HCC Psychology faculty and students ring in...

Cell phone users' ringtones show personalities


Article Last Updated: 05/19/2008 12:41:26 AM EDT

There are no television sets in the Land Use Construction Review Office at Bridgeport City Hall, but it is not unusual to hear the theme song from "Sex and the City" playing from within the small second-floor office. "People recognize the tune," said Cory Bromley, administrative assistant for the office. "I love that show. My daughter and I are huge fans."

Bromley, 48, loves the tune so much that she chose it to be her cell phone ringtone. But she didn't realize the distinctive tune would draw so many comments from perfect strangers. "It's actually kind of a conversation starter," Bromley said.

Apparently, the days when a phone's simple ringing sound was the standard alert that a call was coming through are over. Now, the vast numbers of ringtones available for cell phones are indicative of a great deal more than an incoming call.

Standard ringtones — those already programmed on the phone — "are awful," Bromley said. "They are loud, jazzy and standard. Personalizing it makes it fun."

"The key is to have the most unique ringtone," said Bridgeport Police Officer Larry Lazaro, while keeping an eye on traffic flow at the corner of Courtland and John streets, where water was being pumped out of a sewer. "You want it to be as individual as you are."

"My favorite one I had is Muhammad Ali's voice," Lazaro said. The ringtone was not a song, he said, but a recording of one of Ali's best-known comments, the legendary: "I am the greatest!" "I am the greatest!"

He can't play the Ali ringtone these days because he just bought a new phone a few months ago and doesn't know how to download the tones just yet, Lazaro said. "I just got this so I'm still working on figuring it out," he said, adding that the ringtone of Ali's voice is not the only customized ringtone he had, but it's definitely his favorite.

According to survey-based research company Ipsos-Insight, close to 70 percent of the country's general population aged 12 and older who own a cell phone "have at least experimented with changing a ringtone."

Ipsos also reports that in the past 30 days about 10 percent of cell phone owners in the U.S. have downloaded a ringtone directly to their cell phone.

"Based on our research, we know that customization is a key mobile behavior among mobile phone owners," said Karl Joyce, senior research manager for Ipsos.

"I think it is a safe guess that at least a key reason why people change ringtones is in order to personalize their device," Joyce said. "It's really an industry that wasn't there five years ago," said David Thomson, spokesman for Verizon Wireless. Now people can download basically anything they want onto their phone, he said.

"The demand is there and it's an additional revenue generator for the company," Thomson said. Cell phone manufacturers also try to take advantage of the ringtone craze by coming up with a diverse range of the standard tunes that come programmed into the phone, Thomson said. "They are all trying to put features on their phone that are unique," he said.

For those who would rather personalize their ringtone, Thomson said, they can do it directly through their phone or by going online.

Verizon has an online media store where people can browse their ringtone choices. "We have the ringtones Web site broken up into genres. There are probably about 24 different genres. Every month we have new stuff on there," Thomson said. Verizon has just forged a deal with Madonna, Thomson said, so that her songs are available as ringtones exclusively for their customers. Thomson said it took some time for music labels to make their songs available as ringtones.

"This was new for the music industry. They had to find a way to offer their content and still get paid for it," he said.

Besides tunes from the music industry's biggest stars, though, the site also offers ringtones from Disney movies, sound effects like broken glass and songs from television and movie soundtracks. The phone company also offers "ringbacks," which are tunes that can be programmed so the caller hears a song instead of a ringing sound.

A "ringback" can be personalized, Thomson said, so people can set up a different tune for different people. People can personalize their ringtones this way, too.

Setting a unique ringtone for different people allows the cell phone owner "to know who's calling ahead of time," said Housatonic Community College freshman Sorrizo Hesea, 22.

Hesea, a graphic design student, said he likes to download songs right from his personal computer files onto his phone. "This phone is cool because you can transfer songs onto the memory card like a digital camera," he said. He can then choose different songs to assign to anyone programmed into his cell phone's address book.

Hesea's current ringtone, however, is a rap song he liked but doesn't know the name of the tune or the name of the artist who sings it. The song is about being independent.

Henry Schissler, a sociology professor at HCC, said he has asked his students — the majority of whom are between the ages of 18 and 22 — about the importance of ringtones. "There's a concept we teach in sociology called impression management," Schissler said. "Our culture trains us to always make an impression and control that impression." When a cell phone rings in the classroom, everyone turns to look, he said, and the student is judged on whether the tune is considered cool or not.

Janella Joseph, 18, a freshman at HCC, likes to download songs that she wouldn't mind listening to on a regular basis because her phone rings a lot. Her current ring tone is "Big Girls Don't Cry" by singer Fergie.

Joseph admitted that she considers what people would think about a certain ringtone before choosing it.

"It has been sold successfully as one piece of their style package," Schissler said. "I think the cellular companies and the music industry certainly saw the potential for the ringtone to be part of a person's presentation."

Most mayors in the area are also aware of this. Ansonia Mayor Jim Della Volpe said, "Most of the time it's on vibrate" or the standard ringtone. Because he is constantly in meetings and at public functions, a ringtone would be too disruptive, he said. He doesn't really ever think about changing the ringtone anyway, he said.

"I don't even know how to change it," said Milford Mayor James L. Richetelli Jr. He also usually prefers to keep it on vibrate, he said. But, Richetelli said, if he could learn to download any song to use as a ringtone, it would have to be "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." His favorite team is the Yankees, he said, and he saw them play regularly when he was a student at Fordham University in New York. He still makes time to take his three teenagers to watch a Yankees game once or twice during the season, Richetelli said.

Fairfield First Selectman Kenneth Flatto set his business cell phone ringtone to a "symphonic tune with a series of beeps." The ringtone came programmed into the cell phone and Flatto kept it because it was not too loud.

"I think the songs can be kind of intrusive," he said, especially when he is in a meeting.

But when it comes to his personal cell phone, which he uses to communicate with his family, Flatto sings a different tune.

Flatto's personal cell phone's ringtone — which his teenage son downloaded for him — is Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Wooden Ships."

"They were a popular group in the '70s," Flatto said, adding that he likes their "harmonious rock" songs. City Council member Robert Curwen, D-138, chairman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, thinks ringtones can just be fun. Curwen picked a tune that matched his personality, although he didn't download the song.

"It was one that came with the phone itself," he said. "It's not offensive or too loud. It's like a little merengue."

Curwen, who describes himself as "a happy-go-lucky Irishman," said he enjoys the tune because it's upbeat. The council member, who loudly hummed the tune to show it off, said it sometimes makes him want to dance.

That's the good thing about a ringtone, according to Lazaro. Personalized tunes can break up the monotony of a workday and make the cell phone owner — or even a perfect stranger — stop, look, laugh, and even dance.