The “Texting” Phenomenon

By Matt Pearson
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Text-enabled Mobile PhoneText messaging (or “texting”, as it tends to be referred to in hipster vernacular) is becoming an increasingly prevalent form of communication. I recently had a conversation with my parents about this subject, thanks to this last month’s Cingular bill. In response to their questions, I tried to explain how in some ways texting is more convenient, and far less intrusive than trying to call someone, and how this particular medium is becoming an integral part of the way we communicate with each other in this increasingly tech-saturated world. The following was distilled from this conversation.

There are basically two basic forms of communication: synchronous and asynchronous. Phone calls and instant-messaging are synchronous, and require immediate attention and relatively hight-bandwidth engagement (especially in the cause of audio communication). Because synchronous communication has to happen in real-time, its fidelity breaks down when it is time-shifted. And in the case of voicemail, information-capture can be difficult. I’ve had to listen to some voicemails 4 or 5 times to extract the enclosed content completely, depending on how fast or how well the caller spoke and the quality of the connection. It is also difficult to parse and capture information from a recording because an inherently synchronous medium (voice) is being hacked to work in an asynchronous manner (voicemail).

Asynchronous communication (emails, letters/postcards, texting) is much lower-bandwidth than synchronous communication. Less total, but more concise information is being passed across “the wire” during these exchanges. They often lack context, timing, inflection, or other subtleties that are inherent in synchronous communication, but that’s the price that is paid when using a compressed, low-bandwidth asynchronous “burst” of data rather than a synchronous 2-way “stream”. But the benefit of this is that it is less intrusive. Texts and emails are easily collected into “buckets” for later review and parsing. They can be scanned and searched in ways that are impossible for voice data with current technology. And most importantly, they don’t require immediate and focused attention. This is probably one of the big reasons why “texting” is becoming more popular.

High-brow theoretical musings aside, the key question was asked: “Why don’t people just use voicemail?” What is it about picking up the phone and giving someone a ring that makes people hesitant to just call and leave a message?

A phone call requires the dedicated attention of both parties involved…even for the recipient to ignore (or silence) the phone, and then to later access and parse a voicemail. It may be difficult or even inappropriate to do this in some instances. But asynchronous forms work very well in these same situations. For example, it’s incredibly rude and inappropriate to answer a cell phone in the middle of class. It’s trivial, however, to receive a text message, and either note it for parsing later, or quickly scan it on the spot.

Current culture seems to have picked up on this somewhat. It’s true that a lot of people use asynchronous channels for near-synchronous communication. But more and more, people are using texting as a prelude to synchronous communication (most commonly phone calls, since texting is largely a phenomenon of mobile phone platforms). Text someone first, to see if it’s okay to call them. Then give them a call if it’s okay. Think of it like the modern form of “paging” someone…but where the message actually carries a meaningful payload, rather than a simple numeric message.

For the record, the unusually high Cingular bill that sparked this discussion didn’t have a huge number of text messaging charges to blame. Rather, we seem to have inherited unusually per-message high rates from our previous plan. Before you start texting up a storm (or leveraging this technology as another way access information on-the-go), make sure you’re familiar with how your particular mobile plan charges you for this service. Your bank account will thank you.