Happy Bday 2 txt: SMS marks its twentieth year

Twenty years ago, a young software engineer sent the world’s first text message. Today, the majority of people text at least once a day. How has the medium changed the world?

On December 3rd, 1992, a young software engineer called Neil Papworth wrote a cheerful note to his colleague. Moments later, the Vodafone director received the message: it simply read ‘Merry Christmas’.

Papworth didn’t know it, but he had changed communication for millions of people. His small note – sent by a computer – was the world’s first text. Twenty years later, some 15 million texts are sent every day; last year, eight trillion messages were sent worldwide.

The world took some time to wake up to the Short Message Service: most companies believed few customers would write when speaking would do. But in 1999, pay-as-you-go pricing was introduced, and texts between rival networks were allowed. SMS took off: by 2001, one billion were sent every month.

Language adapted to the new form. With just 160 characters to play with – not to mention the effort of typing the alphabet on numerical keypads – texting necessitated shorter words: slang like LOL and OMG worked its way into everyday vocabulary.

In 2003, one 13-year-old even submitted a school essay in text language: ‘my smmr hols wr CWOT,’ she wrote. ‘B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc.’ The incident stoked fears that texting rendered young people unable to communicate in proper English.

Today, texts are useful for much more than arranging a night out. Police forces use ‘stealth texts’, which cannot be seen by the recipient, but allow their location to be tracked. HIV sufferers can be reminded to take their medication by text, and in the developing world banking by text means people can move money around easily, giving them crucial access to credit and cash.

But as it celebrates its second decade, and for the first time in history, the text message is in decline.

Why might that be? Today, texting is one medium among many which, thanks to smartphones, are free and at our fingertips at every hour of the day. Instant messaging services like Whatsapp, as well as Twitter, are constantly attracting new users, and Facebook and email are now easier to use than ever.

Text generation

Much has been written on the impact of the SMS. The ease of texting has made communication constant; the messages’ miniature form has even altered the way we speak face to face. Text messages, some say, are more than just useful: they have fundamentally changed how we live our lives and think about ourselves.

Others, however, aren’t convinced by that. These messages, they say, just make it a little easier for people to live, facilitating the socialising and working that has always turned the wheels of human communities. They are a tool to help humanity, not control it.

You Decide

  1. Has texting had a positive or negative impact on your life?
  2. Does technology just make it easier for people to achieve their goals and do things they enjoy, or does it have the power to change these things?

Activities

  1. Keep a diary of how often you text over the course of one week. At the end, analyse the data you have collected and present it in an interesting way.
  2. Pick one technological development, such as mobile phones or email. Make a list of ways in which it has changed people’s behaviour, and, by extension, the society we live in.

Some People Say...

“I’m addicted to texting.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Texting is no big deal to me.
That’s probably because you’ve taken to texting much more smoothly than other generations. Teenagers were, and still are, among the biggest fans of text. The average 12 to 15-year-old sends 193 text messages each week, compared to about 50 among adults.
Impressive.
Some people think it’s worrying. Texting brings more dangers than just abbreviated language. The constant communication that texts allow people has meant a rise in text bullying, from which many teens might feel there is no escape. ‘Sexting’ explicit messages has also become more common – and can lead to problems if texts are forwarded to others. Texting while driving, too, has led to fatal car accidents and was even implicated in the 2008 LA commuter train crash, which killed 25 people.

Word Watch

Sent by a computer
The first text message had to be typed out on a computer, because phones were not equipped with keypads that could type the alphabet. The first phone that was capable of texting was produced by Nokia in 1993.
A school essay
Or in proper English: ‘my summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three kids face to face. I love New York, its a great place.’
Mobile banking
In developing countries where infrastructure is poor and cash is scarce, moving money around by phone can have a profound impact. In Africa, for example, it is used to make loans for businesses, or to give money so people can afford healthcare. In Afghanistan, the government uses it to pay public officials, avoiding the corruption that using middlemen or other kinds of transfers can entail. Those who are working elsewhere in the world can also use mobile banking to send money to relative back home.

Subjects

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