The Unexpected Ascendence of the Text Message

imgres-3Watch an old movie from the 1920s and you’ll see the telephone was already fully integrated into people’s lives, but it was not yet in everyone’s home. Often there would be a coin operated phone in the corridor or a communal one in the parlor of a boarding house.

But by the end of World War II, certainly any aspiring middle class home had at least one telephone line. We had ideas about phone usage. Women loved to gossip on the phone. Teenagers were positively addicted to it. Remember this from Bye-Bye Birdie:

As the above clip demonstrates, the phone at one time was used much like facebook, twitter or other social net-working sites today. Trivial bullshit could and did go viral.

2Q==The telephone also had other possibilities. Who knows when a man (and I’m sure it was a man) first discovered he could call up women he knew and didn’t know for his own gratification? Phone sex is probably as old as the telephone, but it became a big commercial business by the 1980s. There was even a briefly bestselling novel about it. Plus, several films.


One early adopter.

One early adopter.

When cellphones were first introduced, we didn’t quite know what to do with them. Early adapters seemed like idiots, reporting their every movement. Then when bluetooth and headphones were adapted they could easily be mistaken for lunatics having emphatic conversations with no visible partner. Cellphones did come in handy however, for short business conversations on the go, and for hovering parents who needed to constantly monitor their kids, but from the start we never really liked speaking on them. What was it? Lousy connections? Fear of brain cancer? “I’m losing you” became part of the lexicon. Even as the technology improved, we instinctively backed away from using them for conversations.

Early AT&T prototype

Early AT&T prototype

But over time our phones got smarter and soon we were exchanging photos and even documents. While science-fiction imagined a future where every phone call included video, by the time we had the tech, we realized we really didn’t want to see the person on the other end most of the time. It’s too intimate. For special people and special occasions perhaps, but in most cases, it’s better on the telephone if the person on the other end does NOT know what you look like naked.

Human message delivery device.

Human message delivery device

The truly interesting development, however, is the ascendence of the text. Before phone use was ubiquitous, the rich employed servants who would deliver notes for them. Notes, especially live in real time, can be purely pragmatic — “Yes, I can see you for lunch this afternoon,” or intimate in a way beyond speech. “I long to feel the brush of your sweet hot lips on mine.” Like kids passing notes in a classroom, you can say nasty stuff about people right in front of you. Confess your boredom. You could even sext surreptitiously in front of your spouse or at work, though you might need to run off to the bathroom if things get too hot. On the other hand, texting can feel much less invasive than talking. There’s something jarring about a ringing phone. The soft buzz indicating a text message coming in feels less disruptive. Yet, in many ways it’s more so. People have a tendency to answer texts while “multi-tasking.” There’s less of a tendency these days to excuse oneself to “take a call.” People are more apt to text one person while continuing a conversation with another.

While it’s still easy to make the one-handed symbol — pinky to mouth, thumb to ear — for “call me,” the truth is most of us prefer to be reached by text.

Yet there is something so retro about text messages. Who could have imagined at the height of landline popularity that one day we’d avoid talking on the phone, preferring to spell out short notes on tiny keyboards — that offer us at once an immediate form of communication and a way to avoid actual communication?

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