How We Message With Text

What we text about when we text about text.
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What we text about when we text about text.
A man texts on his smartphone as he walks along a street in New York City. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

A man texts on his smartphone as he walks along a street in New York City. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2013, the United Kingdom-based discount service Net Discount Codes—not exactly a prestigious peer-reviewed journal—released a study that found the average mobile user will send out two million words over their lifetime. Net Discount Codes determined this by extrapolating the average texts a person sends per day—four messages of 20 words—over the average human lifespan. Admittedly, these findings are mostly irrelevant.

Maybe the average person will type out a million words over SMS, maybe not. Most importantly, who cares? That's like figuring out how many miles a person will travel via moving walkway in a lifetime. It's fun, but not a good gauge of anything significant. And that's because SMS is merely one way in which we're communicating via text.

In addition to regular old texting, there's email, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the programs embedded in dating apps, whatever Google Plus is supposed to be, and another half-dozen text-based messaging services that sell for billions of dollars. All of these various methods of communication are, at their core, the exact same: One person sending a text to another person.

Why do they each feel so different? And how do we come to use them differently?

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A key concept when talking about communication technology is "affordances." This is the action that's "afforded" between an object (in this case, text-based communication) and the organism using it (us). An example of this concept is a doorknob: It doesn't do much else other than open a door. But just because an object has a distinct affordance doesn't mean all people use it the same way all the time (and indeed, doorknobs can be used to hang artwork.)

How does this translate into the world of text-based communication? The programs are all essentially the same, but perform subtly different functions for different people.

"People have a very personalized sense of their [messaging] hierarchy," says Jeff Hancock, a professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University. "For me, text feels more personal. But is Facebook Messenger different than SMS texting, since people are on their phones for Facebook anyway? The answer, from a technical place, is no."

Yet, despite the medium using the same tech, there are reasons for this spectrum of emotions. For SMS, communication is dependent upon the exchange of a person's phone number. While in reality this isn't all that different from exchanging an email address or accepting a friend request on Facebook, it certainly feels it. The reason for this perceived dissimilarity has to do with some murky combination of learned behavior influenced by pop culture (i.e. the heavy importance of obtaining someone's "digits" in every movie) and alternative usage (using the same number to actual call someone, which feels like a more personal act). "That's a technical thing that leads to a psychological affordance of being more personal," Hancock says. "Email is considered publicly accessible communication, but texting is private."

The ease of connectivity has put our species in a unique position.

Also making it feel more "private" is the feeling that texts are a "one-on-one" conversation. Our history of emailing, meanwhile, includes enough mass CC'd friend-spam annoyances and errant reply-all debacles, that email is placed in a different emotional category. And while all these errors can indeed happen with SMS, they're just called something else. "If I texted you something, my expectation is that is not going to be shared," Hancock adds. "We can think of a spectrum by how private something is."

Things get more complicated when we start bringing other forms of text communication (Twitter DMs, Facebook messaging, etc.) to the party. The key difference when it comes to those modes of social media communication versus SMS/email is the necessary "buy-in" required of both parties. There's the initial buy-in (signing up for the medium), but also the more important subsequent one (friending or following someone else) that gives the medium its place on the hierarchy. For Facebook, there has to be a two-way point of connectivity, where both people make the choice to "friend" each other. And while many Instagram and Twitter accounts are open to the public, there still exists on those platforms the option for private communication.

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Personally, I have my Facebook and Instagram set to private. Only those who request to "follow" or "friend" me, and have their request approved, can see what I post. My tweets, however, are for everyone. This difference in similar text-based methods of communication is evidence of something quite profound happening as we adapt to this new world.

The ease of connectivity has put our species in a unique position. For eons, our interactions were limited by our ability to shout. With amplification techniques, those audiences extended. When we figured out how to broadcast signals over radio waves, numbers increased dramatically. But with each expansion, broadcasters were given opportunities to change the tone/presentation of their messages to account for their new audience.

Not so in the age of hyper-connectivity.

Everyone with Internet is able to interact with everyone else with an Internet immediately, and without consideration of their potential reach. (A week doesn't go by where some random person is shamed for this mistaking of public platform for private communique.) This dissonance of how we come to contextualize our new audiences is called "context collapse."

As we navigate these various mediums—and as we see others horribly failing at navigating them—we come up with our rules for how to use them. "Audiences have become hugely complicated," Hancock says. "And people are really trying to manage them." This means making certain mediums public, and others private. Your public Twitter, then, is part of your own "public persona," while you save more private moments, like photographs of your newborn, for the audience you've carefully curated on Facebook.

And so we end up with a hierarchy, albeit not always the same one for everyone. And seeing as our privacy is a part of the decision matrix informing this hierarchy, it only makes sense that the next iteration of text-messaging technology is a move toward ultra-privacy.

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Think back on the above example of people, long ago, peaking at the possibility of communicating with a relatively small number of others. Those encounters also had something else to them: no record.

Unless something was actually "in writing," there was no verifiable account of us having said or done anything. We could even talk anonymously in a crowd. "Even though they could physically see you, you were effectively anonymous," Hancock says. But now? Forget about the ever-present surveillance state; we're doing this ourselves every time we send a text-based communication.

The side-effect is that, for the first time in our history, there's a written record for most of our communications. "That's a very unusual thing for us," Hancock says. "We've evolved with not leaving a record. Our speech disappeared."

The written record has had an interesting effect on how we communicate: It's making us lie less often.

Over and over again, researchers have found that the record-keeping of text-based communication has kept people honest, relative to speaking to someone over the phone or face-to-face. This doesn't mean we're becoming a society of do-gooders, however. Rather, it's changing the way we lie, steering us toward following the path that's been paved by the greatest liars of all time.

"Politicians have to deal with times where they can't say the truth, but they can't outright lie because there's a record," Hancock says. "You ask them a question and they equivocate by answering some other question. This often happens in debates."

This is what we're now doing instead: not texting the entire truth. Rather than telling your partner you're getting a drink with co-workers, you fib about running late. Hancock and company have referred to these as "butler lies," in honor of personal assistants coming up with innocuous white lies when uninvited guests knocked in the door. "We're really in a flux period," Hancock says. "But deception will evolve along with the way technologies are being developed."

To speed this development along, programs like Snapchat, Cyber Dust, and Wickr have come along, selling themselves on the fact that they don't keep a record (though that fact is debatable). "It's interesting to design a tech that something purposefully disappears," Hancock says, "but it actually is the way we used to talk to people."

Once again, another group of technologies enter the hierarchy, fitting somewhere a bit more private than our old stand-bys of text and email. And as developers continue finding ways to get us to text one another, we'll continue tweaking our hierarchy design, bumping programs up or down, depending on how confident we feel that our communication is truly private.

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The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.

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