Text messages — who needs them? Although I’ve always been an early adopter, I find that I almost never send text messages. More generally, I haven’t yet gotten a smartphone and don’t really feel like I’m missing out. It’s funny. A lot of people get into sending clever text messages or participating in a threaded chat on their iphones, but I’ll have none of that.
Here are the only text messages that I have sent or ever will send:
- Arrived home.
- The panel will be at Ballroom B. (This actually is the first text I ever sent).
- Meeting has been changed to 9:45 AM
- Still alive.
- Class is cancelled.
- Running late. Expect to arrive at 2:25.
- Please order me the Kung Pao Chicken
- Feel like talking?
- Feel like playing tennis?
- Yes, I’ll attend.
- Call me.
- Call me ASAP.
- Do you have a stapler?
- Address is 6121 Winsome Apt 7B.
- Can you pick up the kids?
- Do you already own this (include photo of product at store)
- I’ll remain here until 11:00 PM.
- Don’t forget to feed the dog.
- Joanna isn’t here yet and not answering her phone. What’s up?
- How much does it cost?
- Can’t talk. Too Busy.
You’ll notice that the text messages listed above have a single purpose and impart usually one fact. Texters should stick to these kind of task-oriented messages. The shorter you make the text, the more likely people can misunderstand or take something the wrong way. You can’t express feelings except in a stereotypical way — you might as well just send an emoticon. Also because text messages have a tendency to pile up, you can miss one message and totally miss out on the texter’s intentions. True communication shouldn’t be this confusing and unwieldy.
I used to do chat via yahoo and skype. I still do occasionally, but for the most part, I find that it is a time-consuming and grueling way to conduct a conversation. Probably the most common text I send via skype is “Do you want to talk by telephone?” Typing and waiting for other people to type replies requires a lot of effort and patience. And I speak as someone who is perfectly comfortable typing thoughts rather than saying them.
Actually, skype is good when crossing time zones and doing brief technical interviews. The interview subject or technical support person can drop links into a chat window and paste troubleshooting information. That’s a situation where it works.
Before the Internet became big and affordable, web chat allowed you to communicate in real time with people far away. Sure, it was fun. I enjoyed chatting with former students in Eastern Europe. Sometimes we had in-depth conversations via web chat. But that was on a computer and back in the days that Internet phone calls still weren’t practical. I won’t deny that text chat sometimes brought web conversations in unintended directions, but for a the most part it was nothing more than a lousy substitute for voice chat.
Text messages can help in certain contexts, especially situations where there is no free wifi access or where the noise level is too loud. The ability to share photos and start group threads on texting platforms is helpful. But phones are an inferior device for typing and reading (and storing) texts. Maybe it’s ok for making plans, but a phone call can resolve a lot of the details much faster than text messages can. Also, texting isn’t an appropriate way to have a deep conversation or communicate anger or love. I debated whether I would include two other messages on my list: “I love you” and “I’ll pray for you.” I understand that some people may prefer using these kinds of phrases often, but for me it is way too perfunctory a context to make these expressions. If you love somebody, dammit there are better ways to express it than by a text message. (If I recall correctly, a driver in the famous anti-texting video who texted before causing a fatal car crash had been sending his girlfriend the text, “I love you.”)
You will notice that most of these text messages I listed here require only one or two followups (if that much!) You want to receive text messages only when you think there is a time-sensitive reason to be interrupted from your job or nap. Interruptions are not really good things. The bell or beep announcing the arrival of a text message might seem inconsequential and not really distracting, but to have any kind of extended chat means having to sit through a parade of unending beeps that announce yet another uninteresting message. Sure, if both parties are in different places and have time to kill, then it’s a pleasant diversion.
Text messages might be part of a successful dating/courtship ritual — although I’m way past high school and college dating situations where I might experience this phenomenon first hand. I’m not talking about sexy poses or lewd messages. I’m talking about photos or videos or the occasional joking remark. I once had an ill-fated long distance relationship before the time of webcams and camera phones. Phone calls were still extraordinarily expensive; I’m not saying that anything could have saved the situation (probably not), but photos and video might have given things more immediacy. It might have given one person better insight into the other person’s thought processes. Instead, she and I were talking to one another on a 35 cent per minute international phone line even though I’m not sure we were really communicating. But compared to a bland text message, a voice conversation is practically a psychotherapy session. A phone call can convey attitude and emotional level.
I’m all in favor of people having several different tools to help them communicate. The more, the merrier. My problem with texting is that it’s a last resort method of communication which nowadays people are starting to use as a first resort. The historical curiosity about text messages is that they grew independently from email and web chat because phone providers refused to make them interoperable. They started out as single platform and only later became interoperable with other phone platforms (but generally not web-based ones). Texting is also used as a bonus promotional feature to encourage people to buy more expensive cell phone plans. Texting — like snapchat — is designed for ephemeral conversations. I doubt people would want to save their phone chat sessions or that phone providers would make this easy. Sure, there are privacy reasons why you might want texting sessions to disappear, but the user should always have this option to save. I have a hard time believing that most texting sessions are interesting enough even to be worth saving. And if something is not interesting enough to save, why bother doing it at all?
September 2021 Update. I actually did buy a smartphone 3 months after writing this post. But it’s funny how rarely I have sent text messages or shared multimedia over the years. Only on one occasion would I have called text-messaging to be indispensable. In February 2021 a winter freeze caused power outages everywhere, and cell phones were still barely able functional. You couldn’t make or receive phone calls, but it was still possible to send and receive text messages because they were so low bandwidth and asynchronous.
Here’s a new acronym I invented when you think it is better to handle the matter with voice rather with text. TITASPEED: Texting Is Too Awkward; Speech Produces Easy Effective Decisions.