The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 2, 2006

Area codes: Just a number or a clue to who you are?


The Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Rappers shout them and phone companies tout them. They're those three little digits before actual phone numbers: the area code.

There was a time when the code had territorial cred - 212 is synonymous with New York City, 312 is Chicago, 213 is Los Angeles. But now major metropolitan areas can have a half-dozen or more area codes - and even those have become portable. Few people change their cell phone numbers as they move around the country.

Experts say with all the area-code splitting, those little prefixes are losing their old meaning, fast. But have they gained a new meaning? Say, a personal one?

Hank Willenbrink, a 24-year-old graduate student in theater at the University of California in Santa Barbara, roams around the area code-heavy West Coast with his hometown 502 from Louisville, Ky.

"People are so mobile that the area code has now become a statement about where you're from, rather than where you're going or where you are," he said.

It doesn't matter where someone lives, you can still be from your hometown via your cell phone, says Andy Kavoori, editor of "The Cell Phone Reader: Essays in Social Transformation" and a University of Georgia communications professor.

"As the global economy changes you need new ways to identify where you're from," he said. "And the area code number is one of those ways. It creates psychological affiliations in place of physical ones."

Paul Levinson, author of "Cell Phone: The Story of the World's Most Mobile Medium", says the area code will soon bleed into the rest of a person's phone number to act as a sort of numerical social identifier.

"We're well on the way to people having permanent phone numbers associated with their name like Social Security numbers are, that will be a more permanent indicator," Levinson said.

A bit of history

Phone numbers used to start with two letters, going back decades before area codes were even developed, but then the phone companies switched to three-digit numerical codes and had them directly relate to places, Levinson said.

"They did research to what the most easiest remembered numbers were," he said. "New York got 212. Los Angeles got 213 that was the next easiest, from there it went on. Then what happened was the demand for phone service was growing at such a rate the phone company began dividing up other old area codes which did have meaning into new area codes."

"That was the beginning of the end," he said.

Convenience

The wireless era meant a boom in new codes as people picked up second numbers. But it also meant those area codes were no longer tied to the area in question.

Jamie Lippman, 27, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Bloomington, Ind., for a job as a first grade teacher and kept her 347 Brooklyn area code instead of switching. Lippman didn't want to make everyone in her life take down her new number, and having the local 812 didn't mean much, because she hardly makes any local calls.

"To me it doesn't make a difference at all - every call is the same," Lippman said. "Everyone knows this number and I have friends all over the country and my family are all over the country. Everyone calling me is long distance anyway."

For her, area codes are caller ID, like when another Brooklyn friend now living in Bloomington calls - one Brooklyn number dialing another Brooklyn number in the middle of Indiana. Lippman knows that 347 is Brooklyn. But would anyone else outside of New York? Even there, the number is eclipsed by Brooklyn's better-known 718 and Manhattan's 212, 646 and 917.

She thinks for a minute.

"No one knows where 347 is," she answers.

Sentimental value

LaKeasha Batiste, 26, moved to Tampa, Fla., from Louisiana three years ago, but is keeping her 504 New Orleans area code. No way is she changing to Tampa's 727 - especially after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

Some area codes can be a matter of pride, the health care analyst says.

"It's my connection to home in a lot of ways," she said. "They'll see my 504 area code. They'll associate. I won't give up my 504 area code, no matter where I live."

She got stubborn when switching cell phone companies from T-Mobile to Sprint.

"I told them if I couldn't keep my number, I wouldn't give my service to them," she said.

A digit apart

Willenbrink said he gets weird looks when he gives out the 502 in California.

"I've discovered that no one actually knows where 502 is," he said. "They say, 'It's 502 - that's East Bay.' And I'm like, 'It's Louisville, Kentucky.' They're like, 'Oh. Cool.' Because California is this sea of area codes."

He's not switching, though: "It's sort of this weird nostalgic tie to my former state."

But he ponders whether getting rid of your area code can mean just as much.

"There's also this whole idea of shedding an identity too," he said. "I'm sure there are people who move from Kentucky to California and get a new phone number because they want to lose that part of themselves."

Oh, and Batiste? He's with you - don't change your New Orleans area code to Tampa's boring 727 - even though he didn't recognize where 504 would be.

Willenbrink's first thought at Tampa's digits: "727's a jet," he says. "Like a 747 or whatever."

Some numbers just have a better ring to them.

The North American Numbering Plan Association offers a map of area codes nationwide here:

http://www.nanpa.com/area-code-maps/ac-map-static.html