The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Business

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.

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