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Roving Textualities: The Mobile Ringtone, Intersemiosis and Transmedia - James Denis Mc Glynn

In Response to Henry Jenkins

Published onOct 06, 2020
Roving Textualities: The Mobile Ringtone, Intersemiosis and Transmedia - James Denis Mc Glynn

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Roving Textualities: The Mobile Ringtone, Intersemiosis and Transmedia

James Denis Mc Glynn, University College Cork

Given my background is in music, one curiously ephemeral way that people map meaning onto their possessions immediately comes to mind. It is a widespread phenomenon which is both inherently musical and increasingly easy to overlook (given its intangibility and diminishing sense of technological novelty), yet one which raises a whole glut of aesthetic and semiotic concerns in discussing how fans of audiovisual media accumulate objects and construct identity: the personalised mobile phone ringtone.

The ringtone, one of several aspects of phone personalisation (along with wallpaper, notification tones, etc.) is, at its simplest, “a marketing system and ideology of tailoring advertising and products to individuals, one aim of which is to encourage personal expression through consumption.”1 Nonetheless, it is a practice that has garnered a deep-seated “logic of personalisation,” such that writing on the subject frequently perpetuates the notion that “you are your ringtone.”2 However, what I find most intriguing is how innately musical this practice is and how, due to the ringtone’s primarily functional nature, it becomes a sort of personal musical curation and identity-fashioning that is practiced by all phone-owners: melomaniac or otherwise.

In line with Jenkins’ comments, the ringtone is an identity we both construct and perform – in a curiously literal way! Musical material is abstracted from an original context (album, film, TV series…). It is also randomised (we don’t know when we will receive a call) and lent a peculiarly remote textual centre. This impermanent, roving quality of the mobile ringtone untethers the quoted music from its source, shedding the localisation and domesticity we might once have associated with the landline call. In this sense, the ringtone becomes a cogent example of intersemiosis, whereby signs are read and “comprehended simultaneously within the framework of different sign systems.”3 Indeed, with this in mind, Peeter Torop’s postulation that contemporary culture has altered the ontology of the text seems exceptionally prescient: the “existence of various forms of the same text in different media and discourses”4 (later described by Jenkins as transmedia storytelling)5 is more prevalent in modern narrative media than ever before.

However, returning to the ringtone – a musical sign lifted from its original context, heard at random times and locations – I argue that more of an extended textuality is created, as the musical sign is thrust unknowingly into our day-to-day soundscapes. This is perhaps best reflected in the surprisingly widespread practice of gamers adopting musical/sonic quotations from their favourite videogames as ringtones: sonic ‘objects’ with which fans shape their identities. I have so often heard ringtones of the ‘Victory Fanfare’ from the Final Fantasy series, the alert and codec call sounds in Metal Gear Solid and the coin / ring collection sounds from Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog respectively, to mention only a handful of regular suspects. A comically reflexive nod to this practice is even made in the film adaptation Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (dir. Tetsuya Nomura, 2005), whereby antagonist Loz’s ringtone is set as Nobuo Uematsu’s ‘Victory Fanfare,’ mentioned above.

These examples all neatly conform to the processes of self-fashioning that Jenkins describes. However, in the case of videogame ringtones, we are additionally reminded of such sonic artefacts’ capacity to garner a humorous, ironic value, as our reality suddenly appears mediated by sonorities once confined to that of computer avatars. Daniel Chandler memorably describes this cross-pollination of reality and fiction, a quality which I argue is not merely a side-effect, but one of the primary incentives for this particular form of identity cultivation for gaming fans:

Life is thus lived through texts and framed by texts to a greater extent than we are normally aware of … intertextuality blurs the boundaries not only between texts but between texts and the world of lived experience. Indeed, we may argue that we know no pre-textual experience. The world as we know it is merely its current representation.6


Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. London, New York: Routledge, 2002.

Daum, Meghan. “Cellphone Psychology: You Are Your Ringtone.” The Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2005.

Gopinath, Sumanth. The Ringtone Dialectic: Economy and Cultural Form. London: The MIT Press, 2013.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2008.

Torop, Peeter. “Intersemiosis and Intersemiotic Translation.” in Translation, Translation, edited by Susan Petrilli, 271–82. New York: Rodopi, 2003.

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