20 Years Of Texting, And What The Next 20 May Hold
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
According to the calendar, the 21st Century began exactly at 12:01am on January 1st, 2001. But in practical terms, you could argue it actually began about eight years earlier, on December 3rd, 1992.
That’s because that was the day that Neil Papworth, a British software engineer, sent a friend the world’s first SMS text message. “I typed the message out on a PC,” Jarvis tells the Guardian‘s Tracy McVeigh. “It read ‘Merry Christmas’ and I sent it to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone, who was enjoying his office Christmas party at the time.”
And the world hasn’t been the same since.
From Texting to TXTNG
Now as common as the billions of smart phones that litter the planet, it’s hard to believe that just 20 years ago, there was no such thing as text messaging. At least, in the modern sense.
Since the 1920’s, with the laying of the first transatlantic cables, engineers began using the twisted copper phone cables to electronically send alphabetic characters and numbers while not in use. It was called “telex” – or more commonly, “texting” – and it was the near-exclusive domain of major industry and government. In the 60’s and 70’s, basic numeric data was being sent via existing radio waves to small receivers, which emitted a “beep” with each new message: thus was born the doctor’s “beeper.”
Then in 1984 an international group called the “Global System for Mobile Communications” – GSM for short – began working on a standard for using mobile phone networks to transmit short alphanumeric messages in Europe. They called it SMS, or Short Message Service, because at the time, nobody could imagine such messages would be anything other than short, impersonal, and strictly limited to business use. The standard lay largely dormant for years except among a handful of engineers and tech enthusiasts, read geeks, that tinkered with just how it might work.
When Jarvis sent his first message in 1992, mobile phones didn’t offer a function for sending texts, only receiving them. His holiday greeting received no attention save for a small circle of enthusiasts, and a few with an eye to the future.
One of those was Brennan Heydan, an engineer working in Ireland. “They said people would never use it, they wouldn’t be bothered to type messages on a phone,” he told the New York Times. But Hayden believed otherwise, and in 1993 sent the world’s first commercial text message via SMS, this time from Los Angeles. His message: “burp.”
A New Medium Finds Its Voice
In the mid-to-late 1990’s, as mobile phone competition began to seriously heat up around the world, manufacturers and service providers began offering SMS texting as a standard option. And on the surface, it had several advantages.
First, a message can be sent relatively quickly using just the recipient’s phone number, meaning users no longer had to use clunky email programs to send messages. Second, SMS is robust: because of the limited bandwidth it takes up, text messages are often more reliable to reach the recipient than email or even phone calls, especially in times of heavy network use. And finally, texting is fast. Users soon discovered they could send several messages in the time it took to dial a phone and wait for someone to answer.
That said, SMS texting – or just ‘texting’ by now – wasn’t perfect. As its use exploded, service providers experimented with different ways to charge for its use, sometimes charging the recipient or the sender, sometimes for a flat fee or per character, leading to confusion between networks and across nations. Mobile manufacturers had to re-tool their product lines to make texting easier at the same time they struggled to add new features and shrink phone size.
And, like any new medium, its users didn’t really have any rules for how to text, using as few characters as possible but still making your intent clear. Like email before it, a new etiquette took time to develop around when and how to send messages, how often, to whom and what they should – and most definitely should not – be about. (Example: is it OK to break up with someone via text? My answer: not if you’re the one being broken up with.)
Soon users were developing not just their own rules of the digital road but a new language as well. “ROFL”, “OMG”, “LOL” and “IMHO” soon populated not just the textverse, but began seeping into people’s actual real-life conversations. Emoticons went from punctuation marks you had to view sideways to elaborate graphic images encompassing just about every feeling imaginable. Phones grew so text friendly that some began to wonder if they were even phones any more.
And by some, I mean specifically old-timers, like myself. A growing raft of studies all point to the same trends: young people are emailing less, texting more, and increasingly not bothering with the actual telephone unless they absolutely have to. No less a figure than AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson now says it’s “inevitable” that service providers will begin offering data-only mobile plans, and eschew the telephone completely.
While this is purely anecdotal, it’s been my experience (and that of just about everyone I know) that how you prefer to communicate says a lot about your age. For friends and colleagues generally under 35, I text them. 35 to maybe around 60, email is where it’s at. And those over 60 would really just prefer you picked up the darn telephone and called them. I’m curious if others find similar trends.
“Relationships…right in front of us.”
In 2011 it was estimated that, on average, over 4 billion text messages were sent every day around the world. That number is assured to grow even higher for 2012. Heck, these days even Pope Benedict XVI has a Twitter account so he can update his followers via mobile phone.
So with all this texting, humans must feel more connected with each other than every before, right? Not necessarily.
“If I had done this research and found a nation of people who checked their email and went on social networking but were maintaining close and loving relationships with friends and family, I wouldn’t have written the book. But what I found instead were parents who text at the dinner table, leaving their children feeling bereft. Parents who were texting on the playground while they pushed their kids with one hand and do their email with another. Mothers who are not happy because they’re reading Harry Potter and having their BlackBerrys under the blankets so they can check their mail while they’re reading, feeling that they’re sort of missing out on the experience with their kids but they can’t stop themselves.”
Just this week, following the shocking suicide of Kansas City Chief’s linebacker Jovan Belcher, Chief’s quarterback Brady Quinn spoke of the importance of human contact and connections in the real world, and how difficult that can be in the text age. “We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook,” a somber Quinn told the press:
“That’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”
Like every other tool or device that helps keep us digitally distracted, texting will likely continue to grow in use until the next big something we can’t yet see replaces it. And that, again, will be followed by tech-enthusiasts embracing it as the tool of the century and stern warnings from cyber-dystopians about the dangers to human culture. Whether the text message becomes for the 21st Century what the automobile was for the 20th is too early to know. What’s certain is that it will be around for some time to come.