Sent from my iPhone 4
For anyone who doubts that the texting revolution is upon us, consider this: The average 13- to 17-year-old sends and receives 3,339 texts a month—more than 100 per day, according to the Nielsen Co., the media research firm. Adults are catching up. People from ages 45 to 54 sent and received 323 texts a month in the second quarter of 2010, up 75% from a year ago, Nielsen says.
The telephone has played a prominent role in some movie and music moments.
Behind the texting explosion is a fundamental shift in how we view our mobile devices. That they are phones is increasingly beside the point.
Nielsen, at the request of The Wall Street Journal, analyzed cellphone bills of 60,000 mobile subscribers and found adults made and received an average of 188 mobile phone calls a month in the 2010 period, down 25% from the same period three years earlier. Average monthly "talk minutes" fell 5% for the period compared with 2009; among 18- to 24-year-olds, the decline was 17%.
Text messages—also known as SMS (Short Message Service)—take up less bandwidth than phone calls and cost less. A text message's content is so condensed that it routinely fails, even more than email, to convey the writer's tone and affect. The more we text, the greater the opportunity for misunderstanding.
A recent survey of 2,000 college students asked about their attitudes toward phone calls and text-messaging and found the students' predominant goal was to pass along information in as little time, with as little small talk, as possible. "What they like most about their mobile devices is that they can reach other people," says Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University in Washington, D.C., who conducted the survey. "What they like least is that other people can reach them."
Part of what's driving the texting surge among adults is the popularity of social media. Sites like Twitter, with postings of no more than 140 characters, are creating and reinforcing the habit of communicating in micro-bursts. And these sites also are pumping up sheer volume. Many Twitter and Facebook devotees create settings that alert them, via text message, every time a tweet or message is earmarked for them. In October 2009, 400 million texts alerted social-media users to such new messages across AT&T's wireless network, says Mark Collins, AT&T senior vice president for data and voice products; by September 2010, the number had more than doubled to one billion. (Twitter reports more than two billion tweets are sent each month.)
Economics has much to do with texting's popularity. Text messages cost carriers less than traditional mobile voice transmissions, and so they cost users less. Sprint Nextel has reconceived its Virgin Mobile brand to cater to heavy texters in a difficult economy. For $25 per month, users get unlimited texting, email, social networking and 300 talk minutes; for another $15, they get an additional 900 talk minutes. The name of the brand's new wireless plan: "Beyond Talk."
According to Nielsen, African-Americans and Hispanics send and receive an average of 780 and 767 texts a month respectively, compared with 566 for whites. The difference reflects economic disparity, says Ken Eisner, managing director at nonprofit One Economy, which connects low-income communities to technology. "If you don't have broadband availability at home, if you don't have ubiquitous 24/7 access to the web over a laptop or PC, you'll find other ways to communicate," Mr. Eisner says.
Texting's rise over conversation is changing the way we interact, social scientists and researchers say. We default to text to relay difficult information. We stare at our phone when we want to avoid eye contact. Rather than make plans in advance, we engage in what Rich Ling, a researcher for the European telecom company Telenor and a professor at IT University in Copenhagen who studies teens and technology, has named "micro-coordination"—"I'll txt u in 10mins when I know wh/ restrnt."
Selected History of Mobile Messaging
More than 120 years in the making, the texting revolution is here. Thank Paula Abdul: 'American Idol' put texting on the map, and AT&T executive says.
March 10, 1876
Alexander Graham Bell makes the first 'phone call' as we know it: 'Mr. Watson, come here! I need you!' he called to his assistant. By summer of 1877, the first private telephone lines were in service.
First coast-to-coast phone line connects New York and San Francisco.
The first mobile phone call in the U.S. is made from a car on equipment weighing 80 pounds.
AT&T launches touchtone service, replacing a dial with a key pad.
The first text message has been sent, in Europe.
Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone.
Texting saves us time, but it steals from quiet reflection. "When people have a mobile device and have even the smallest increment of extra time, they will communicate with someone in their life," says Lee Rainie , director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Anne McAndrews, a 21-year-old marketing major at Emerson College in Boston, says she and her friends almost never talk on the phone. "If I were to call someone, it would have to be urgent," she says. "Otherwise, it's sort of rude and invasive." She takes a social-media marketing class to which Sprint has donated 10 of its newest mobile phones, the Evo and the Epic. The devices are connected to the Sprint network, and students get unlimited calling, texting and Internet access at no cost to them. "They've taken photos and posted them to our blog and they've tweeted. But I don't think a single student has made a single call from one of these phones," says David Gerzof, the class's professor.
The U.S. once lagged behind Asia and Europe in adopting the texting habit. But as U.S. telecom companies noticed a leveling-off in their customers' use of talk minutes, they introduced more texting options and spent more on marketing them. In 2003, AT&T signed on to sponsor "American Idol," where viewers vote by texting to designated numbers. "American Idol put texting on the map," says AT&T's Mr. Collins.
Parents of teenagers have figured out how to text so they can stay in touch with their kids. The ubiquitous BlackBerry and other hand-held devices helped familiarize older users with thumb-typing on tiny keyboards. And they introduced the allure of constant communication, much of it done furtively under a boardroom or dining room table.
Of course, the phone conversation will never be completely obsolete. Deal makers and other professionals still spend much of the day on the phone. Researchers say people are more likely to use text-based communications at the preliminary stages of projects. The phone comes into play when there are multiple options to consider or binding decisions to be made.
Textophiles think voice mail is a waste of time. Yet talkers like to talk. Mobile devices with recent versions of Google's Android operating system have "voice input" capability. Users tap on email or text-message fields and speak into the mobile's microphone. Words appear as text on-screen. "It's still a problem for people to become quick and efficient typers on a mobile phone," says Bill Byrne, a Google voice-interface engineer.
In 2005, an entrepreneur tried bringing texters and talkers together. James Siminoff founded PhoneTag, a service that transcribes voice-mail messages into text messages. Mr. Siminoff says his research indicates a five-hour lag between the time a voice mail is left and listened to. Retrieving and listening to a 30-second voice mail takes a minute, he says, but "scanning" the text of a 30-second message takes about five seconds. "Voice mail is an old way of thinking in a digital lifestyle," he says.
Write to Katherine Rosman at email@example.com