Monday, November 28, 2005

Reading :: Expanding the Scope of Localization

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Nov 2005 19:50:26

Expanding the Scope of Localization: A Cultural Usability Perspective on Mobile Text Messaging Use in American and Chinese Contexts

by Huatong Sun

Huatong Sun's dissertation won the 2005 CCCC Outstanding Dissertation Award in Technical Communication. It's easy to see why. This dissertation examines a spreading form of textual communication ? text messaging on mobile phones ? and uses it to provide considerable insight into usability and localization. In fact, this is exactly the sort of work I'd like to see more frequently in computers and writing studies: careful, systematic, empirical work that examines new forms of textuality, develops systematic ways to understand and study it, and unfolds its implications for written communication. And what new textuality is more widespread and more suddenly used than SMS? By breaking away from the big screen and the hoary textualities that are the staple of computers and writing studies ? MOOs, MUDs, online chats used in classrooms ? Sun demonstrates how to make computers and writing studies newly relevant, applicable, and ? dare I say it? ? useful.

Using a combination of activity theory, genre theory, and British cultural studies, Sun examines texting in China and in upper New York state, and of course finds cultural differences. But she also finds similarities. One striking similarity is that text messaging is so difficult. In Chinese and in English, each character often takes more than one press on the phone's keyboard (although, as she points out, there are some ways such as predictive typing that can lessen that burden). Texting is far more difficult than it needs to be. Yet texting has taken off at an incredible rate due to its advantages and the degree to which people can customize it. So we find that the Chinese tend to perceive and write text messages as a form of ci, a classic poetic genre "used for expressing feelings of the common people and portraying mundane life details" (p.164), while U.S. users tend to use text messages to perform small talk. And particularly in her case studies of U.S. users, Sun investigates how text messaging interacts with other communication technologies such as IM and voice; one couple, for instance, texted each other until peak hours were over and they could talk more cheaply (p.182). "Affordances of each technology are used here to arrange a stronger rhetoric," Sun argues, then proves it (p.183).

Just a note: Sun is one of a string of smart, innovative graduate students that Bill Hart-Davidson mentored during his stay at Rensselaer. I'm envious of Bill's obvious talents as a dissertation director, and I continue to be impressed with his students' work, especially Sun's.

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