, checking the news only comes afterwards. Among the participants, it was only Nassim who said she did not use her phone while in bed and was generally against the idea, either in the morning or at night:

I don’t I don’t use my phone in bed. Sometimes late in the evening, like that would be during the weekend, I would maybe bring my phone to bed or if I’m waiting for some message or something like that, but as a routine I wouldn’t. I’m not the kind of person who wakes up in bed and looks at Twitter and stuff like that while you’re while I’m in bed.

An interesting finding is how some participants with regular full-time jobs only read the messages rather than reply to them in the morning.

The duration of this period varies, largely determined by employment. Those who have to leave home tend to spend around 10-15 minutes on their phones before they get out of bed, but those without a egular full-time job (or those with flexible schedule due to the work-from-home conditions imposed by covid-19) may spend 30-40 minutes in bed on their phones.

This part of the early morning routine is shared by millions of employed people every weekday and is particularly precious for advertisers because users are fairly attentive. In this sense, it is a peak time, regardless of its short period.

What follows is often less attentive and more similar to older forms of media-related routines with broadcast at its centre. Some participants use their phones to listen to music or news in the bathroom while others turn on their living room or kitchen radio or television sets while getting ready or having a quick hot drink or breakfast.

Daily commute: Transition between work and home

What distinguishes participants in their use of mobile phones during the commute comes down to their use of public or private transport. Those who drive a car continue listening to either car radio, or podcasts or music from their phones. Others who either use public transport or sit in a car often get out of the door with their headphones or earphones on.

This is a time period which I call frozen time, defined as a relatively fixed-duration period between two routines. In addition to the above usage, most participants use this time for social contact, especially with phone calls to their friends or loved ones. If they are not walking or driving, they may also socialize through messengers such as WhatsApp. Frozen times in London are often short, or are interrupted, segmentized by the need to change trains or buses, picking up or dropping off children, standing and moving ahead in queues, or calling costumer services lines, etc. Thus, doing anything mindful and continuous during daily commute is a challenge in London.

For most participants morning commute is a time to complete the early morning reconnection routines. Katia, for instance, uses this time to reply to older messages or emails which she had earlier read:

When I read through the messages that I received in bed, I don’t really respond. And then when I’m on the tube and I don’t have internet … I just respond to all the messages I have received. And as soon as I go overground it sends [them]… it gives me quite a nice feeling just to work all of those messengers and send send send. [laughter]

Contrary to morning commute, which is a mental transition to work by reconnecting to the world, evening commutes is a gradual transition away from the outside world. For high-ranking employees with managing responsibilities such as Nassim, Mimi, and Nancy, this is the last chance to finish small work-related tasks such as responding to emails, etc., For others it is a time to avoid engaging mindful tasks or even talk radio, so they either listen to music or amuse themselves on messengers or social media.

Michael’s case is interesting in this regard, because he has worked night shift until recently. However, he still prefers music to radio, because

 It’s been a long day at work and you don’t want to sit and start processing things in your head. So it’s a lot more simple. So I just Play music…

Nancy uses this frozen time for a non-media-related activity: a short ‘snooze’. This is partly because as a working mother, she has to wake up early (5:30 a.m.) to prepare breakfast for the family, wake her three children, and have her husband take them to school.

Mid-day and lunch break: Loneliness peak

During work hours, most employed participants keep their phones silent and physically close, even though they do not use them as much. Either because they are busy with meetings or other engaging tasks, or because of the work place etiquette or surveillance. No participant pointed to this, though.

Here, push notifications and the way they are managed, gain particular significance. I will separately discuss this theme later, but it is important to note which notifications are on and which are off at work. Most of my employed participants have allowed only their messaging apps to send push notifications on lock-screen and some, like Katia, without showing the content of the message:

I have actually a phone stand from my company that I put my iPhone in, it’s always on silent and on purpose. If, for instance, someone messaged me on WhatsApp, the message doesn’t come up on my screen. It just says someone messaged me on WhatsApp not to distract me. Instagram, for instance, I don’t get [its] push notifications. So I don’t see it. Because I think it would be a big distraction for me at work. So I put my phone in the stand. It’s on silent and I’m quite good at not really looking at my phone or responding to anyone until it’s my lunch break or until I have a coffee break.

Using Lembo’s typology of television use (discreet, undirected, and continuous), if full-time workers often use their phones in an undirected way, those without full-time jobs use their phones in a discreet or continuousway. For instance, Darius said he spent most of his time at the café sitting in the back, doing all kinds of things with his phone, sometimes reading longer news articles, other times watching whole television news bulletins on his phone.

Work breaks are a different story, especially the lunch breaks. Most full-time working participants said they only used their phones during lunch or coffee breaks if they were not accompanied by colleagues. They would make phone calls or check messages or social media accounts. As Nassim described, something disconnected from work. Michael expressed frustration at how the pandemic has diminished the social aspect of his thirty minutes lunch break in the big canteen they had at work and why he did not eat there anymore. He even evoked the metaphor of prison:

You know, the thing you see in prison, where there’s a person here, big plastic board here, and other persons there. Just is like that. That’s why I don’t go to the canteen much.

A common theme among self-employed participants is that they either skip lunch or defer it to later hours. Mimi explained this both as a cultural trend in the UK in contrast with the continental habit of long lunch breaks, as well as a personal choice due the stressful nature of her job:

I prefer actually was saying not having a lunch because the work is too stressful. And I feel even when I’ve eaten during the stressful time, as if I haven’t eaten, so I prefer just maybe having something during the day so I can have a nice dinner when I finish work, but it depends really, who I am with if I’m in the office. I usually have a bit heavier breakfast, and then I don’t eat anything till I come home in the evening.

Maryam who also works full-time and runs a café said she is sometimes so busy that she only got to eat something quickly only a short time before she left work:

Sometimes we’re getting so busy that for example at four o’clock or five o’clock I only have time to just quickly eat something because I’m getting a headache…

For others, taking lunch breaks are common and they usually spend a chunk of it on their phones. This may also indicate that lunch is increasingly becoming a lonely experience and that is why phone use during lunch time is rising.

Data from marketing companies also show that lunch break is generally the best time to publish on most social media platforms, since they receive the highest amount of engagement from users. For example, data from Sprout (How COVID-19 Has Changed Social Media Engagement, 2020) shows  that in 2019 and 2020 before the pandemic, the best time for posting on Facebook, which generally has an older audience, was on Wednesdays at 1–2 p.m. For Instagram, with a younger audience of high-school or university students, the best time to post was on Wednesday at 11 a.m. and on Fridays from 10–11 a.m. For Twitter, with an audience more into news and public affairs, it was Wednesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m.[7]

Evenings: Disconnecting from the world

Early evening is mostly an intimate social time for participants. For those who are single, this often means going out for dinner with closer friends, sometimes directly from work, as Katia does. For participants with partners or families, this often means dinner at home. In both cases, there is not much room for mobile phone usage.

For working mothers, such as Maryam, early evening entails a calm-down phase which begins immediately after work, during her lonely commute in her own car:

[…] during my work [at the cafe] I listen to [a lot of] music, and then sometimes I need to be a little bit.. you know, just driving [back home] quiet… and nothing. Just to relax…  Sometimes when [I get home] I like to just sit and watch the wall and nothing else. I do nothing, you know, just relaxing. [I ask my husband and my daughter]: Don’t talk to me, don’t to say nothing. I don’t know because I’m working outside and [I also work at] home. Nobody’s helping me, nobody… You know, everything I should do by myself.

The point about ‘sit down and watch the wall’ is particularly important, because it was her response to my question whether there is anything she does with media to relax and wind down. It is a reminder that life does not revolve around media, especially for people who do not live alone and have care responsibilities toward others.

For some participants who live alone, this is the opposite. For them, media is a ‘substitute for real-life companionship” (Lodziak, 1987, p.132). For instance, Katia said she would turn the tv on as soon as she arrived home because she did not like the silence:

If I [don’t go out and] do go home, I would probably go to the supermarket, get some snacks or food or takeaway [laughter], actually, and then I think I would actually put on the BBC News Channel again, just to have something in the background because I don’t like silence very much. I wouldn’t actually sit down and watch the news, I would have to use in the background.

When I asked why she disliked silence, she had the opposite argument to Maryam who needed peace after a busy work day:

Because I guess everything is so busy and then when you’re in a rush, when you’re at work and I have lots of client meetings and then rush hour and you come home and then the silence, I just feel quite uncomfortable with it. And that is like to have something in the background, but I’m not sure why… I can’t tell.

Late evening is in contrast with early morning in that most participants gradually disconnect from the factual world outside. In Lembo’s terms, if the day has begun and continued with image-based use of the media, especially their mobile phones, now people are inclined to more narrative-based uses. The late evening routine does not involve mobile phones much for various reasons. Mainly because most participants want to watch something entertaining such as a film or series and they prefer a larger screen for that. This could sometimes be done thorough videocasting devices such as Chromecast or Apple TV that wirelessly connect phone screens to television.

Another reason to avoid phones then, according to participants, is that late evening entertainment is often shared with other people. Among the participants, Mimi has the largest screen, a video projector that casts on the wall. She and her partner have no television at home and watch everything, even the news, via the video projector. She is also unusual in that she prefers to watch documentaries or late night tv shows:

Once the news is over. I continue looking for something I love to see on telly, why my beloved is cleaning after dinner. So I look for something very entertaining, like Graham Norton show, or some documentaries, which we usually then watch together documentaries. So it’s Telly Telly time. Till I go to bed,

Others tend to watch fictional series on television on digital platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. For Darius and Maryam, who are married and live together, this is the time to switch to English-speaking fictional series, after putting their daughter to bed. Maryam told me they often watched Iranian television series while having dinner with their daughter, because she did not understand Persian very well so she was protected from potentially strong language of some Iranian series.

Going to bed: Switching off

Most participants do have a switch off ritual which signifies the official end to the evening routines in the living room and begins the transition to bedroom (Pink & Leder Mackley, 2013). This entails locking the doors and turning lights, television, and some other devices off. None of the participants turn their WiFi routers off, which is something I have seen in some households with young children.

Media-related routines in bed seems like an emergent pattern, and I would say, another chunk of the distributed prime time. Nearly all participants, except Mimi, who comes from an educated urban middle-class background in former Yugoslavia and is in her early mid 60s, do something on their phones in bed before they sleep. However, there is a sense of guilt associated to this, expressed by a couple of participants, including Nassim:

You know, if I would read it would be a good evening. I mean, it’s what I would like to do and then what I actually end up doing [is different]. I mean, I would like to change a little bit my evening routine so that I go to bed a bit earlier. Maybe take longer time to wash my face. You know, take a little bit more time, you know, getting relaxed before going to bed. But this happens very rarely but when I do it, it feels really good. Sometimes I read but unfortunately it hasn’t become a routine to do that. Now during my vacation I have been, for example, after a long time I started to read novel and things like that, but normally no. I would [usually] check for the last time my phone and see if there was anything I didn’t answer during the day. I will at the same time if I want to listen to something [like a podcast] I would listen to it and then put on the alarm and then go to bed.

Some participants have a habit of watching non-fiction training videos or documentaries and this helps them fall asleep. Darius said he would get on YouTube and watch numerous educational videos about various topics such as agriculture, survival skills, woodworking, etc.

As if I somehow wash away the dirt of political news from my mind. I open new files in my brain.. I don’t what hormones are produced by watching these videos, but they help me sleep well during the night.

Similarly, Michael prefer to watch documentaries on his phone in bed to relax and fall asleep, contrasting its effect with that of fictional series. When I asked how documentaries calmed him down, he answered:

Yeah… I don’t know the word to describe it. I don’t know… they just make you feel more dozy… I’m just more likely to sleep after that. I think it’s in the sense that it stops you from thinking about other stuff. So obviously you know the thing that stops you sleeping the most of this. You’re just thinking and thinking away. And that’s why like I said I try not to watch a TV series or something where I’m trying to follow the storyline strictly and look for things… When I’m watching like a TV series, I feel it is in your head, you’re always trying to connect the dots. In a documentary it’s all display and the person is actually narrating it to you like there’s no hidden meanings or whatever.

Other participants do various things with their phones, such as shopping, personal messaging, planning, etc. which all fit Lembo’s category of image-based viewing. It is interesting that none of the participants use their phones at this time period in a narrative-based mode such as watching drama series, etc.

Weekends: Deep disconnection

All participants said they used their phones less often in weekends and instead spent more time outside, with family or friends. Apart from Mimi who said she had to read the entire Guardian’s weekend edition, Nancy spoke about how, since the lockdown and closure of churches, they watched Sunday Mass on YouTube. Interestingly, she mentioned this only after I asked specifically whether she used YouTube at all:

YouTube? Yeah, I do. I watch… Sometimes I’ve started because we go go to Mass on a Sunday and the churches have been closed and been watching a streaming mass on Sunday… Which has been really good. It’s actually the old, my old parish from Leicester. And, yeah, that’s been really nice. I would like to encourage the children to watch it, but they haven’t.

Other participant did not mention any media-related routines particular to weekends.

This is also consistent with some social media marketing companies (How COVID-19 Has Changed Social Media Engagement, 2020) reporting that platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn receive the least level of user engagement on Sundays. Nassim’s account is a good potential explanation, especially for those with full-time jobs:

I try to use the weekends a lot just to reboot for the next week, because my working weeks are very, very intensive and very demanding. So if I don’t, I mean in the past, I used to plan a lot over the weekend, but I don’t do that anymore. I just take the weekend to, to relax and avoid to have too many activities. Maybe in the summer I do something in my garden, you know, things like that.

Shared Routines

Traditional prime time television was not only shared in time, it was often also shared in space at home. It was a collective mode of viewing which very large audiences shared. With mobile devices and social media, things have deeply changed.

No participant pointed to any simultaneous use of their phones with friends a family,  except Michella who spoke about how she regularly made playful tik-tok videos with her friends at school, which is a collective production rather than consumption.

However, a closer look at some of their routines reveals some interesting forms of sociality and co-presence. Phone calls and interpersonal messaging aside, posting on family WhatsApp groups for instance can be seen as a collective routines; liking or sharing posts or leaving public comments for friends and family postings on social media is also a collective and public activity that can be compared to watching television together.

Only because of the pandemic, a few participants have adopted some new collective routines. For instance, Nancy and her husband participate in a family quiz via video-conferencing every Sunday evening at 7 p.m. with nine other families. Or Nassim has experienced eating with her family the same way.

Meanings and Emotions

News on social media was singled out as a major source of anger or sadness by four participants who said they tried to avoid it or give themselves a break from it. While unanswered messages give Michella and Michael a sense of guilt, for Nassim messaging apps bring joy, because she can know ‘what is going on’ with her family through the WhatsApp group they have.

The link between mobile phones and the body is an important theme, especially given how materiality of routines are linked to time and space. Michael’s proximity to his phone during sleep (under his pillow) in this respect is similar to how Mimi associates her phone with personal life and her laptop to work. So is Nassim’s mention of physical pains (e.g. arm and neck) associated to continuous use of mobile phones as well as her struggle with the proximity of her body with the phone during sleep, her dependence on the phone both for work and for social life, and her analogy of the phone as her brain and her arm; Nassim observes how holding phones while socializing which was a rude thing to do has now been normalized, leading to a situation where, according to Maryam, ‘everybody is present, but nobody is really listening’. Nassim elaborates on this:

In the past, you would meet people and then you would put your phone away. But now it has become totally accepted, acceptable like that. You sit there you’re talking and you’re answering the phone at the same time and you’re chatting and everybody’s okay with that because it has become normalised.

This material link is also reflected in Nassim’s nostalgia over materialized sentiments or embodied memories that are replaced by the smartphone, such as printed photographs or handwritten letters, which is also partly shared by Mimi.

Phone avoidance in weekends or holidays, which most participants do, also meaningful. It is also consistent with how television audience has always shrunk in weekends, except for seasonal or annual events such as sports or elections etc.

Other Themes

Among the other repeated patterns, there are a few which are not directly related to the main theme of peak audience or prime time, but helpful to provide a wider context to the mobile device practices.

Usage Rules

All participants talked about self or other-imposed rules about using phones, especially in the early evening at the dinner table. One participant, Nassim, mentioned another rule against bringing phone to bed, which she said she broke sometimes in weekends.

This resembles traditional domestic rules in some households against watching television during meals. Now most participants who observe the ‘no phone at dinner table’ rule expressed no objection for television to be on during the dinner, or even in a couple of cases in front of the television. Sometime new rules normalize previous taboos in accepted habits.


Push notifications are mostly activated by default on mobile apps. But all participants now manage their notifications. Except that Nancy had asked her husband to do that for her and was not fully aware of how he had done so.

Most participants had restricted the lock screen notifications only to those from messaging apps. The most radical version of this is Michella who has turned off all notifications for social media, including the small badges next to each app, showing the number of unread messages. Yet, she allows notifications for text messages and the news app. She explains why:

I just hate having my notifications on. I’ve just turned them all off for my social it just drives me mad when I keep seeing it pop up like, Oh, this person’s like picture. I just I don’t really care that much… them on for Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. I think the only thing I have my notifications on for my actual text messages and I actually think that’s it… And because I feel like it’s a bit more urgent when someone texting me, I know that they actually need to get a hold of me. then I suppose what’s stopping me or someone’s texting me is probably a bit urgent.

The anxiety or the sense of guilt over unread or unanswered messages was also something some participants such as Michael, Katia, as well as Michella expressed.

Drawing on Lembo’s typology, restriction on notifications can be compared to various modes of viewing. For instance, a phone with detailed notifications on its lock screen can be seen as the equivalent of continuoustelevision viewing where the television set was nearly always on in the background. Same goes for undirecteduse which is the case with most participants in this mesarch. And lastly, discrete use can be exemplified by how Michella has selectively managed her notifications.


A repetitive pattern emerged when some participants distanced themselves from a specific media usage or a particular group of media users, often in an emotional way, as if it is a social stigma. These statements often followed a similar language structure: ‘I am not a … person’. Nassim insisted twice that she was not ‘an app person’, meaning that she does not like to download many apps. She also said she was not a kind of person who took her phone to bed or listened to music in a serious and ‘pretentious’ way. Mimi expressed similar feelings against Netflix, despite her attempts to embrace it, as she said. Michael distanced himself from ‘a lot of people’ who look for ‘trendy music’, adding that he did not ‘look for new artists or things like this,’ and he was more into ‘established’ artists.


Exploring the experience of routine use of mobile devices point to both continuities and discontinuities. Holding on to an electronic device in bed, after rising and before sleeping, may be a new routine for millions of people in any given time zone around the globe. It may also be establishing a new temporality, a new peak time with immense economic value; but the individual and social meaning of these new routines and temporalities seem to still be about connecting to or disconnecting from the world as it has usually been.

Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, said in 2019 that ‘prime-time is now personal and it’s happening on our cell phones…Every single one of us has our own prime-time, and none are the same.’ However, you see different number of advertisements on YouTube in the middle of the same videos at different times of the day; there are also marketing agencies which suggest that mid-day Wednesday is consistently the best time to post on most social media platforms (The Best Times to Post on Social Media in 2020, 2020).

Platform algorithms are indeed tailoring (personalizing) what people read or watch or listen to according to their tastes or interests. But the everyday temporalities and rhythms are structured by larger forces—as Lodziak notes, by ‘social positions and relations of power within the social totality’ (1987, p. 98). The deep impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on all aspects of our everyday routines has revealed work as a central determining factor, in addition to gender and age which has previously been explored.

The findings of this research suggest that contrary to what marketers say ‘prime time’ still exists, even for personal mobile devices. But rather than being personalized, it is distributed[8]. This hints at a major continuity in the social practice of mobile device compared to television.

Future research could use larger samples and some ethnographic techniques (such as diaries) to concentrate on any chunk of the distributed prime time (such as after-wake up, commute, lunch, and pre-sleep) and provide a deeper and wider account of people’s experience around mobile devices. Particularly, a deeper look into the geographies of use on mobile devices will be interesting, one that focuses on a text-dominated app such as Twitter[9] and attends to its three spatial layers (of device, in device, and in app) to gain a deeper and more specific understanding of daily routines.

Another future direction could be to focus on the experience of co-presence through public sharing, liking, and commenting on social media comments of friends and family, and to compare this to collective television use practices.


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[1] Quoted in Couldry (2012)

[2] For more on convergence, see Dwyer (2010), Jenkins & Deuze (2008), and Meikle & Young (2011)

[3] By the ‘dwelling perspective’ Ingold means ‘A perspective that treats the immersion of the organism-person in an environment or lifeworld as an inescapable condition of existence. From this perspective, the world continually comes into being around the inhabitant, and its manifold constituents take on significance through their incorporation into a regular pattern of life activity’ (Ingold, 2000, p. 154)

[4] 85 percent of all Americans listened to morning drive time in mid-1990s (MacFarland, 2013))

[5] This may be associated o the ‘siesta’ tradition which structures work hours differently from the rest of Europe.

[6] In retrospect, this proved to be a challenge throughout the research, and I was constantly wondered how I could access the meaning of people’s daily routines without asking them directly about their feelings or interpretation. Particularly because these direct questions, in my view, did not produce authentic and spontaneous responses. Moores and Ingold’s idea on the meaningfulness of repeated practices was very helpful (Krajina et al., 2014; Moores, 2000b).


[7] The post-pandemic data shows that usage patterns for Facebook and Instagram have become more distributed, they also have shifted a couple of hours earlier in the morning. Twitter usage has remained an early morning routine from 7¬–9 a.m. These changes may be associated the effect of new work routines on peak audiences.

[8] Netflix data showed in 2019 that long commute times in India and Brazil have constructed two additional peak time slots to the usual late night ones: 6-8 a.m. and 6-8 p.m. (Tandon, 2019)

[9] Studying the social practice around a less-photographic app such as twitter could more meaningfully account for the continuities of use, since its cultural form is nothing like the video-based form of television text.

End of news: Can democracy thrive with post-news journalism?

For some time, I’ve been following the discourse among journalists about the reasons for this rapid decline of news industry. There various explanations such as business models, quality, trust, or social media.

But when I was reading an article from one of my favourite media scholars, James W. Carey, where he points out the historical aspect of news, a new question crossed my mind which inspired my Harvard’s Shorenstein Center’s research and the article I wrote for Medium based on it: What if the news has largely lost its relevance and functions for the youth of the middle-class after two centuries around the world (Except in a few countries such as India)? And if that’s true, what can explain it?

Initial drafts included a playful analogy of hats to describe what has come of news. But with Jemima Kiss, my editor, we decided to drop that. Hence the picture.

So please read the full essay and leave your comments or responses.

Rouhani’s Last Blow

The moderate Iranian president asserts himself evermore as the next Supreme Leader. Can he survive the unlikely alliance of Iran and US hardliners?

By Hossein Derakhshan

Recent unrest in Iran can neither be fully explained by discourse of inequality, nor by that of democracy. The underlying theme of everything that is happening these days in Iran is one thing: Who is going to succeed the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei?

President Rouhani, a moderate reformer, has turned out to be a solid contender since his landslide victory last year. Particularly in light of recent reports on the health of Ayatollah Shahroudi, a favourite contender among clerical elite, who is reported to be diagnosed with cancer. Hence the rise of unprecedented challenges by hardliners. As Behzad Nabavi, a senior reformist politician recently said, if former reformist president Khatami “faced one challenge every nine days by average, Rouhani faces one every nine hours.”

Rouhani ran a successful campaign in 2013 against Iran’s hardliners with an ambitious platform of saving the economy (through reaching a deal with the Western power over its nuclear programme) and ending the police state (by keeping social media unblocked) — both caused by Ahmadinejad and his hardline allies.

Despite an aggressive campaign, centred around unemployment and inequality, Raisi lost with a big margin to Rouhani.
Before he began running for a second term, he had already delivered both. Despite very serious challenges by hardliners, with backing from the Supreme Leader, he reached the best possible deal with the six world powers and managed to lift crippling UN and EU sanctions which had started to pose an existential threat to the regime. He also succeeded in keeping hardliners from blocking the emerging social media of the time, i.e. Instagram and Telegram. (He ultimately preferred to give up on Facebook and Twitter both due to severe hardliner’ resistance and also their decline compared to the other two platforms.)

As the chairman of the Supreme National Security Council, which is a post constitutionally given to sitting presidents, he created a relatively safe space for reformist politicians, activists, and media to return to the political scene. He ended the squeezing of the civil society by the security apparatus. Moreover, he quietly expanded the reach and the speed of mobile access to the internet which significantly benefited the moderates’ and civil society who had no place in the state-run media. He also appointed a popular female reformist activist as a vice president for women’s affairs.

This time, hardliners were determined to unseat him. Not just because Rouhani was quietly but effectively rolling back the immense wealth and influence they had managed to gain under Ahmadinejad, but also because they knew Ayatollah Khamenei’s health and age would soon mean somebody should be elected to replace him. Hardliners were worried that a second term for Rouhani would shatter all their dreams.

In May 2017, hardliners found their best candidate. Ebrahim Raisi was a handsome (but uncharismatic) younger cleric (and also a prosecutor of a secretive special court for the clergy) who was recently appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei to run Imam Reza’s shrine and its associated endowment with an estimated $15b value. They threw everything they had behind Raisi. From their huge influence in clerical establishment, state media, and the Revolutionary Guards’ quasi-private cultural empire they had built under Ahmadinejad’s corrupted rule.

They even forced the former mayor of Tehran, Bagher Ghalibaf, who had already ran and lost twice for president, to run again — and do the dirty works for the neophyte Raisi during the campaign and especially presidential debates.

Despite their brutal and extremely populist campaign, centred around inequality and unemployment, they lost to Rouhani who basically promised to protect and expand his two achievements: Barjaam (Nuclear deal in Persian) and Telegram.

Trump had already shocked everyone around the world, including the Iranian establishment. Hardliners, though, visibly welcomed his victory because they knew how Trump hated the deal and implicitly hoped he would kill it — something they failed to do due to the strong practical (not so much rhetorical) support of the Supreme Leader.

It was not an accident that some US hawks, such as Elliot Abrams, explicitly wished for Rounahi’s rival to win. Their goal of regime-change in Iran could never be achieved while moderates were in power.

American hawks have found a golden opportunity to undermine the nuclear deal and the moderates without much effort, both of which are big hurdles for their ultimate project of regime-change.

After his victory, hardliners quickly began to embarrass Rouhani before a crucial part of his base: women. They lobbied the clerical establishment against appointment of women as cabinet ministers. They forced Rouhani to move his reformist vice-president for women’s affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, out of that position. They also blocked his plans to allow women in football stadiums, as well as a fresh clamp-down on young women’s dress-code in big cities and stopping female musicians to perform on stage alongside men.

The tacit alliance of US hawks and Iran hardliners reached a climax earlier in October when Trump officially announced his policy of regime-change in Iran.

Soon after the expected patriotic mood settled in Iran, Rouhani presented his budget to the parliament, warning that the economy couldn’t be fixed without a more transparent budget and invited all public organizations, especially those that belonged to the clerical establishment ,to be more accountable. He widely publicized it on social media and asked the public to start discussing it hoping that popular outrage would get the parliament cut public funding for dozens of those institutions which were mostly created or boosted by Ahmadinejad.

Hardliners, mostly direct or indirect students of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the nemesis of the reform in Iran, activated their grand plan: either to force Rouhani to resign now, or disillusion his middle-class base and thus defeat the moderate candidate (who is rumoured to be Ali Larijani) for the next presidential elections in 2021. They sent dozens of their senior members to speak in their strongholds such as Mashad, Isfahan, and Hamedan. They also, rather anonymously, organized anti-government protests to accompany them.

It’s yet to become clear if these hardliners had anticipated violence or not, but they surely had expected that US hawks would eagerly endorse the protests and put Rouhani in a losing game: If he let the protests continue, they would paint it as a grave failure of his economic policy which includes the nuclear deal and ultimately accuse him of severe incompetence. If he curbed them, they would illustrate him as an aloof autocrat who crushed the poor or the unemployed to cover up for his broken policies.

When the protests turned violent and the US hawks jumped on it, hardliners found their dream scenario. They forced Rouhani (who doesn’t have the majority vote in the committee which controls internet filtering and is overseen by the judiciary) to break his promise and block Telegram and Instagram — both blamed by the same hardliners for inciting violence. They also blame him of endangering national security by neglecting the economy and expressed wishes to kill the ’fruitless’ nuclear deal.

On the other side, American hawks have found a golden opportunity to undermine both the nuclear deal and the moderates without much effort — they are both big hurdles for their ultimate project of regime-change.

Rouhani now faces an extremely difficult situation which will determine both the future of his own faction in the next parliament and presidential elections, but the future of Iran (as a potential successor to the Supreme Leader) for the next few decades. Now not only should he keep protecting the nuclear deal, unblock the social media he ​had to the lives to ban temporarily, and go ahead with the economic reforms he had started, but he needs to prove that he can quickly bring back peace and stability ​and businesses ​of the urban middle-class.​ (Rouhani unblocked Telegram messenger last week despite tremendous resistance by hardliners.)

He has previously shown to be a deft politician who delivers. He is a jujitsu player; He anticipates a blow and turn its very force against the attacker. He has displayed that in television debates in 2017, and he might pull off something similar this time.

Hossein Derakhshan is an Iranian journalist and media analyst who spent six years in prison in Tehran from 2008. He tweets at @h0d3r

A statement

For nearly fifteen years, I have been subject to a politically-motivated disinformation campaign because of my sharp critique of the hawkish policies that could see Iran follow the same fate Iraq began to suffer in the mid-2000s.

In 2008, after I went back to Iran after a few years of living abroad, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps arrested me and kept me for eight consecutive months in solitary confinement, with no access to books or newspapers or even anyone to talk, so as to force me to confess that I was an agent of Israel, only because I had visited Israel as a freelance journalist and a peace activist to counter the drum of war at the time against Iran.

Almost two years later, in an unfair trial, I was spared a death penalty (precisely over two words which appeared in my blog), but was graced with a grotesque 19.5 year prison sentence, for my writings, reformist activism, and advocacy of free expression online.

It is ironic that my long-offline blog archive, which was once maliciously exploited by the Iranian regime to ruin six years of my life is now, after a decade, used by some opponents of the Iranian regime to vindictively demolish the rest of my life, both personally and professionally —after all the pain and trauma that my family and I experienced and still endure, a time when I’m finally getting back on my feet.

Ever since I was released in 2014, I have restarted thinking and writing about how new media and social platforms are impacting our societies. It was the quality of my output which earned me the chance to continue research on the future of news and algorithms, as well as information disorder (‘fake news’) at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and the MIT Media Lab.

Nearly forty years after the 1979 revolution, most of the critics of the current Iranian system want the same thing: a secular, open, just, peaceful, and prosperous state which protects minorities, allows dissent, and tolerates difference. I, too, share that vision. However like the majority of Iranians, I believe it should come from within, or it would not be sustainable. Alas, this has made all Iranian reformers like me an easy target equally by hardliners in Iran and hawks in the US.

Why Is Social News Bad for Democracy

Consumption of news has become a social performance for the first time in history—and it only helps spread of disinformation

By Hossein Derakhshan and Claire Wardle

The Collins Dictionary word of the year for 2017 is, disappointingly, “fake news”. We say disappointingly, because the ubiquity of that phrase among journalists, academics and policymakers is partly why the debate around this issue is so simplistic. The phrase is grossly inadequate to explain the nature and scale of the problem. (Were those Russian ads displayed at the congressional hearings last week news, for example?) But what’s more troubling, and the reason that we simply cannot use the phrase any more, is that it is being used by politicians around the world as a weapon against the fourth estate and an excuse to censor free speech.

Definitions matter. Take, for example, the question of why this type of content is created in the first place. There are four distinct motivations for why people do this: political, financial, psychological (for personal satisfaction) and social (to reinforce our belonging to communities or “tribes”). If we’re serious about tackling mis- and disinformation, we need to address these motivations separately. And we think it’s time to give much more serious consideration to the social element.

Social media force us to live our lives in public, positioned centre-stage in our very own daily performances. Erving Goffman, the American sociologist, articulated the idea of “life as theatre” in his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and while the book was published more than half a century ago, the concept is even more relevant today. It is increasingly difficult to live a private life, in terms not just of keeping our personal data away from governments or corporations, but also of keeping our movements, interests and, most worryingly, information consumption habits from the wider world.

When we try to understand why people are sharing misleading, manipulated and fabricated information, we need to appreciate that those shares and retweets are playing an incredibly important function, which is less about their veracity or truth.
The social networks are engineered so that we are constantly assessing others — and being assessed ourselves. In fact our “selves” are scattered across different platforms, and our decisions, which are public or semi-public performances, are driven by our desire to make a good impression on our audiences, imagined and actual.

We grudgingly accept these public performances when it comes to our travels, shopping, dating, and dining. We know the deal. The online tools that we use are free in return for us giving up our data, and we understand that they need us to publicly share our lifestyle decisions to encourage people in our network to join, connect and purchase.

But, critically, the same forces have impacted the way we consume news and information. Before our media became “social”, only our closest family or friends knew what we read or watched, and if we wanted to keep our guilty pleasures secret, we could. Now, for those of us who consume news via the social networks, what we “like” and what we follow is visible to many — or, in Twitter’s case, to all, unless we are in that small minority of users who protect their tweets. Consumption of the news has become a performance that can’t be solely about seeking information or even entertainment. What we choose to “like” or follow is part of our identity, an indication of our social class and status, and most frequently our political persuasion.

When we try to understand why people are sharing misleading, manipulated and fabricated information, we need to appreciate that those shares and retweets are playing an incredibly important function, which is less about their veracity or truth. The act of sharing is often about signalling to others that we agree with the sentiment of the message, or that even if we don’t agree, we recognise it as important and worth paying attention to. We want to feel connected to others, and these mini-performances allow us to do that.

“News is not information, it is drama…reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass where particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed”.
Understanding this is easier if we read the work of media scholar James Carey. He argued that the dominant lens through which we understand communication is a “transmission model”, with a focus simply on the mechanics through which a message is transmitted from Sender A to Receiver B. However, he said, we should actually view communication through the lens of ritual if we want to understand why people seek out, consume and make sense of information. From this vantage point, Carey argued: “News is not information, it is drama.” A ritual view of communication views “reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass”, where “a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed”.

When we consider many of the solutions being proposed to tackle the spread of disinformation, it certainly seems that the focus is on this transmission model. Ideas such as flagging disputed content are founded on the idea that information consumption is rational. If we are serious about slowing down the dissemination of mis- and disinformation, we need to start recognising the emotional and social drivers that shape people’s relationship with information.

There has been much discussion over the past year about the need for us to pop our filter bubbles, to follow a much more diverse set of people and accounts. But how do we do this when those actions are public? Do we need to explain to our network why we are following that hyper-partisan Facebook page that sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum from our own views? And how to “heart” a tweet to go back to later for research when that action is public? Seeing Twitter tell you that your most ardent Trump-hating friend just “liked” one of his tweets can be jarring.

While the architecture of the platforms isn’t the root cause of why mis- and disinformation are being created on the scale we’re now seeing, these features are a significant reason that they are being disseminated.
As a French thinker of the 1960s, Guy Debord, would second, we’ve historically evolved from being informed to having information, and then to appearing informed. While the architecture of the platforms isn’t the root cause of why mis- and disinformation are being created on the scale we’re now seeing, these features are a significant reason that they are being disseminated. And when the algorithms that power these networks are designed to capitalise on our emotional responses, but proposed solutions require rational responses. Unfortunately, no significant change is likely.

Claire Wardle is a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and leads the non-profit First Draft. Hossein Derakhshan is a writer and researcher. They recently co-authored Information Disorder, a report commissioned by the Council of Europe

Text vs. World Trumps

Decline of text in favour of videos means more Trumps and Berlusconis around the world. How can we save our democracies?

By Hossein Derakhshan

TEHRAN — Demagogues of the world, right or left, have got to love television. The linear, emotion-driven, passive, and image-centred medium has reduced politics to a reality-show. As Neil Postman showed in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” television has vastly downgraded the level of public discourse in most democracies. From US to Iran, from Venezuela to France, from Egypt to Russia, from Italy to Turkey, there is as much competition over viewers’ gaze as it is over their ballots. In many countries, gaze is automatically translated into votes.

Most alarmingly, the internet which was the last word-centred public space after the decline of print journalism, is capitulating to the television format. Social networks’ notion of the Stream, in Facebook, Twitter etc., is killing the web and thereby the word-based journalism. Facebook now is more like the future of television than how the web looked like for over two decades.

A recent research by Oxford University shows that watching online videos is on the rise in US and most parts of the world, except in northern Europe. Perhaps because they have a healthier work and life balance and also because their public education system still promotes reading and critical thinking.

Donald Trump’s mastery of television medium means he can turn every threat into opportunity, every waste into energy – like a perfect incineration plant. He seems invincible in the age of television and video-dominated internet.
Meanwhile, Facebook has announced that soon videos will dominate its news feeds, for it “commands so much information in a much quicker period so actually the trend helps us digest more of the information in a quicker way,’ in the words of Nicola Mendelsohn. a vice president at Facebook.

This confirms my own speculation when I came out in of an Iranian prison in 2014 only to discover a whole different internet, where text is in decline and images, still or moving, on the rise. As a pioneer of blogging in Iran, what I realized after six years of isolation was that blogs, the best example of a decentralized public sphere, were dead. Facebook and Instagram had killed hyperlinks to maximize profits by keeping users inside and exposing them to more and more advertising. Thus they were killing the open web, which was founded on links. The internet had become more of an entertaining tool than an alternative space for public discussion. Worse than that, I noticed a strange unease among the youth to read anything over 140 characters.

Of course text will never die, but the ability to communicate through alphabet is now slowly becoming a privilege dedicated to a small elite in many societies. Quite like middle ages where only politicians and monks enjoyed the ability to communicate through alphabet. The rest are going to be the 21st century illiterates who can mainly communicate through images, videos – and of course, emojis.

The emerging illiterate class, hooked onto their old television sets or to their Facebook-centred mobile personal televisions (i.e. smart phones), is good news for demagogues. Look at how Donald Trump has mastered the formula of television to turn it into his free-of-charge public relations machine. His capture of the spirit of television has helped him transform all threats into opportunities, garbage into gold, and waste into energy – like a perfect incineration plant.

Neil Postman perfectly explained why in his 1985 book. To him, the difference between 16th to 19th century public discourse in the US and now is that public opinion in the age of television is more a set of “emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us.” He sees the entertaining nature of television as only producing disinformation, which “does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”

The recent EU referendum coverage on UK televisions has been a good example. While sticking to the UK media regulations on impartiality, some still believe that the numerous debates where both sides had equal time to argue for their cases, had not done justice to a complex and sensitive topic such as Brexit. Particularly now that some initial claims by the pro-Leave camp, such as the diversion of a £350m “sent to the EU every week” on the UK’s public health-care system, are denied by the very people who pledged it. There were already much debunking of such distortions and disinformation available on the web and in print. But talking about numbers and maths is always boring and useless on television. (A persian saying goes as “a stupid throws a stone down a well, but a hundred wise people cannot take it out.”)

Justin Webb, a former North America editor at the BBC, went as far to blame the existing impartiality rules. Last week he wrote in Radio Times: “One of the clearest messages during the referendum campaign was that audiences were hungry for real knowledge. People wanted to go beyond claim and counter-claim so that they could work out what was true.” He suggested that “media needs to look again at how it covers politics and the way it holds people to account in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union”, according to The Guardian.

The twilight of word-centred journalism, either in print or on the web, means oversimplified, emotional political discourse, uninformed political participation, and of course, more demagogy around the world.

It’s hard to say whether it was first the public who demanded more videos, or was it the media that, scared by the prospect of ad-blocking technologies, rushed toward videos, which drew more audiences, generated more advertising cash, and proven harder to block. Nonetheless, we face the grave consequences of such shift for the future of our democracies.

It is clear that for a healthy, representative democracy we need more text than videos, at least to resist self-serving demagogues. This is not an American or a British problem, this is a threat to our civilization.

Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r) is an Iranian-Canadian author, freelance journalist and media analyst. He is the author of “The Web We Have to Save (Matter)” and the creator of “Link-age”, a collaborative art project to promote hyperlinks and open web.

A Note on Future of Internet

Web was basically an application built on top of the internet. It was free, because it depended on advertising.

Now the rise of ad blocking applications doesn’t only mean a change of revenue model is necessary, but it also hints at the end of the web and web browsers in general.

Paywalls as a solution take news websites a step closer toward mobile apps. And mobile apps are replacing the web.

When the transition is over, internet will mean apps, instead of sites. And many of these apps won’t be free to use, as it is the case now. So revenue models will have to change toward something like cable tv: When you pay for your high-speed internet connection , you will have to pay an extra monthly fee for subscription to a news package, entertainment package, education package, etc.

Soon ISPs (mobile or else) will partner with content-providers who have lost much of their advertising revenue. Some content-providers will become ISPs. Facebook for instance is testing waters already with its project, to become an ISP. It has already partnered with some big journalism outlets (Instant articles project) to bring in their content into its own system.

Soon we’ll be paying Facebook and other ISPs every month to have access to the internet as well as access to professionally-made content. This will be the main source of revenue for many newspapers and magazines.

Google has long dedicated most of its resources to web. Most of the money it generates come from text ads which is founded on hyperlink. But now that web, hyperlink, and ads are in demise, it will need to readjust to survive.

These were obviously some sketchy ideas. But I would love to further explore them.

Reactions to Matter essay

The response to this rather long essay was quite surprising to me, I have to say. And this shows many people are ready for new ideas and platforms in order to change the status quo.

But personally, I think the central thing here is the hyperlink. If there is going to be any attempt to save the open web, it has to involve the hyperlink.

Here is one idea: The hyperlink should not be seen and dealt with as a thing. Rather it must be treated as a relation, as it was the case pre-Facebook era. I don’t know exactly how to revitalize the hyperlink technically. But in my view, it is the heart of the problem.

Many have pointed out the irony of criticizing the social networks, while publishing on Medium. While I don’t think Medium is as bad as Facebook for the open web (mainly because of its treatment of hyperlinks), I originally pitched it to a few print magazines with an active website. But eventually, it was Matter that stood by the pitch and showed more interest. And I’m very thankful to Boobie Johnson and the rest of Matter team for that.

Some have also asked why I didn’t post it on my own blog: First, I haven’t restarted my English blog yet, and second, I wouldn’t be paid to write in my own blog.

One more thing to add: I had originally written a few paragraphs explaining the theory of hypertext and how this relates to the Web. I had quoted from George Landow’s brilliant book, Hypertext 3.0 (2006), quite a lot and had tried to historicize the concept of hyperlink. But the editor decided it would make the essay too pretentious and I agreed.

Lastly I have to thank all of you who took time to read this essay and share it and comment on it.

The Web We Have to Save

The rich, diverse, free web that I loved — and spent years in an Iranian jail for — is dying. Why is nobody stopping it?

By Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r), (Source: Matter)
Illustrations by Tim McDonagh

Seven months ago, I sat down at the small table in the kitchen of my 1960s apartment, nestled on the top floor of a building in a vibrant central neighbourhood of Tehran, and I did something I had done thousands of times previously. I opened my laptop and posted to my new blog. This, though, was the first time in six years. And it nearly broke my heart.

A few weeks earlier, I’d been abruptly pardoned and freed from Evin prison in northern Tehran. I had been expecting to spend most of my life in those cells: In November 2008, I’d been sentenced to nearly 20 years in jail, mostly for things I’d written on my blog.

But the moment, when it came, was unexpected. I smoked a cigarette in the kitchen with one of my fellow inmates, and came back to the room I shared with a dozen other men. We were sharing a cup of tea when the voice of the floor announcer — another prisoner — filled all the rooms and corridors. In his flat voice, he announced in Persian: “Dear fellow inmates, the bird of luck has once again sat on one fellow inmate’s shoulders. Mr. Hossein Derakhshan, as of this moment, you are free.”

That evening was the first time that I went out of those doors as a free man. Everything felt new: The chill autumn breeze, the traffic noise from a nearby bridge, the smell, the colors of the city I had lived in for most of my life.

Around me, I noticed a very different Tehran from the one I’d been used to. An influx of new, shamelessly luxurious condos had replaced the charming little houses I was familiar with. New roads, new highways, hordes of invasive SUVs. Large billboards with advertisements for Swiss-made watches and Korean flat screen TVs. Women in colorful scarves and manteaus, men with dyed hair and beards, and hundreds of charming cafes with hip western music and female staff. They were the kinds of changes that creep up on people; the kind you only really notice once normal life gets taken away from you.

Two weeks later, I began writing again. Some friends agreed to let me start a blog as part of their arts magazine. I called it Ketabkhan — it means book-reader in Persian.

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.

Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. Everybody I linked to would face a sudden and serious jump in traffic: I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted.

People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, and even many of those who strongly disagreed with me still came to read. Other blogs linked to mine to discuss what I was saying. I felt like a king.

The iPhone was a little over a year old by then, but smartphones were still mostly used to make phone calls and send short messages, handle emails, and surf the web. There were no real apps, certainly not how we think of them today. There was no Instagram, no SnapChat, no Viber, no WhatsApp.

Instead, there was the web, and on the web, there were blogs: the best place to find alternative thoughts, news and analysis. They were my life.

It had all started with 9/11. I was in Toronto, and my father had just arrived from Tehran for a visit. We were having breakfast when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I was puzzled and confused and, looking for insights and explanations, I came across blogs. Once I read a few, I thought: This is it, I should start one, and encourage all Iranians to start blogging as well. So, using Notepad on Windows, I started experimenting. Soon I ended up writing on, using Blogger’s publishing platform before Google bought it.

Then, on November 5, 2001, I published a step-to-step guide on how to start a blog. That sparked something that was later called a blogging revolution: Soon, hundreds and thousands of Iranians made it one of the top 5 nations by the number of blogs, and I was proud to have a role in this unprecedented democratization of writing.

Those days, I used to keep a list of all blogs in Persian and, for a while, I was the first person any new blogger in Iran would contact, so they could get on the list. That’s why they called me “the blogfather” in my mid-twenties — it was a silly nickname, but at least it hinted at how much I cared.

Every morning, from my small apartment in downtown Toronto, I opened my computer and took care of the new blogs, helping them gain exposure and audience. It was a diverse crowd — from exiled authors and journalists, female diarists, and technology experts, to local journalists, politicians, clerics, and war veterans — and I always encouraged even more. I invited more religious, and pro-Islamic Republic men and women, people who lived inside Iran, to join and start writing.

The breadth of what was available those days amazed us all. It was partly why I promoted blogging so seriously. I’d left Iran in late 2000 to experience living in the West, and was scared that I was missing all the rapidly emerging trends at home. But reading Iranian blogs in Toronto was the closest experience I could have to sitting in a shared taxi in Tehran and listening to collective conversations between the talkative driver and random passengers.

There’s a story in the Quran that I thought about a lot during my first eight months in solitary confinement. In it, a group of persecuted Christians find refuge in a cave. They, and a dog they have with them, fall into a deep sleep. They wake up under the impression that they’ve taken a nap: In fact, it’s 300 years later. One version of the story tells of how one of them goes out to buy food — and I can only imagine how hungry they must’ve been after 300 years — and discovers that his money is obsolete now, a museum item. That’s when he realizes how long they have actually been absent.

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of the hypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web — a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.

Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. They were Tehran’s taxicabs writ large.

Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.

Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object — the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing it as a way to make that text richer. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting: Adding several links to a piece of text is usually not allowed. Hyperlinks are objectivized, isolated, stripped of their powers.

At the same time, these social networks tend to treat native text and pictures — things that are directly posted to them — with a lot more respect than those that reside on outside web pages. One photographer friend explained to me how the images he uploads directly to Facebook receive a large number of likes, which in turn means they appear more on other people’s news feeds. On the other hand, when he posts a link to the same picture somewhere outside Facebook — his now-dusty blog, for instance — the images are much less visible to Facebook itself, and therefore get far fewer likes. The cycle reinforces itself.

Some networks, like Twitter, treat hyperlinks a little better. Others, insecure social services, are far more paranoid. Instagram — owned by Facebook — doesn’t allow its audiences to leave whatsoever. You can put up a web address alongside your photos, but it won’t go anywhere. Lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul de sacs of social media, and their journeys end there. Many don’t even realize that they’re using the Internet’s infrastructure when they like an Instagram photograph or leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook video. It’s just an app.

But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: They are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage — and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.

More or less, all theorists have thought of gaze in relation to power, and mostly in a negative sense: the gazer strips the gazed and turns her into a powerless object, devoid of intelligence or agency. But in the world of webpages, gaze functions differently: It is more empowering. When a powerful website — say Google or Facebook — gazes at, or links to, another webpage, it doesn’t just connect it — it brings it into existence; gives it life. Metaphorically, without this empowering gaze, your web page doesn’t breathe. No matter how many links you have placed in a webpage, unless somebody is looking at it, it is actually both dead and blind; and therefore incapable of transferring power to any outside web page.

On the other hand, the most powerful web pages are those that have many eyes upon them. Just like celebrities who draw a kind of power from the millions of human eyes gazing at them any given time, web pages can capture and distribute their power through hyperlinks.

But apps like Instagram are blind — or almost blind. Their gaze goes nowhere except inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside social media are dying.

Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Its biggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: novelty and popularity, reflected by the real world dominance of young celebrities. That philosophy is the Stream.

The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex –and secretive — algorithms.

The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites.

But are we missing something here? What are we exchanging for efficiency?

In many apps, the votes we cast — the likes, the plusses, the stars, the hearts — are actually more related to cute avatars and celebrity status than to the substance of what’s posted. A most brilliant paragraph by some ordinary-looking person can be left outside the Stream, while the silly ramblings of a celebrity gain instant Internet presence.

And not only do the algorithms behind the Stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we’ve already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see.

Popularity is not wrong in and of itself, but it has its own perils. In a free-market economy, low-quality goods with the wrong prices are doomed to failure. Nobody gets upset when a quiet Brooklyn cafe with bad lattes and rude servers goes out of business. But opinions are not the same as material goods or services. They won’t disappear if they are unpopular or even bad. In fact, history has proven that most big ideas (and many bad ones) have been quite unpopular for a long time, and their marginal status has only strengthened them. Minority views are radicalized when they can’t be expressed and recognized.

Today the Stream is digital media’s dominant form of organizing information. It’s in every social network and mobile application. Since I gained my freedom, everywhere I turn I see the Stream. I guess it won’t be too long before we see news websites organize their entire content based on the same principles. The prominence of the Stream today doesn’t just make vast chunks of the Internet biased against quality — it also means a deep betrayal to the diversity that the world wide web had originally envisioned.

There’s no question to me that the diversity of themes and opinions is less online today than it was in the past. New, different, and challenging ideas get suppressed by today’s social networks because their ranking strategies prioritize the popular and habitual. (No wonder why Apple is hiring human editors for its news app.) But diversity is being reduced in other ways, and for other purposes.

Some of it is visual. Yes, it is true that all my posts on Twitter and Facebook look something similar to a personal blog: They are collected in reverse-chronological order, on a specific webpage, with direct web addresses to each post. But I have very little control over how it looks like; I can’t personalize it much. My page must follow a uniform look which the designers of the social network decide for me.

The centralization of information also worries me because it makes it easier for things to disappear. After my arrest, my hosting service closed my account, because I wasn’t able to pay its monthly fee. But at least I had a backup of all my posts in a database on my own web server. (Most blogging platforms used to enable you to transfer your posts and archives to your own web space, whereas now most platforms don’t let you so.) Even if I didn’t, the Internet archive might keep a copy. But what if my account on Facebook or Twitter is shut down for any reason? Those services themselves may not die any time soon, but it would be not too difficult to imagine a day many American services shut down accounts of anyone who is from Iran, as a result of the current regime of sanctions. If that happened, I might be able to download my posts in some of them, and let’s assume the backup can be easily imported into another platform. But what about the unique web address for my social network profile? Would I be able to claim it back later, after somebody else has possessed it? Domain names switch hands, too, but managing the process is easier and more clear— especially since there is a financial relationship between you and the seller which makes it less prone to sudden and untransparent decisions.

But the scariest outcome of the centralization of information in the age of social networks is something else: It is making us all much less powerful in relation to governments and corporations.

Surveillance is increasingly imposed on civilized lives, and it just gets worse as time goes by. The only way to stay outside of this vast apparatus of surveillance might be to go into a cave and sleep, even if you can’t make it 300 years.

Being watched is something we all eventually have to get used to and live with and, sadly, it has nothing to do with the country of our residence. Ironically enough, states that cooperate with Facebook and Twitter know much more about their citizens than those, like Iran, where the state has a tight grip on the Internet but does not have legal access to social media companies.

What is more frightening than being merely watched, though, is being controlled. When Facebook can know us better than our parents with only 150 likes, and better than our spouses with 300 likes, the world appears quite predictable, both for governments and for businesses. And predictability means control.

Middle-class Iranians, like most people in the world, are obsessed with new trends. Utility or quality of things usually comes second to their trendiness. In early 2000s writing blogs made you cool and trendy, then around 2008 Facebook came in and then Twitter. Since 2014 the hype is all about Instagram, and no one knows what is next. But the more I think about these changes, the more I realize that even all my concerns might have been misdirected. Perhaps I am worried about the wrong thing. Maybe it’s not the death of the hyperlink, or the centralization, exactly.

Maybe it’s that text itself is disappearing. After all, the first visitors to the web spent their time online reading web magazines. Then came blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter. Now it’s Facebook videos and Instagram and SnapChat that most people spend their time on. There’s less and less text to read on social networks, and more and more video to watch, more and more images to look at. Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favor of watching and listening?

Is this trend driven by people’s changing cultural habits, or is it that people are following the new laws of social networking? I don’t know — that’s for researchers to find out — but it feels like it’s reviving old cultural wars. After all, the web started out by imitating books and for many years, it was heavily dominated by text, by hypertext. Search engines put huge value on these things, and entire companies — entire monopolies — were built off the back of them. But as the number of image scanners and digital photos and video cameras grows exponentially, this seems to be changing. Search tools are starting to add advanced image recognition algorithms; advertising money is flowing there.

But the Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies.

The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.

When I log on to Facebook, my personal television starts. All I need to do is to scroll: New profile pictures by friends, short bits of opinion on current affairs, links to new stories with short captions, advertising, and of course self-playing videos. I occasionally click on like or share button, read peoples’ comments or leave one, or open an article. But I remain inside Facebook, and it continues to broadcast what I might like. This is not the web I knew when I went to jail. This is not the future of the web. This future is television.

Sometimes I think maybe I’m becoming too strict as I age. Maybe this is all a natural evolution of a technology. But I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: A loss of intellectual power and diversity, and on the great potentials it could have for our troubled time. In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment. So much that even Iran doesn’t take some — Instagram, for instance — serious enough to block.

I miss when people took time to be exposed to different opinions, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters. I miss the days when I could write something on my own blog, publish on my own domain, without taking an equal time to promote it on numerous social networks; when nobody cared about likes and reshares.

That’s the web I remember before jail. That’s the web we have to save.