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The good and bad of texting

Louis Menand has written an article damning texting as the nadir of human communication. As a late but fervent adopter of texting, I’ll argue to the contrary.

One of the biggest complaints about texting is that entering text using the numeric keypad on a mobile phone is incredibly tedious and painful. On this note, I agree. I never texted until I bought an iPhone. Here’s the thing — cell phones that provide only a numeric keypad are an endangered species. Blackberry and iPhone are the harbingers of the future in this regard. With a real keyboard, texting really isn’t too painful, and there’s less incentive to abbreviate everything.

Texting fits into a niche that was previously unoccupied. Here are the three specific advantages of texting: texts are delivered in realtime, brief, and easy to ignore. Here’s the sentence that shows that Menand doesn’t get it:

Usually, if you can text a person you can much more quickly and efficiently call that person.

If you’re sitting in a meeting, or eating at a restaurant, or even standing in line at the post office, talking on your phone is impossible at worst or rude at best. I can text anyone with the knowledge that doing so will not interrupt whatever more important business they’re taking care of. If they have time, they can look down at their phone and read the text immediately. If they’re busy, or even in the middle of an interesting conversation, they can save looking at the text for later.

Yesterday I was in a meeting and couldn’t pick up a call. I was able to text the person who left the voice mail immediately and ask them if the call was urgent.

Brevity is a huge advantage in a certain kind of relationship. The 140 character limit can certainly be a relief to text someone when you’re short on time and you know more would be expected of you if you contacted the person via email or called them. The tedium of entering text and the forced limit on size demands that texts get down to business. I know many people who prefer to text for this reason alone.

And finally, immediacy is what separates texting from email. Most people (other than Blackberry users) don’t get email on their mobile phone as soon as it’s sent. So if you need a response right away and the recipient is available to provide it, text messaging works like a charm.

People should learn to love text messaging, because it’s with us to stay. There’s no other form of communication that offers exactly the same set of strengths, and I expect it to grow as more people outside the texting generation recognize that.

8 Comments

  1. OMG, this discussion it way too late. You guys are 15 years behind Europe and Asia.

  2. Considering that the text messages are at most 140 characters, that I pay for 550 minutes of voice every month, and that a voice cell call is really all data these days anyway, the price cell companies charge per text message is ridiculous! If text messages were charged the same way as voice data my 550 minutes would translate into approximately 103,000 text messages worth of data, but my provider charges 20 cents per message. So using the same amount of data only on text messages would cost $20601. The only option for someone who does texting regularly is to buy the “unlimited” plan which tacks on $20-$30 per month per phone.

  3. Unlimited texts are included with the data plan for my iPhone. (I agree that the pricing model for texts is ridiculous.)

  4. The pricing model is especially hilarious if you look at the bandwidth used for text messages. Sending or receiving a text messages is a tiny fraction of just the setup exchange for making a phone call – which have no minimum price and are priced well under 1c/minute. Also a tiny fraction of the bandwidth needed to download a web page (just the headers of a typical web page would be larger than the text message data).

    It’s as if you could browse the Internet all you wanted, but if you wanted to send an email you had to spend 10c.

    Wait, that actually sounds pretty good.

    We’re in a weird intermediate state right now where carriers feel free to charge high rates for text messages. Once there is more competition the price is bound to drop to near-zero because the underlying cost is near-zero.

    Anyway, give it a few years and email, texts, phone calls, IM, video calls, and group chat will all be the same thing. Skype is pretty close to that already. But I hope people get better at short messages (as you can see brevity is not one of my strengths personally).

    Otherwise I fear that Blackberry syndrome will spread still further – these are the people who inevitably reply to a multi-screen email with a misspelled, punctuation-free one-liner and the entire previous message quoted underneath. The merger of email and text messaging there results in a pretty severe culture clash.

    But I get very cranky about people who want to send a group of people any kind of message but can’t be bothered to go back and edit first. One-on-one is different, but if you’re sending to a group without spellchecking, copyediting, or just thinking about whether your note is worth sending at all, you’re saying “My time is more valuable than all of yours put together”. There’s someone on a mailing list I read who has severe Blackberry syndrome and is about one message away from me sending a note saying “The forty people reading this list don’t care that you said ‘ha ha’ to another posting. Nobody else here submits worthless one-liners. Please stop or get off the list.”

    For someone like me who reads email only a couple of times a day to preserve my own sanity, I don’t really look forward to the future when someone can jam their email right into my face. Maybe the 140-character limit will become a convention for being the longest message that is okay to send with flags setting it for immediate display (like IM or texts). That’ll need enforcement on the receiving end though – you can’t trust people not to set the URGENT flag on everything they send.

  5. As the cost approaches zero (I would argue it’s already near zero, and the carriers are just charging what they can get away with), the trend will be to allow larger and larger text messages as a differentiating “feature”. Even though the SMS protocol is technically limited to 140 bytes, the carriers will have an offering that allows larger messages but otherwise has the same features. At that point it’s more like “instant email”. Ooooh, I’m going to trademark that now – Instant Email (TM).

  6. It fascinates me that Americans are having this discussion now, 10 to 15 years after most Europeans were done with it. 🙂 An important property of texting that is often overlooked is that it’s asynchronous. Just like e-mail, it’s possible to just scribble down whatever it is you want to communicate, send it, and not require an immediate response. Calling someone does not give you nor the recipient that freedom.

    If you expect an immidate answer or you get one and keep on texting 10 messages back and forth, making a call is of course often a better alternative, but even then SMS can be preferable due to reasons you mention yourself; like being in a meeting or something similar.

  7. Very true. My parents which pay for the bills don’t want texting on the phones. I don’t see why because it’s useful.

  8. Jessica Crane

    May 26, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Personaly, my father hates that I text. He pays for it, yet he takes it away at every given chance. I probably sound silly seeing as I don’t even pay for my own texting, but I know that it costs a rediculous amount. The phone companies are most definitely screwing us all over by charging 20c for something that actually costs about 0.3c at very max. That is pretty fucked up in my mind. I hope for the sake of all true texters, that the rates go down. That would be just great.

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