Today is the 20th anniversary of the first text message. Should we be afraid of what's next? No way. Texting doesn't replace conversation with connection; it enhances it. I love texting, and you'd have to pry my phone from my cold, dead hands to get me to stop typing out my feelings. (And I'd probably still figure out a way to send one more quick text from beyond the grave.)
On December 3rd, 1992, 22-year-old British engineer Neil Papworth sent the first ever Short Messaging Service (better known as SMS, better known as text) from his computer to a friend's Orbitel 901 mobile phone. (It said "Merry Christmas." At least it wasn't "sup"?) Little did he — or Matti Makkonen, the so-called "Father of Text Messaging" who dreamed up the concept back in the 80s — know how quickly texting would become an integral part of the way most of us communicate.
People love to complain about how texting has obliterated face-to-face communication and replaced thoughtful language and real emotions with acronyms and emoticons. Every few months, a new article comes out about how constant text-based communication is making us lonely or even driving us insane. "My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it's hard, but it can be done," Sherry Turkle wrote last spring in a New York Times piece called "The Flight from Conversation. "We've become accustomed to a new way of being 'alone together.' Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be." Think that's depressing? You haven't even heard about the 16-year-old boy she talked to who "relies on texting for almost everything" and said, wistfully, "Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation." Dark.
I agree with Turkle and her alarmist peers that texting is not usually the best medium for meaningful conversation, but think all this hand-wringing is counter-productive: statistics show that texting is here to stay. One-third of Americans prefer texts to voice calls, according to a 2011 Pew Institute survey, and in the UK, more people text than phone. The Pew Institute found that Americans ages 18-29 send and receive an average of nearly 88 text messages per day, compared to 17 phone calls. A recent survey of my own phone shows that I typically make fewer than than five phone calls a day, and I barely ever get any voice mails; why would I when someone could just text me what they need?
I also completely disagree that texting can't help foster important relationships and strengthen those that are already meaningful. I moved from California to New York a little over a year ago, so most of the people I'm closest to are three hours behind and 3,000 miles away from me. I'm certain that we wouldn't still be so close if we didn't text. My mom always tells me that a simple "Hi, hope you had a good night" or even a photo of a pair of shoes I found at a thrift store is comforting to her, like we're shopping together. My best friends and I constantly communicate via a group text, which allows us to keep tabs on both trivial and essential information. There's no pressure to respond right away, so sometimes our texts read more like a collective stream of consciousness: over the past 48 hours, we've discussed one friend's little sister's first rave experience, Craigslist rideshares, STD tests, and prosciutto.
We talk on the phone about really important stuff and catch up separately too, of course, but it's not always easy to find a time that works for everyone, since we're on such different schedules thanks to the time difference. Also, in my experience, a best-friendship can't rely on super long and formally scheduled phone calls. It's the possibility of both deep and utterly mundane impromptu communication that has strengthened our friendships despite the distance.
I've been dating a guy for a few months who may literally be the only person I know who doesn't have a smartphone, on purpose. Somehow, we ended up not hating each other, and I also ended up introducing him to the joys of the text message. One of the first texts he ever sent me was a joke about how much he disliked texting: "They're talking about the loss of face-to-face communication on Fresh Air right now. 'We're substituting connection for conversation.' Agreed." Famous last words! Six weeks later, he received a warning from his phone service because he had exceeded his SMS plan. (Note: when I say I love texting, I really mean I love typing messages to other people via my phone; as many have pointed out, the SMS is egregiously expensive and quickly being replaced by internet-based communications that are free for smartphone users, like iMessenger. Moving on.)
Am I a demon temptress that forever ruined his ability to talk to people and got him hooked on obnoxious abbreviations? Hardly. He simply realized that it can be just as possible to connect with someone via text as it is if you're in the same room.
That isn't not the only relationship I've strengthened via text — I think it's way less intimidating to text a new friend or prospective romantic partner a quick hello or funny "this made me think of you" anecdote than call when you're first getting to know each other. A text provides limited space with which to verbalize your feelings, but it gives you more space to figure out what, exactly, you want to say. There's less pressure to perform, and its an easy way to eventually feel close enough to someone to start hanging out with them "In Real Life."
And what is "Real Life," anyway? Sometimes I think about whether the premium our society bestows on IRL interaction as opposed to virtual conversation will fade away with our generation, and whether that's a bad thing. I don't think it is. I thrive on communication; I love talking to people and hearing their stories and hopes and jokes and concerns. But I don't think the method of communication is as important as the words themselves. Sure, there's something that's lost by solely communicating via text. But what about the relationships you lose out on or allow to evaporate if you only prioritize face-to-face interaction? Plus, who said we had to choose between the two?
In conclusion, I must disagree with Miley Cyrus's renowned words of wisdom: "When you mean it, I'll believe it/If you text it, I'll delete it." I believe in the power of the text message. Here's to 20 more years.
Image via Supri Suharjoto /Shutterstock.