Text messaging is an entirely new cultural phenomenon. It is a new technology, but I don’t just mean that it is a new technology like email or cell phones. No, text messaging is an entirely new form of communication that has no basis in a preceding form of communication, and the cultural significance of this is yet to be seen.
Think about it. Your cell phone is just a more-mobile way of speaking on the telephone, and the telephone itself is just a way to talk to someone who isn’t within the range of your natural voice. But at the end of the day, each is just a technology that enables people to talk to each other, as they have since language was invented.
Email too is based in existing communication. Since written language was invented, people have been writing each other messages for when they couldn’t meet face to face. Whether this meant letters sent from one person to another or a note left behind to explain your absence from an expected meeting, the written word has been in use for thousands of years. And email is just another means to send a letter from one person to another. Yes, you can CC it to 50 people without rewriting it. Yes you can send it 3,000 miles and expect a response in 30 minutes. But in the end, you’re just writing someone a letter, or a shorter note, that they can read at their leisure.
But texting is a different thing entirely. You could consider it the electronic equivalent of a post it note and equate it to email. To some it may be more like a phone conversation, since texts can pop back and forth from cell phone to cell phone at a rate of several per minute, as a truly-interactive, real-time conversation. And neither interpretation is really wrong, but neither captures the cultural significance of texting completely.
Texting combines the interactive nature of a telephone call with the privacy of a letter, and since it takes place on a mobile device that’s always “on” and always in your hands, it is becoming universal. This means that people can have ongoing, private conversations in ways that were never possible before. Nobody can overhear your text conversation, and it’s much less likely someone will read your private text messages on your phone; it’s always with you, can be password protected, and never gets shoved into a drawer or thrown into a trash can where it could be retrieved. So people sending text messages feel free to communicate with little discretion and in ways that may be more hurtful and malicious than previously possible.
For example, teenagers have embraced texting as a common form of communication, and some have been known to send and receive thousands of texts every month. And a teen can sit it a room and have an ongoing text conversation, without anyone in the room knowing who they’re talking to or what they’re talking about. There’s no need for a hushed telephone call when talking about something salacious, and there’s no need to leave the room to gossip about the friend sitting in the next chair. No, it’s possible to tell someone miles away terrible things about a person sitting right next to you, without their ever knowing.
Yes, texting is a new phenomenon in many ways… not all of them good. And with all the harm that can come from this kind of interaction, it might be a good idea to install an SMS Spy system, to track the text messages to your family cell phones. With the ability to spy cell phones, this kind of software can take the secrecy out of texting and create a more open and honest dialog.