When Phones Come Out Long Before the Turkey

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ATLANTA -- Caleb J. Spivak will be busier with his phone than his fork this Thanksgiving.

Mr. Spivak, 23, is spending the holiday with his boyfriend's family in Kennesaw, Ga. His mother will be in Virginia with his grandmother. His sister will be in Ohio, his father and brother in Florida. And his friends will be all over the country.

So he'll post photographs of dinner to show his tight inner circle on Facebook, send out more general Thanksgiving cheer to his 11,000 Twitter followers and post images of the prettiest dishes to Instagram.

To stay close to his mother, he will use the videoconferencing feature on his phone to talk to her as he sits down to eat.

Multiply Mr. Spivak's social media activity by that of the millions of others who will be using the platforms to record their Thanksgivings, and this year's holiday could be the most documented in history.

"This year, more than ever before, we will see how we get along as a national family," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project in Washington. All of the strengths and weaknesses of the American family will be on full display, he said.

Not long ago, pulling out a phone to send a photograph of Thanksgiving dinner or a text about the proceedings was considered rude, a violation of the "eat it, don't tweet it" rule.

But almost 40 percent of the 234 million Americans over the age of 13 with a mobile phone now use a social network, according to the analyst group comScore, and the numbers are growing fast. Instagram, the darling of people who love to share pictures of what they're eating, has more than doubled its members to more than 100 million in less than a year, according to Facebook, the company that bought Instagram this spring. Facebook says Thanksgiving is one of its busiest days of the year.

At Twitter, as the holiday approached, the words "turkey," "Thanksgiving" and "thankful" have been appearing in those 140-word posts more and more each year. In 2011, use of "thankful" alone was up 263 percent on the network from 2010, and more than a thousandfold from a non-holiday, the company said.

"People are sharing on such a scale for common experiences like Thanksgiving," said Mor Naaman, a professor at Rutgers University and the founder of Mahaya, a social media start-up. "The potential is just mind-blowing."

Mr. Naaman, along with others who research humanities, social sciences and media trends, says the development of such a vast pool of documentation has staggering possibilities for understanding American culture -- at least once they figure out how to harness and make sense of it.

"There is a lot of information that will be available and ready to mine like never before," he said. "When do the family arguments start? How many people watch the football games? How much do people drink?"

The desire to share a common experience will bring out Sarah Han's phone with regularity as she and her boyfriend prepare dinner for her extended family in their new house in Oakland, Calif.

Her mother used to take pictures constantly, many of which ended up in a photo album. Sending images of her meal to her followers through Instagram isn't any different, she says, except that no one has to paste photographs into a book.

And instant photo-sharing creates something a traditional collection of snapshots cannot.

"It is kind of cool when you are on Instagram, and you see a common thread throughout an event," said Ms. Han, 34, who works as a producer for The Bold Italic, an online magazine in San Francisco.

She cited a double rainbow that recently arced across the city's skyline.

"Literally within five minutes, everyone's photos were of a double rainbow," she said. "The same thing will happen this Thanksgiving. You'll see everyone's table setting and turkey and see how everyone does it differently."

Of course, not everyone is thrilled that Thanksgiving is becoming something to document constantly and share obsessively. The argument is as old as the mobile phone: by trying to stay connected, we end up being less connected.

"The problem is when the cellphones come out, people will take a picture, but then they'll check Facebook and check e-mail, and it becomes an obsession that distracts everyone," said Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, a pediatrician who writes often about the effects of technology on family life.

Once, people took a photograph and had the patience to get it developed, reliving the moment well after it was over.

"So document the moment, and then worry about passing it around later," she said. "You don't need these instant updates of, 'Oh, look, Grandma's eating cranberries.' "

Sharing that shot of your partner trying to carve the turkey means an instant connection for families celebrating apart.

Most of Rebecca Palsha's family doesn't live in Anchorage, where she is a television reporter. She will use social media to keep them close as she and her husband, another journalist, prepare dinner for 10 this year.

Still, she realizes there comes a point where the moment might be better simply experienced.

"At some point, you have to put your phone away," she said. "You have to realize when it's time to talk to people here instead of people who aren't with you."

Mr. Spivak, a social media manager for Atlantic Station, a planned urban community in Atlanta, disagrees.

"It's not that you're missing out on real life," he said. "Maybe now this is what's becoming real life."

Robbie Brown contributed reporting.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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