Text Messages – the Digital Telegraph

Part of me thinks that if you told someone from the year 1850 about cell phones, they would be amazed at the concept of text-messages, but even more amazed at the ability to interact vocally in real-time. Because really isn’t the text message just a fancy with-you-anywhere-you-go telegraph minus the Morse code (although all the characters are encoded into binary)? The SMS protocol limits messages to 160 characters, and while delivery is almost instantaneous, there’s the lost time spent typing characters (often on a 9-number keypad not originally designed for the task); it’s far from an efficient means of relaying information. So why has texting become such an integral form of communication when we have voice capabilities, unlimited-length email, and numerous other forms that are way more rich and efficient? Isn’t it exceedingly more fantastic that you can talk with someone on the other side of the world in real time requiring only a device you can hold in your hand or even send an email with text styles as simple as italic and bold fonts to add life and emphasis?

Yes, I can be over-analytical, and I sit and ask myself questions like this as I watch others in the theater furiously clicking their keypads, or glance across the coffeeshop and see someone responding to a text every 45 seconds, and even as I feel the single buzz from my phone denoting a message received. So I’ve thought of several factors as to why I believe texting has become the engrossing phenomenon it has to the level of being the epidemic cause of highway accidents, pivotal evidence in scandals, and default social planning tool of millions. I’ve forgone the surface-level factors of convenience, cost, superfluousness of supporting technology, etc.

  1. It’s non-intrusive to the receiver. Whereas an incoming phone call carries with it a sense of immediacy, text messages don’t usually merit dropping everything you’re doing to respond at that minute. Much communication doesn’t require an instantaneous response, so the text is a polite way to contact someone without necessarily interfering with whatever they’re doing. At the same time, there’s often some assumption one will get a decently timely response, often within minutes or almost always within hours since the assumption is that the carrier has the phone at virtually all times. Therefore, it’s less intrusive than an actual call, but elicits a more timely response than, say, email or a Facebook message. It’s a happy medium.
  2. It’s discreet and private. Really, one can have a full-blown text conversation in the midst of other people, an no one is the wiser as to what it’s about. A girl could be having the fight of the century with a boyfriend via their 160-character exchanges, but none of the others at the dinner table or concert or [insert social event] knows. (Granted it’s rude to ignore those around you for the sake of texting, but that’s another issue). Said “fight” would never happen if it had to be done in earshot of others (I hope), but it would necessarily be if cell phones didn’t have such a capability. So I believe people utilize that veil to communicate about things they otherwise never would in social situations, for better or worse. No one at work would care about the guy talking to his wife about the grocery list, but now no one has to be aware at all. Take note the next time you text something you would never say out loud among the group you’re with. I bet it’s more often than you think.
  3. It forces people to be succinct. I’m not talking about the mangled abbreviations and cryptic shorthand used to squeeze the most out of the limitations, but rather that there’s no verbal dilly-dallying over text. One says what he needs to say without extraneous details. I’m sure communications professors around the world are also studying this phenomenon and its effect on how humans relay information. Most people plugged in to the Information Age value brevity almost above all else thanks to our short attention spans and the sheer quantity of stimuli with which we are bombarded, so interacting using a medium which enforces curtness is preferable. Personally, this is not a reason I text. I’m all about trying to communicate as effectively as possible, even if it takes a lot of words to say exactly what the sender intends, but I suspect this is an unconscious plus to a lot of “wired” people.
  4. The ambiguity of the response time frame provides time for formulation. This final point is not always a factor, but when it is, it’s indispensable. There are cases when having extra time to respond is much more comfortable than what would be awkward silence were the participants engaged in continuous, real-time interaction. Surely you’ve been invited to that thing you didn’t want to go to, or were told something you just didn’t know how to respond to. In a voice conversation, pressure mounts exponentially with the length of the pause. With texting, there is some leeway to phrase a tactful reply. That’s a facet I’m not usually aware of until it’s not there and the awkward silence has already begun.

So those are some things I saw as I tried to dig a little deeper into this trend, and I likely missed some huge factor. I won’t go into how merry cellular carriers are cashing in on it by weaving the bits into dead transmission space as this article suggests, but the dominance of something as simple as a 160-character transmission can’t be ignored if you choose to be aware of those around you for only a day. I’ve half a mind to try to figure out why Twitter is growing wildly in popularity when, by all accounts, it’s just Facebook minus the pictures, but that shall wait for another day.