Abstract - The Information Society 26(4)

The ‘Crisis of the Summons’: A Transformation in the Pragmatics of ‘Notifications’, from Phone Rings to Instant Messaging

Christian Licoppe

This paper analyzes a class of interactional devices which share the property of being ‘designed-to-occur’ (e.g. alerts, alarms, warnings, calls, summons, etc.), and which can be more generally categorized as ‘notifications’. This class of devices is directly related to interruptions and to attention management issues, and is crucial to the unfolding of communication events. In a review of the last thirty years of HCI research on this topic, the paper highlights the transformation of the meaning of interruptions and notification devices. Initially perceived as disruptions in the accomplishment of tasks, interruptions have gradually acquired a positive value as the ‘notification’ devices are meant to be subtler and to embed some degree of ‘intelligence’ of the recipient’s context. The paper provides two empirical case studies on the uses of mobile musical ringtone and of instant messaging in organizations, which show the kind of work that users actually do to pattern their environments with an orientation towards shaping in advance the way in which they might be interrupted and notified. Concerned with how they might be notified, the users are becoming more skilled and turning into ‘pragmatic amateurs’, less inclined to accept the imposition of a summons (which also testify to a kind of ‘crisis of the summons’), and with a keener sense for appreciating the working and pragmatic consequences of a given type of notification.

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