Attending to attention: How do people attract, manage, and negotiate attention using mobile devices?

Jeremy Birnholtz*, Jordan Davison, Ang Li

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


In today’s always-connected world people have an ever-increasing array of ways to stay in touch, often selecting among multiple media that allow for different degrees of attention (e.g., phone calls vs. texting) and may vary in convenience for their interaction partner. In this environment, people must manage their attention to each other. Recent work suggests attention management can be considered as a dyadic negotiation process in which people are continually acting to display their own focus of attention and gather information about others’ focus of attention, and may seek to increase or decrease the current level of attention from their partner. To explore attention management and negotiation on mobile devices, we built a custom application to track people’s SMS and phone call activity. Drawing on log and transcript data, we use qualitative and quantitative methods to explore the details of attention management behavior within specific relationships for a few participants, and then used hierarchical clustering to identify different patterns of attention management in relationships of varying tie strength. Results suggest that attention is managed both implicitly and explicitly, with explicit negotiation more likely when there are conflicts. There are also substantial differences in interaction patterns by tie strength, with phone calls and shorter text response times more common for weaker ties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)256-274
Number of pages19
JournalMobile Media and Communication
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2017


  • attention
  • channel switching
  • conversation
  • negotiation
  • texting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Media Technology
  • Computer Networks and Communications


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