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8 March 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Generation Txt: mixed messages
Why young people can't stop texting - and adults can't stop talking about it.

by Andrew Calcutt

The new economy is old hat. Dot communists have learned market values the hard way. Nobody really knows what happened to WAP. But vapourware abhors a vacuum, and the gap has already been filled by text messaging.

Sending 160-character messages is now the topic of 160-word sentences. Talk about text messaging is as prolific as messaging itself.

Compared to the high expectations of a new economic paradigm (booms without busts), the humble text message seems a trivial topic. This is part of its attraction. Those who talk a lot about texting are signalling that they know the dotcom discourse was hubristic. To talk text is to apply the precautionary principle to conversation.

Apart from being unambitious, talking about text is yet another way of focusing on young people. In an age when the kids are always right, grown-ups often seek to legitimate their own conversation by orienting it around youth. This is a form of abdication: we are virtual, only young people are real. Thus the focus on Generation Txt (text messaging as practised by the younger generation) is the latest instance in a cumulative process of infantilisation, whereby adults tend to reformulate themselves as bystanders in a country of the young. Infantilised adults are putting their own spin on the youthful activity of text messaging - but what of the activity itself? An estimated 10billion messages a year must be saying something.

First and foremost, texting reflects the desire of young people to connect with each other. Ferried to and from school by their anxious parents, many of them have been starved of informal social intercourse, and texting goes some way towards satisfying their cravings. But this is intercourse with a difference. Without the openness of a traditional playground where anybody of a certain age may enter, texting operates through a closed list of personal friends and acquaintances. This is junior clubbing, not pubbing.

It makes sense for texting to take the place of grafitti, the teenage messaging associated with public space. Now that the homeless are the only people living in public space, tagging has gone private and become texting.

Although texting is communication by writing, it is only made possible by the technologies of spoken communication (the mobile phone), and this makes for an interesting hybrid of written and spoken forms of language. Aside from these formal experiments, the content of texting is as banal as you would expect teenage gossip to be. The instances where text messaging has been used as a political resource (Philippines, Zimbabwe) are rare and unrepresentative.

At the end of the nineties, texting's poor interface was a cause for celebration
Limited to 160 characters, the compressed format of texting means never having to say sorry for stating the obvious, because the technical restrictions of the medium prevent you from saying anything else.

The success of text messaging is largely dependent on the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM), the telecommunications system established in 1992 that enables phones from one network to 'talk' to phones from other networks. The architects of text messaging conceived it as an extension of paging. Similarly, they assumed that those using the facility would be professionals needing to be 'on message'.

But in the mid-1990s the cheapening of mobile phones made them accessible to young people; and the low cost of texting compared to talking on the phone made it especially attractive to the newly mobile-ised. These factors facilitated the hijack of texting by youth - the latest in a succession of technological takeovers which also includes musical recording equipment and high performance cars.

Among trend-setting young people at the end of the nineties, texting's poor interface was a cause for celebration rather than grounds for concern. These were the years of lo-fi, when, under the slogan 'keep it real', grainy textures and self-consciously low production values were all the rage in music and design. Furthermore, the non-slick aesthetic of texting meant that the corporate label would not stick to it. Texting took mobiles out of the hands of yuppies and made them somehow anti-corporate, which also confirmed the idea of texting as a subcultural activity taking place below desks and underneath the surface of the adult world.

In this sense, texting shows that young people are equally keen to connect with each other and to disconnect from adults; moreover, that disconnecting from adults is the very stuff of the connections they make among themselves. In other aspects, however, texting shows a continuum of concerns which stretches across generations, affecting teenagers and adults alike.

Nowadays both generations seem equally apprehensive about direct contact with other people. In an age when the bandwidth and open-endedness of face-to-face conversation makes many uncomfortable, texting, like email, structures informality, puts it at a convenient distance and makes it safer. There is no possibility of a smack in the mouth from a text message.

I have suggested that talk about texting indicates the adult preoccupation with youth, which in turn indicates the readiness of adults to step out of the spotlight and become bystanders in their own lives. Observing scores of young people turning aside from the situation they are in by sending a message to somebody outside, I am drawn to the conclusion that texting serves a similar purpose for teenagers. In effect, they are using the text message to isolate themselves from their immediate surroundings and to sidestep demands that might be made of them there.

There is no possibility of a smack in the mouth from a text message
In the course of my research into text messaging, I interviewed a young woman who described how she uses text messaging while out on dates with prospective boyfriends: whatever the man does, she messages her female friends about it. Gone are the worries associated with first dates, because she always has back-up from her friends. Gone too is the opportunity to be alone with a potential new partner.

Her use of texting as an escape clause reminded me of 'knee-jerk irony', the prophylactic mode of expression identified by Douglas Coupland in Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture (1). It also reminded me of Andy Warhol's relationship with his tape recorder, the technical fix to all his personal insecurities:

'When I say "we" I mean my tape recorder and me.…The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape.' (2)

By the same token, nothing need ever be a problem again, because a problem just means a good text message.

The underlying problem is not the activity of text messaging nor the technology which facilitates it, but the culture in which these are applied. At a time when we are frightened of being with other people and scared of being left without them, texting is the youth version of being neither here nor there.

Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA); and White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also coauthor of Cult Fiction: A Reader's Guide, Prion Books, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Moving on, by Sandy Starr

Restricted mobility, by Sandy Starr

The magic of mobile, by James Woudhuysen

'Text messaging: take note', by Jennie Bristow

(1) Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture Douglas Coupland, Abacus 1992. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(2) The Philosophy of Andy Warhol : From a to B and Back Again A Warhol, Picador 1976, p32. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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