Sunday, March 8, 2009

On Texting

A friend of mine told me I should try writing nonfiction essays so I'm gonna give it a go...

Are there holdouts who still revile text messaging as a silly habit of teenagers and techheads? In the world I live in, texting is rapidly eclipsing voice calling as the dominant form of telecommunication, and it's not hard to see why.

There will always be conversations we won't have via text--business talks, declarations of love, suicide prevention--but for the average everyday exchanging of thoughts and information, the traditional phone call is making less and less sense. Not only is it costlier than texting, it also wastes precious time and social energy on redundant greetings and farewells. Who wants to go through the whole routine of "Hey, it's me, how are you, ok, talk to you later, bye" when the core of your conversation is simply, "Meet at 6:00"?

We hate repetition, familiarity breeds contempt, and given the large number of phone interactions we have with people in any given day, having to go through the traditional conversational hoops every single time can be maddening. Sometimes so maddening that we will actually choose not to contact someone at all rather than suffer through the stumbling introductions, the time delays and resulting overlaps in speech, the whole awkward experience of speaking to someone without seeing them.

Text messaging is often seen as a less "real", less "human" form of communication. But people who view it as yet another example of technology killing personal connection are obviously forgetting the original form of long-distance talking: the letter. What is texting but a shorter, brisker form of mailing a letter? For thousands of years letters have served the function of connecting people who aren't able to be together physically. And, counterintuitively, written communication is actually a more natural form than voice calling.

Compare it to Isaac Asimov's concept of "the Uncanny Valley". This is the idea that in an artificial representation of a human being, we can accept crude simulations, and we can accept real humans, but there is a point in between that basically creeps us out. When something is so realistic that it appears human, yet isn't quite there, it strikes a sour note in our primitive cores. The subtle flaws, the subliminal wrongness disturbs us.

The telephone puts us in the Uncanny Valley. We hear each other's voices, so we feel like we're actually talking to each other, but all the subtle nuances of human conversation are gone. Facial expressions, body language, gestures, all the things that augment our words and make people understand what we mean, these are all absent, and it leads to weird, stilted conversations full of interruptions and awkward moments of dead air.

Why is texting better? Because we don't expect those nuances from written communication, and so we don't miss them when they aren't there. We just take the information at face value, and wait until our next physical meeting to get the tone and timbre, the personal essence. There will never be a replacement for live, face to face conversation, but when a coffee date or afternoon stroll is impossible, give me written communication any day, whether it's texting, email, or snail mail letters, and keep me out of that Valley of the Real Dolls.

The advent of text messaging has actually created whole new forms of expression. The immediacy of it, the feeling of safety and the ability to take time to gather thoughts, allows us to open up our lives in ways not possible before.

There's the effect of Constant Contact. With the ease and casual nature of texting, it's now possible to send the most trivial observations or amusing tidbits to the people we care about throughout the day. We get to share each other's lives to a degree of detail that would never happen otherwise. That funny bumper sticker, that shirtless guy in the coffee shop, that pigeon we just ran over, we can share these moments as they happen, without having to wait till the next time we see each other and trying to find conversational openings to fit these stories into. The effect is that we feel like our friends are always present, sharing our days with us. We feel a little less alone.

Has texting even changed the very nature of romantic relationships? Look no further than the phenomenon of the Post-Date Recap Text. You've just come out of the concert or movie or demolition derby. You're smiling at each other, making small talk. The feeling is in the air that you've had a good time and there is chemistry, but no one wants to say it. You're both bubbling with thoughts and feelings, but because people are reserved and uncertain creatures, none of it comes out. You come to the street corner where you'll part ways. You hug, she says thanks for the dinner or the drink or the lap dance, and you walk back to your car. Wait for it...wait for it...there it is! The Post-Date Recap Text! She says, "I had so much fun, call me soon!" or "You're adorable, let's make out next time!" or "I can't believe you took me to a cockfight. Never call me again."

And there you have it.

We use texts to say all the things we leave unsaid during our face to face time. Because texting is self-contained and immediate, it doesn't have to follow any natural conversational path. It doesn't have to wait for the right moment. You can just say it, whatever it is, whenever it comes to you. The result is that people communicate on a whole different level through texts. Face to face, we've only just met and aren't comfortable with each other, but over text, we can talk as if we've known each other for years, and we can say whatever might be on our mind, no matter where we are or who's listening, like a psychic direct-line into people's heads. We text things we can't vocalize.

A friend of mine told me a story about a moment he had with a girl. He was sitting next to her on a couch, longing to kiss her, but too shy to make the move. He texted her, "Do you want to make out?", she read the text, she smiled, and he went for it. Dorky as hell? Yes. But also kinda cute? I think so.

Of course there's a very legitimate question here: Does having a form of communication this immediate and easy actually atrophy our ability to communicate in real life? If we become accustomed to safe, nonlinear conversations that don't require us to be quick-witted or brave, will we eventually lose those traits like vestigal tails, and begin to thrive only in digital realms? Time will tell, but there's no going back now.

At least, not until financial apocalypse brings down the cell phone companies and we're all reduced to mumbling, abbreviating halfwits...


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