Entering the Text Messaging Era

I was a text messaging virgin, until this week. My sister ushered me into the 21st century by sending me my first one: “Paul Allen needs to go to the dentist.” After three tries, I finally was able to reply: “Maybe paul doesn’t have a dental plan.”

While sending inane notes about the Seattle Seahawks billionaire owner may not seem like a big deal to anyone under the age of 40, to me it was like a door had been opened to a whole new world that will make the miles between my sister and I shrink like Congress’ approval ratings.

Some 7.3 billion text messages are sent via cell phones within the United States every month. That’s way up from 2.9 billion a year ago according to CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade group. Not surprisingly, teens and young adults were the earliest adopters here in the states. This communication phenomenon is linked here in the US with the television phenomenon “American Idol.” It exploded onto the scene when Ryan Seacrest first asked viewers to vote for their favorite contestant by texting in their choices. Three idols and three years later, it is arguably the favored form of communication between not only “Idol” fans, but millions of love-struck teens.

Which explains why my big (translate – older) sister is so far ahead of me text-wise. She’s a high school PE teacher and coach who got on the texting train thanks to her “kids,” as well as her husband’s ROTC students. “Wat do yu think (he’s) thinkin bout? a blackb 4 my b day?”

In fact, boomers have become the fastest growing group of text message, or SMS users in the United States. A survey of 5,200 adults last year by technology consulting firm Yankee Group found that text message usage among Americans between 25 and 34 has been increasing steadily, with 33% saying they text regularly. In the 18 to 24 age group, 62% said they text frequently. And while kids were the target market for text messaging two or three years ago, Doug Busk at Verizon Wireless says “I don’t believe that’s the case anymore.” Although the rate of texting among 35 to 44 year olds has been flat during the past two years, it’s expected to soon become the fastest growing sector. “As more older consumers join in, text messaging will be a major driver of overall data revenue for cell phone carriers over the next five years,” says Linda Barrabee, a Yankee Group analyst.

That being the case, we over-40’s have a lot of catching up to do. Not only do we need to loosen up our pre-arthritic thumbs, but we also need to learn the language of texting. A text message sent from a cell phone is usually limited to 160 characters or less, resulting in a new form of shorthand first “developed” by IM’ers. However, because the phone pad is more confining that a keyboard, text lingo is filled with acronyms such as CWOT (complete waste of time), BBL (be back later), gr8, H8, ruok, and the ubiquitous LOL (laughing out loud). For someone who, less than a year ago, thought TMI still meant Three Mile Island, I have a lot of learning to do. (too much information, if you didn’t already know) Fortunately, a knowledge base of text lingo is just a click away. For instance, Netlingo.com offers a list of acronyms and text messaging shorthand, and you can get your text language questions answered instantly at Transl8it.com.

And while we are wrangling with learning a new language, the “experts” are debating the effect text messaging will have on us psychologically and culturally. There is the camp that claims that text messaging, email and technology in general is driving people apart, turning us into emotional robots. If you never have to actually talk to anyone, much less face them and talk, you can never really know the impact your words may have on the other person – which is something that can cut both ways. “You don’t see the person’s upper lip tremble. You don’t hear their voice quiver. You don’t get those external, non-textual cues,” says Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. She adds that because of this, delicate subjects might be easier to broach, but also easier to misunderstand. No doubt dozens of studies have been launched on the subject, and we’ll be hearing lots more about this in the years to come.

In the meantime, I’ve found a way to “talk” more often to my sister, sharing thoughts when they come to me, rather than putting off that phone call that for some reason, never gets made. So while she was working today, I asked her “do yu let yr kids txt during clss?” “No, but im pe,” she replied. God help her co-workers in classrooms!

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