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A code to live by, but often not in

Area codes now a matter of taste, more than place

Boston hair stylist Kelly Francoeur’s cellphone number has a Connecticut area code, though she lives in Revere. Boston hair stylist Kelly Francoeur’s cellphone number has a Connecticut area code, though she lives in Revere. (Wendy Maeda/globe staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / August 18, 2012
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Ja-Nae Duane lives in Concord — squarely 978 territory — but when the director of social media at Overdrive Interactive gives out her phone number, it starts with a 434. “I’m not even sure where that is,” Duane, 35, said of her area code. “Oklahoma maybe? Kentucky?”

Neither. Technically, the 434 area is in Virginia. But it doesn’t really matter anymore. In recent years, several factors have combined to create a growing mismatch between where people live and where their area codes would lead you to believe they reside, rendering a once-vital piece of identifying information increasingly meaningless. The unpredictability is more common with mobile phones, but home phones can be deceptive, too.

Some of the digital impostors are young adults saving money by remaining on their parents’ cellphone plan. Others are established adults who have moved but can’t face the hassle of changing their contact information.

Then there are technology-forward people like Duane. She got her number and its 434 area code through Google Voice, a service that allows users to type in a favorite word or phrase, or even a name as Duane did, and then assigns a number that closely corresponds to it.

Perhaps no one is better positioned to see the trend than local businesses that regularly request customer phone numbers. Arthur Anton Jr., chief operating officer of Anton’s Cleaners, has noticed an increasing number of local customers of the 42-location chain giving clerks distant-sounding area codes when they bring in their clothes to be dry cleaned.

“When it first started to happen, I thought people were here from out of town and going to a wedding or an event,” Anton said. “Now, I realize they live here, and they’re not giving up their phone numbers.”

The nomadic era for area codes got its biggest boost in 2003. That’s when the Federal Communications Commission ordered that mobile phone users could keep their phone numbers if they switched to a different mobile carrier, and customers with so-called land lines could take those telephone numbers to a mobile carrier and vice versa, said Brian Partridge, an industry specialist with the Yankee Group, a ­Boston-based research and analysis firm.

And it gained even more traction in 2007, Partridge added, when the FCC allowed consumers to keep their phone numbers when switching to Voice Over the Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. Those place calls over the Internet rather than traditional land lines.

Telecommunications industry analyst Jeff Kagan summed up the change like this: “You used to call a place and ask for a person. Now we call the person, no matter where they are in the world.”

And as members of the Internet generation get their first phones at ever younger ages — and with them, a phone number they may keep for life — the very concept that an area code would be a geographic indicator is disappearing.

“When a teenager or a 25-year-old looks at a number, they don’t even see it as attached to a place,” Kagan said. “It’s just a number.”

There was a time when phone numbers were so specific, they could locate a person to a neighborhood. In Boston proper, exchanges like “Kenmore,” “Copley” meant something, as did “City Point” in Southie, and “University” in Cambridge.

These days, an area code can be so misleading that it’s not even an indicator of whom you share a bathroom with. If you looked at the phone bills of Emma Virginia and her fiance, Tate Preston, you’d think they were carrying on a long-distance relationship, not living together.

Virginia, 25, a Boston University PhD student, and her fiance live in an apartment in Roxbury, she with the same Vermont number she has had since she was 16, he with one from his home state of Minnesota.

“I love Vermont,” she said with some nostalgia.

James Katz, director of emerging media studies at Boston University, likened keeping a number after a move to continuing to root for the Red Sox or Patriots years after leaving Boston.

“It’s a shared identify with people in that geographic region,” he said.

And in a mobile society, retaining a childhood number is a way for transplants to recognize one another.

Kelly Francoeur, a South End hair stylist, had spent several enjoyable appointments discussing “boy drama” with a client, but it wasn’t until the two exchanged phone numbers that they realized they were from the same home state.

“I like when I meet other 860 people,” the 26-year-old ­Revere resident said, explaining that she is still on her family’s plan. “I’m like ‘Connecticut, yeah.’ ”

Even as the area code loses its power to indicate where we live, it’s gaining “signaling abilities,” said Roger Entner.

The nationally recognized wireless-industry analyst is based in Dedham, by the way, but you wouldn’t know it by his 617 area code. Thanks to Vonage, a phone service that connects calls using a high-speed Internet connection, he doesn’t have to reveal his suburban ­location with a 781 code.

“I’m not ashamed of Dedham — it’s a great place to live,” he said. “But at the same time, who’s heard of it outside of Massachusetts?”

In cities where a new area code overlays an existing one, a number with an original area code confers elite status, Entner said, like being descended from one of the region’s first families.

“It’s like, ‘I have been here longer than you have,’ ” he said.

Conversely, an established area code can also work against your image by making you seem older, said Edward Tenner, a visiting scholar at the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University.

As New Yorkers know, 917 became the new 212, until 646 became the new 917. In a time when looking younger is the ideal, maybe Botox isn’t necessary anymore. Just a new area code.

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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