If Romeo and Juliet had mobile phones

By Wellman and Rainie

One of the most inspired writing ideas that we embraced in Networked came from Lee’s boss, Andrew Kohut, CEO of the Pew Research Center. Kohut’s notion was that a fun and powerful way to remind people how much the world had changed since the arrival of mobile phones would be to use popular culture references to life before mobile connectivity had become a widespread consumer reality.

At the time he suggested this idea, Kohut had just watched a rerun of the 1970 movie, The Out of Towners,  a Neil Simon farce starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis as suburbanites who run into a series of problems in New York City when they try to have a getaway weekend. Unable to get to a landline phone, the couple cannot: hold their hotel room reservation and the room is given to someone else; call ahead and reschedule Lemmon’s crucial job interview when they run into trouble; check on a con artist’s false story; summon help or seek follow-up assistance when they are mugged twice, kidnapped, and abandoned in Central Park; or let their children know where they are.

We took the idea and expanded it in Chapter 4 of our book to include several more examples. Barry adapted the notion to the plot of Romeo and Juliet and has now amplified it even more in a new article for the important, new journal, Mobile Media & Communication, and our friend, Rich Ling. He and his many insights about the mobile age are featured throughout our book.

With the journal’s permission, we run the article below:

If Romeo and Juliet Had Had Mobile Phones

Remember Juliet’s cry in the balcony scene, “Romeo, O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” (II, 2, 33). It’s the precursor of networked individualism as Juliet wonders why Romeo, a Montague, is  moving beyond group boundaries to woo her, a Capulet.*

Modern readers might understand Juliet’s cry as “where are you?” Both meanings suggest how the Triple Revolution—the turn to social networks, the pervasive internet, and the always accessible mobile phone—have changed the ways in which we connect with each other. Nowadays, Juliet would routinely text or call Romeo via their mobile phones: “what are your feelings about me?, can you get away from your family?, and when will you be coming?” It’s not like the days when people called each other on their wired-in (“landline”) phone at home or work—they knew exactly where those people were and had a pretty good idea of the social and physical context in which they were operating.

In our Networked book (Rainie & Wellman, 2012), we have thought about how the pervasive adoption of mobile phones—and more recently tablets and highly portable laptop computers—has affected our lives. Among other things, the Mobile Revolution has promoted networked individualism—connectivity that is not bound up in solidary groups—and connectivity that paradoxically provides both location awareness (“where are you?”) and facilitates communication without regard to location—I can connect with you wherever you are.  Although our focus has been on the United States and Canada, we think our findings hold true for much of the developed world and increasingly large segments of the less-developed world. We argue that mobile phones have revolutionary social affordances: technologies that provide possibilities and constraints for our lives.

You Can Take It With You

The most obvious affordance is that mobile phones are mobile. In the early days, that meant 35-kilogram phones were so heavy that they had to be mounted in cars. Yet, even one of those would have helped Brad and Janet in the Rocky Horror Picture Show escape from the aliens when their car got stranded (O’Brien and Sharman, 1975). Of course, phones have slimmed down: at first to 1 kilogram, unreliable, analogue bricks that required holsters or bulging purses, and now to small, sleek easily-pocketable digital units weighing only 140 grams—a decrease of 99% from the original car phones. They would have easily fit into bodices and codpieces. Indeed, Leopoldina Fortunati (2003), Romeo and Juliet’s Verona neighbor, notes that the mobile phone is now our third skin. The number of U.S. mobile subscriptions has grown from 340,000 in 1985 to more than 302 million in 2011, comprising 83% of the adult population and 75% of teenagers (Rainie and Wellman, 2012).

While the internet made communication personal and less constrained by distance, it has been bound to physical locations, be it the house, office, or a WiFi-equipped coffee shop. Having their own mobile phones—along with tablets and light notebooks—would have allowed Romeo and Juliet to move around, liberated from locale and parental surveillance. They would have been less worried about their families when they were figuring out where to meet. At the same time, their parents would have felt reassured because they could call their children and ask where they were and what they were doing. But, would Romeo and Juliet have told the truth? A location-aware app would also have been useful for parents in tracking them. Or they might have prowled friends’ Facebook updates or photo albums for clues.

One Phone to Rule Them All

Today, Romeo and Juliet could connect with each other because mobility means accessibility and availability. They’d be on each other’s top-five speed dial. And they would probably have had a location-aware app that that showed exactly where each other were: no wandering the streets of Verona looking for each other. Rather than using separate phones at home and at work—not to mention payphones at gas stations and on the street, people carry one phone that integrates all of their roles. Mobile phones have become versatile accessories that are always at hand with many thousands of apps to communicate, identify bird songs, and locate secret trysting spots: “tryst.com” actually exists. Indeed, many young adults sleep with their mobiles near them, either on their beds or on their night tables: “I don’t want to miss a text; it’s my alarm clock”. If Romeo or Juliet had a voice-recognition app such as Siri, it might have echoed Ruth’s words to Naomi (1:16): “Whither thou goest, I will go”.

For a while, the constant availability of mobile users meant that they annoyed others with ringing phones in public. In 1992, co-author Wellman was shocked when a Hong Kong concert audience was asked to turn off its mobile phones: he hadn’t thought about such issues back then. By 2003, he sympathized when concert pianist Andrea Schiff stormed off the stage in Rome after a mobile phone rang twice in the audience. Nowadays, accessibility has become more silent. As phones increasingly vibrate rather than ring, people exchange text messages rather than talk.  The percentage of texters in the adult population has nearly doubled from 31% in spring 2006 to 59% in spring 2011 (Rainie and Wellman, 2012). Public spaces have become more silent, as people concentrate on their text messages, while downwardly-peering texters have limited eye contact.

Constant availability can be annoying in other ways. People can be contacted by unwanted others. Imagine Romeo making plans to meet Juliet in the park, but his father calls to say that he has to come home immediately. At least, the mobile connection would have allowed Romeo to alert Juliet to his role conflict and possible absence. Or they might suffer social overload as they feel normative pressure to remain connected when they’d prefer not to be: if Juliet kept insecurely texting Romeo, she might have driven  away.

The Personalization of Communication

Romeo and Juliet’s exchanges would have been personal, a revolutionary change from landline telephone communication that came into the entire household. As long as they talked or texted in private, neither the Montagues nor the Capulets would know – unless, of course, they snuck peeks at the list of previous calls and texts on the phones. Instead of a phone ringing in a home—where all would hear it and possibly become part of the conversation—internet communication and mobile communication are usually exchanges between two individuals. Juliet could ask  privately “wherefore art though?” about Romeo’s state of mind as well as his location.

By contrast, in the not-so-olden days, when someone called the household, all family members could gather around the speakerphone or pick up extensions around the house. But the increasing absence of home landline phones means that when modern Juliets call home they reach only the one family member whose mobile phone they are calling. Thus, the absence of landlines hinders conversations with the entire household.

This dance of the personal and the household happens in real life, as many teens will tell you. For example, some Arab Israeli young men give mobile phones to the women they are dating. But they control the bill. “Use the phone only in your own room, and put it on silent vibrate when I call at 10PM. And don’t call anyone else, because I can see it when I get the bill” (Hijazi-Omari & Ribak, 2008).

The Networked Family

The shift from household phones to personal mobile phones is part of the shift away from solidary families to networked families (Kennedy & Wellman, 2007; Rainie, Wellman & Kennedy, 2012). Homes were refuges for Romeo and Juliet—and their families. There were strong boundaries between households and the public, problematic streets. As late as the 1960s, mothers would stay home while fathers would go off to work.

Homes now have permeable boundaries. Mom as well as Dad usually goes off to work, and each family member has a separate agenda. There is more need to use their mobile phones to communicate and coordinate the mundane aspects of life: who will pick up the kids from soccer practice? If they cannot get their employers’ permission to phone or text each other at work, they’ll use their lunch and bathroom breaks.

Mobile contact has become multigenerational, as teens—and even children—are increasingly getting their own mobile phones. This affords people of all ages opportunities to become more autonomous agents. Many parents lend their young children mobile phones or tablets to use as pacifiers. In this way, children learn digital skills before they go to school, playing Angry Birds or Angelina Ballerina. The big step is personal possession.  In 2009, most Canadian children had their own mobile phones by the age of 13; it undoubtedly is lower now (Wellman, Garofalo and Garofalo 2009). As they grew up, Romeo and Juliet had gotten past their childhoods of being household and neighborhood bound.  They made contact by encounters in public places. Teens still do that—the shopping mall is the new agora—but their mobile phones also afford continuous contact with their homes and distant friends.

Networked Individuals Interconnect Mobile, Internet and In-Person

Some pundits fear that mobile users rarely look up to engage with each other in person (Turkle, 2011). If they are right, Romeo and Juliet might never look up from their mobile phones to see each other. Or, would the course of true love have led them away from their screens and into each other’s arms?

Yet, such fears are not based on systematic evidence. Instead, a variety of research shows that mobile phones—and the internet, for that matter—are integrated into people’s face-to-face interactions (Hampton, et al., 2009; Wang and Wellman, 2010; Rainie, et al., 2006, Rainie and Wellman, 2012).

It is not as if there are few separate realms of online and in-person contact. Rather, we are networked individuals, and our personal networks integrate the internet, phones, and in-person encounters. People intertwine mobile, internet, and in-person contact into a seamless whole.

For example, Rhonda McEwen’s study of how university students use mobile phones nicely shows the intricate dance that the internet, mobile phones, and in-person contact make. Students first set up get-togethers on the internet. Then, as they get close to the time and place of meeting, they phone or text each other: “I’m a little late”. “Which corner are you standing at?” The get togethers are, of course, in person, but afterwards there are almost immediate follow-up calls and texts: what the French call “L’esprit de l’escalier”—the “spirit of the staircase” when afterthoughts come to mind. If it was a group gathering, emails and Facebook posts provide collective reinforcement (McEwen & Fritz, 2010).

From Group to Network

The story of Romeo and Juliet is the story of two individuals escaping the bounds of their densely knit groups. It is a story of the social network revolution that began well before Facebook: the move from group-bound societies to networked individuals. This turn to networked individualism transforms communication from being place-based to person-based.

Mobile phones have played a key role in the developed world’s transformation from group-bound societies to networked societies in which people move among sparsely knit networks of diverse others. Consider the mutually-exclusive groups of Montagues and Capulets. Nowadays, people have partial memberships in multiple clusters of ties (Castells, 2000; Rainie and Wellman, 2012). And when trouble develops, they use their mobile phones to call for help from whatever networks seem most appropriate. Smart networked mobs form through viral word-of-mouth communication by mobile phone and the internet, as well as via traditional in-person contact (Lane, 2011; Rheingold, 2000).

Thus, in little more than a decade, mobile phones have become the concrete instantiation of the turn away from groups to networked individualism. Romeo and Juliet would have used them—and loved them almost as much as they loved each other. With their mobile phones, the course of their true love would have been more connected—and perhaps would have run more smoothly. If only Romeo and Juliet had had mobile phones, they might have lived happily ever after.

* We made a modernist mistake in the first version of this article. Shakespeare’s “Wherefore” does not translate as “Where.” It means “Why.” Juliet’s cry is not to know where her lover is. Her cry is one of the heart. “Why do you come from the enemy clan?” We are indebted to correspondent Adam Babcock for pointing this out – and doing so pretty gently.


Castells, M. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fortunati, L. 2003. “Front stage/back stage: mobile communication and the renegotiation of the social sphere.” Pp. 1-16 in Mediating the Human Body: Technology, Communication, and Fashion, edited by L. Fortunati, J. Katz and R. Riccini. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hampton, K.N., L.F. Sessions, E.J. Her, and L. Rainie. 2009. Social Isolation and New Technology. Pew Internet & American Life Project: Washington. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/18–Social-Isolation-and-New-Technology.aspx.

Hijazi-Omari, H. and Ribak, R. 2008. Playing with fire: on the domestication of the mobile phone among Palestinian teenage girls in Israel. Information, Communication and Society, 11(2), 149-66.

Kennedy, T. and Wellman, B. 2007. The networked household.” Information, Communication and Society 10 (5), 647-70.

Lane, J. 2011. “‘Twitter is maaade for trouble’: Violence and status on the digital street.” Center for Information Technology Policy, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, April.

McEwen, R. & Fritz, M. 2011. “EMF social policy and youth mobile phone practices in Canada.” Pp. 133-156 in Mobile Communication, edited by J. Katz. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction.

O’Brien, R. and Shanahan, J. 1975. Rocky Horror Picture Show. Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox.

Rainie, L., Horrigan, J., Wellman, B. and Boase. J. 2006. “The strength of internet ties.” Pew Internet & American Life Project: Washington. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2006/The-Strength-of-Internet-Ties.aspx

Rainie, L. and Wellman, B. 2012. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rainie, L. Wellman, B. , and Kennedy, T. “Networked Families.” Chapter 6 in Rainie, L. and Wellman, B. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rheingold, H. 2003. Smart Mobs. New York: Basic Books.

Shakespeare, W. 1597. Romeo and Juliet.

Turkle, S. 2011. Alone Together. New York: Basic Books

Wang, H. and Wellman, B. 2010. “Social connectivity in America: changes in adult friendship network size from 2002 to 2007.” American Behavioral Scientist 53 (8): 1148-1169.

Wellman, B., Garofalo, A.  and Garofalo, V. 2009. “The Internet, Technology and Connectedness.” Transition 39, 4 (December): 5-7

3 thoughts on “If Romeo and Juliet had mobile phones

  1. I love this piece. I think it’s great as a mentor text that my students can use to study compare-contrast.

    However, it has a glaring error: “wherefore” does not translate to “where” in contemporary English…. it translates to “why”.


    • Hi Adam – the authors can speak for themselves, but they said “It’s the precursor of networked individualism as Juliet wonders why…”

      Almost everyone I know who wasn’t specifically schooled on that play does think it means “Where are you,” which they then note: “Modern readers might understand Juliet’s cry as ‘where are you?’”

      And then this – a nice little coup: “Both meanings suggest how the Triple Revolution—the turn to social networks, the pervasive internet, and the always accessible mobile phone—have changed the ways in which we connect with each other.” (emphasis added)

      If anything I might have suggested they add “might mistakenly understand.” But I think they did get right, except perhaps for being blunt about that. 🙂

      (A fun discussion of this is starting in the comments on Susannah Fox’s post yesterday – my comment hasn’t been published yet. This subject could become an attractive, intriguing time sink..)

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