Texting is bound to decline but it won't die out just yet

January 16, 2014 by Matthew Higgs, The Conversation
How come you never text me no more? Credit: Jan Persiel

Reports this week reveal the number of text messages sent between mobile phones has fallen into decline for the first time since the service was introduced. According to figures from Deloitte, the number of messages sent worldwide fell from 152 billion in 2012 to 145bn in 2013.

The numbers confirmed what many have suspected for some time – mobile users are abandoning the built-in phone service and using internet-based apps to communicate. It's true that services such as WhatsApp are playing an increasingly central role in our communications but it's not the end for the text.

The growth of text

The first text message was sent from Vodafone's headquarters in Newbury, England, on 3 December 1992, by engineer Neil Papworth. It was quickly adopted by the dominant carriers in telecommunications, who have, until only very recently, been in complete control of the market. They have placed strict constraints on the amount we can message and how much it will cost us when we do.

This was acceptable when they were the only providers of such technology, but with the availability of internet-based instant messaging, the method of "pay-as-you-go" is equivalent to putting money in a pot every time you open your mouth and having your mouth clamped shut after you've said 500 words. It's archaic.

Instant messaging frees us from these chains. It removes the previous oligopoly of carriers and allows us to choose from a range of communication methods. This type of competition is healthy, and pushes technology to evolve in new and exciting ways. I am not using a particular app because its the only one I can afford, I am using it because it allows me to communicate with people in new and exciting ways.

More than a message

The essence of a message is about so much more than its . The ability to decorate the content with emojis, to provide additional media to support the content, and even the medium through which the content is sent, all have a relevant bearing on how the message is interpreted by its intended audience.

SMS was an early way of sending text messages by phone at a time when providers didn't really need to think about this symbiotic relationship. But modern app developers are now designing innovative ways to communicate.

If I send something via email it might be because I want it to look more formal than the same thing sent via text or WhatsApp. I might only email my boss, my mum, but WhatsApp all my friends. In one sense, this is about ubiquity. Older generations are probably less likely to adopt new services such as WhatsApp.

But it might also be that I don't want to communicate with my boss and my mum through a medium I consider to be very informal, the same medium I use to send Harlem shake videos to my friends. It just feels wrong and sends a certain message about the content to the recipient.

Snapchat is an excellent example of this trend. It is a service designed just for fun and is therefore used for fun content. Messages are sent in the form of pictures and disappear up to 10 seconds after they've been opened. It isn't designed for serious content that needs to be considered for longer and is therefore used to communicate just the fun stuff.

Even in an age in which we email job applications to potential employers, many people still choose to attach their cover letter in the form of a word document rather than send it in the body of the email. We remain attached to the symbolism of the letter as a way of conveying the gravity of our intent.

These new ways of communicating offer us cheaper services, more options to send different types of message and allow us to communicate with more than one person at a time, but by their very nature, they don't necessarily spell doom for the slightly more formal medium of text, just as email hasn't quite done for the letter.

One medium to bind them

SMS may cling on to its place in our communications for some time for another important reason. Short of taking the trouble to call someone (and who does that these days?) it remains the only sure-fire way to contact people through your mobile.

If your contact has a , then they almost definitely have SMS. This is not the case for the new services on offer and may never be. While we have sought to break free from the SMS oligopoly, we now have a system that offers us almost too many options.

I might prefer WhatsApp but my friends might use Skype or Kik, and their friends might use something different. We might be willing to download another app to stay in touch but what if every person I know has a different go-to service? I'd need to download a hundred different apps and don't have the time to be constantly moving between them. While many large networks and communities will favour a particular messaging service, it is likely that SMS will remain the most ubiquitous service for a while to come.

Explore further: Sore thumbs? US text messaging declines

Related Stories

Sore thumbs? US text messaging declines

May 2, 2013

Americans are saying goodbye to text messaging, a wireless industry group says, as Internet-based applications such as Apple's Messages are starting to taking over from what was once a cash cow for phone companies.

WhatsApp storms to lead in online-messaging race

May 8, 2013

Its chief executive claims it has more users than Twitter. It's rumored to have just rebuffed a $1 billion buyout offer from Google. So what's up with WhatsApp? And how has a San Francisco startup that many Americans still ...

Phone call, SMS or perhaps a Whatsapp message?

August 29, 2013

Smartphone users' communication habits have been studied in a doctoral thesis at Aalto University. The users' choices are affected, e.g., by the strength of the relationship with the other party and the context in which the ...

Recommended for you

Cryptocurrency rivals snap at Bitcoin's heels

January 14, 2018

Bitcoin may be the most famous cryptocurrency but, despite a dizzying rise, it's not the most lucrative one and far from alone in a universe that counts 1,400 rivals, and counting.

Top takeaways from Consumers Electronics Show

January 13, 2018

The 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, which concluded Friday in Las Vegas, drew some 4,000 exhibitors from dozens of countries and more than 170,000 attendees, showcased some of the latest from the technology world.

Finnish firm detects new Intel security flaw

January 12, 2018

A new security flaw has been found in Intel hardware which could enable hackers to access corporate laptops remotely, Finnish cybersecurity specialist F-Secure said on Friday.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.