I'd been thinking about it for awhile, but after I missed one more damn job interview, I knew the time had come. I had to suck it up and buy a cellphone.
I've never been an early adopter, but that had nothing to do with my reluctance to join the mobile class. Despite their apparent utility, I've always thought of cellphones as an unnecessary lifestyle accessory.
My biggest problem was the tackiness of interrupting everyday social engagements for any random call. When I'm out for a beer with my friends, the last thing I want to hear is 50 Cent's ring going off. What, is my company not good enough for you? Is there somewhere more pressing you have to be? It's become the technological equivalent of rubbernecking at a cocktail party.
Yet this disdain never stopped me from using other people's cells, hijacking their precious minutes for my own purposes. Anytime I had one in my hands it was no longer annoying. Suddenly it was a sophisticated networking activity: "Yeah, man, let's meet up wherever you are!"
Of course, I knew nothing about the world of mobility. My first choice was Bell's walk-in centre at Yonge and Bloor. I was impressed by the gadgets: the e-mail, the digital video, the back massager. How do you choose?
I picked the one whose price tag said zero, but then the clerk introduced me to a dizzying array of minutes, schedules, plans, options and, most important, the fact that the phone is only free when you sign up for a three-year plan. Slowly, I backed out of the store. This would be The Catch.
You've heard about The Catch, the ubiquitous marketing campaign by Virgin Mobile that equates cellular carriers' hidden fine print with STDs. Virgin's phones can be ordered online or picked up at fine establishments like the local 7-Eleven. I went to HMV and bought the package there, and it really did appear to be a case of "what you see is what you get." Activate it and away you go. Buy more minutes when you run out. Simple, right?
But there was something distinctly odd about the aesthetic experience of Virgin Mobile. I thought it was just a slightly hipper-than-thou, hyper-branded company run by a crazy British billionaire. But in buying the phone I'd become entangled in a highly calculated marketing matrix, one not meant for me.
Let me give you the picture. My brother's phone from Rogers came with an AC car adapter. Mine came with stickers.
Then there was The Voice. If you're a Bell user, you're familiar with Emily, the spirit of Bell's operating system. During set-up, my new phone introduced itself as Tyler. Tyler speaks with the extreme attitude usually saved for nacho chip commercials. Once, when I checked my messages, Tyler told me, "You have no new messages." Pause. "Not a single message."
There's something deeply ironic about Virgin appropriating the name of Fight Club's anti-consumerist anti-hero for its automaton. Virgin Mobile is all about consuming. One stray push of your thumb on the big direction pad and you're whisked away to the network, which offers not just tones and background pictures but also instant horoscopes, celeb gossip, even dating advice. All for a price.
Ring tones alone are huge business; an estimated $2 million-worth sold in Canada last year. In the UK, a tone called CrazyFrog was the number-one hit single for a week. Virgin Canada even introduced its own top-10 chart of the most popular downloads. "The standard preloaded ring is dead," says Nathan Rosenberg, the company's chief marketing officer, in typically low-key fashion. "Ring tones are your badge that displays your character or mood."
The cumulative effect of this cool-trigger marketing is alienating and, frankly, a little embarrassing, especially when I realize I've bought into a culture that has no interest in me at all. I'm glad I don't have to keep up with these crucial cultural signifiers.
Too bad for Virgin's teen clients, who by buying into downloading's illusion of choice are actually committing themselves to a lifestyle of trends and keep-up. That, by the way, is really The Catch.
It's liberating to be out of the demographic. I know I won't be tempted to drop more coin, and my own anxieties about owning a phone seem less absurd since everyone from grade-schoolers to grandparents uses them for everyday boring purposes all the time.
I still don't know what a Hollaback Girl is, but I know it's a hot download. Every time I get that buzz in my pocket, I'll know who the big shot is. Which will happen.
Any moment now.