The Phone Is a Public Space

November 21, 2015   •   By Niina Pollari

FOR TWO WEEKS in the spring of 2015, I distributed across the internet a phone number where I could be reached by anyone. It was the number to an old flip phone with a zero-megapixel camera — a secondary phone specific to this project. I bought it on Amazon, unboxed it in Philadelphia, and activated it in a McDonald’s somewhere outside of Baltimore. Without giving any guidelines or constraints about how to talk to me, I shared the number publicly on my Twitter over the next 12 days. I also gave it out at each of the readings I did, 13 in total, to audiences in nine different cities. 

This isn’t one of those “What Happened When I Exposed Something About Myself” essays. Nothing dramatic happened: strangers called or texted. They were polite and pleasant, if at times a little awkward. The project went about as I’d expected: over the course of a two-week book tour, I conducted one-on-one correspondence with people who didn’t identify themselves. The conversations were sometimes superficial, sometimes intimate, and rarely creepy. But during the half-life of the project, I began to notice something fundamental about the intersections of communication, and the creation of a public persona. These intersections began to affect me in ways I didn’t anticipate — specifically, the ways in which I communicate with people I do know: my family, my loved ones, my friends.


This subject is not a new one for me. I often write about the ways in which people talk to each other, especially using phones. (I once wrote a poem called “I Love My Phone,” and joke about it being the truest thing I ever wrote.) A phone — particularly a cell phone — is a social, public hub, but it also feels like an intimate object: it’s unquestionably your own, and customizable ad infinitum to reflect each of your relationships. (Take a picture of your lover and watch his image appear when he calls or texts, or set a song to his particular ringtone.) It becomes physically warm after you talk on it, heating up next to your ear. (Is it coincidence that burning ears are both a symbol of embarrassment and a signal for when people are talking about you?) Losing your phone is just as traumatic as losing your wallet or your purse: you lose whatever you saved on it — everything gross, dark, sexy, and mundane. Everything yours. 

Recently I did a search for “smartphone addiction.” The results asked me to examine my morning activities: what do I do first when I wake up? If I reach for my phone, that’s a “serious problem,” the article tells me — especially if it’s in my hand before I get out of bed. But I love diving into a longread before getting dressed or even sitting up. I tell myself this is fine because I’m reading.  

During the day, I have my phone on my person whenever possible. I touch it a lot, sometimes absently, sometimes as a tic. (Like many people, I have a Pavlovian response to the moment when a phone summons me.) It flashes different colors depending on the type of notification I get. Blue for text; green for Twitter — like a beautiful semaphoring squid. Between us, we have a special language. A relationship. 

But sometimes it becomes bigger — sometimes it meddles in my other relationships. For example, it played a large part in my last breakup. Toward the end of the relationship, I was checking my phone nonstop as our human communication slowed and stilled, even when we were in the same room. My phone was a symptom, not a cause, of my detachment from our dissolving life — but as a symbol, it was a highly visible one. This made my phone the focus of my ex’s ire, which in turn made me very defensive of the phone. 

When I found myself suddenly in the position to defend my phone, I started to guard it with my body. My behavior with it became visibly furtive: I took it in the bathroom with me. I tipped its screen away from anyone who might be looking, even when they weren’t looking. I appeared generally suspicious. This went on for a long time, even past the breakup, because habits that you create with your body are very difficult to break.


When my phone became the subject of a conversation with the man who is now in my life, Michael, I could feel the familiar defensiveness creeping back in. If he asked me why I’d flipped to a different tab or quickly put my phone away when he entered the room, I pretended like I wasn’t acting strangely, even though I was. The instinct to protect something that was mine brought me back to conversations I’d had with my ex when we were in the worst parts of breaking up. 

I didn’t like the feeling because it brought with it the anxiety of a dying relationship, and the need for territory that comes along with it, and we were just settling into the beautiful beginning part. I wanted to leave the unpleasant association behind. So in my conversations with him, I relented as much as I could bear to do (although, as an Aries, this is very difficult for me). I began to edit myself and my physical behavior with my phone little by little. 

I no longer bring my phone with me on lunch dates, if I can avoid it. When hanging out one-on-one with a friend, I do my best to turn my phone face down or leave it in my bag. And perhaps most importantly, I do not bring it into bed with me. It’s less of a character, and certainly less of a hovering beloved.


Still, somehow, because humans are bad at learning, when I got a second phone specifically for the tour, I did not consider my own history. I thought my personal phone and my “art” phone, as objects, could remain detached from each other. I thought only one of them had a past personal connection to me. The first one was laden with weird digital history, but I approached the second with a combination of levity and theory. 

We use phones as places to make direct connections with other people: cell phones exist somewhere between public and personal space — they’re ours alone, but they’re always with us in public. And with the auxiliary place (something of a hotel room or airport, but for communication) that a new, impersonal phone would create, I wanted to make myself available to a connection with a stranger, without guiding the direction that the communication would take. 

The phone was a place where I would make myself available

Ideally, I rationalized, the interaction would become something unique and personal to each responder. I wanted to see what would happen if the other person knew who they were talking to, but I didn’t know — what would happen if one side of the equation were given the okay to remain anonymous? It was supposed to be tidy, something to execute: a project with a neat beginning and end, something to see through and then put away. I falsely assumed my two phones could remain separate, but I didn’t think about the ways in which having a second, public phone would make me feel.


I began receiving regular texts a couple of days after I first shared the number, while I was in the car driving through Pennsylvania. Michael was with me in the car, as was my touring mate Paige, another poet. We had all discussed my phone project, but not how it would work; I had not set any rules for how I would interact with it, or how I would let in the people around me.  

It went like this: the burner buzzed, and I looked at it, and then everyone looked at me. It quickly became clear that this action was charged because it was designated as both public and anonymous. Receiving messages on a phone that was a portal to the internet, especially while being inside the enclosed space of a moving car, made the whole thing a public conversation in a way that would almost never happen with a regular phone. The people inside of the car saw me, and I saw them. I felt as if I had to narrate the conversation I was having if Michael or Paige happened to see me having it, which they always did. 

In order to make the project less of a focal point with my fellow travelers, I began editing the way I behaved around it in a way that felt reminiscent of my furtive behavior with my old phone. At breakfast, I would touch my fingers to it when I felt it vibrate, even if I was in conversation. I made efforts to look at it in private whenever I had a moment. And at night, I silenced my own phone but left the burner’s vibration on. 

In the name of “art,” I felt a weird fidelity to the anonymous people who reached out to me. I wanted to return their attentions as soon as possible so they would continue talking to me. I didn’t want to explain myself to other people. Both of these impulses are a reflection of my personal desire to be the focus of another human’s attention, embarrassingly fundamental to my personality and hard to detach from whatever my original motivation was to do this project. My want to be noticed and appreciated, to create conversation that has value, was the impetus for having a second phone in the first place. The desire to create art does not exist in a vacuum, and there is always an audience for you if you want it. The desire for the affections of that audience is narcissistic, but also deeply motivating.  

And because an audience was present, it was also a public performance.


On Michael’s second-to-last evening with me on tour, things took a turn I should have foreseen. He was soon returning to New York, and it was the last night we had alone before I’d continue on to Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. We were alone, in a room with a door that had a lock. Our time together was down to hours, and both of us wanted to take advantage of the moment. 

Then the burner phone buzzed, and without thinking, I turned and walked to it. This was a small gesture, but it was also a turning away from a private scene between two people — and I was the one turning away. I was letting the outside world into a private space with the person I was going to spend the next two weeks missing. The broken moment took us out of everything. We argued, and my defense wasn’t good: it was, “You have to let me do my projects,” which seemed flimsy at best even then. 

The message was frivolous, and I could easily have waited until morning to shift into the public version of myself. This felt especially maddening because I’d already decided to be present when it came to my actual phone, which was tucked away and silent in my bag. It felt like being forced to relearn a lesson I thought I’d already learned. It also felt like I had to consciously decide to be a human instead of a conduit.


After that first week, I decided to only write back if it was a good time, to give every person, real or digital, the attention they needed. Michael and I continued to correspond on my first phone, which helped close the distance, the way it’s supposed to do. I missed him a lot. We often spoke very late at night, and I sent him the kinds of things you send to people you love. 

I also continued with my project. I wrote back at times when I felt comfortable being in public. 
The best performances, the sublime ones, take something from you. They create circumstances that allow you to give up something about yourself. I wanted to make myself the place for this exchange. The phone, as all public or semi-public modes of communication (social media, etc.), is a focal point honed in on an invented persona — which means that there should have been nothing surprising about the performative aspects of this particular experience. 

Had I given participants more constraints when I released the phone number, the experiment would probably have become more of a “project.” It also would have made me define my own boundaries and behavior. But it would not have put me into situations in my own, real life, where I had to make a decision about what kind of person I would be — private or public — within a relationship. This feels like the real lesson. 

I have long passed the renewal deadline on the phone. I took out the card, and put it in my files, where it will grow obsolete with the months — the only record of the time I gave my number out to anyone who would have it.


Niina Pollari is the author of a poetry collection called Dead Horse (Birds LLC, 2015) and the translator, from the Finnish, of Tytti Heikkinen’s The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal (Action Books 2012).