Mobile phone ownership is universal, and people use them constantly. If you don't have a mobile, you're effectively a non-person. (http://www.orange.com/).
Nearly a billion text messages whizz around the UK every month. Whenever and however you like to send you text messages, it's a completely individual way to express yourself. (Orange Magazine, Spring 2001)
Figures and claims like these abound regarding the popularity, ubiquity and necessity of mobile phones in general and text-messages in particular (Teather, 2001). It seems that these technologies for communication have become an essential feature of both popular and commercial rhetoric about new media cultures and especially of so called 'global communications'. Which is not to say that this technology is properly global; worldwide patterns of mobile phone usership necessarily follow the socioeconomic contours of which distinguish the 'media rich' and 'media poor' more generally (Carvin, 2000). Nonetheless, from a more academic perspective, Katz & Aakhus (2002) cite figures estimating that the worldwide usership of mobile phones is approaching a billion. (This compares with an estimated 600 million people online <Nua.com>). Although not true for the USA, where the internet has tended to be the communication technology of preference, penetration rates in countries in Western Europe (e.g. Scandinavia, UK, Germany & France) and East Asia (e.g. Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan) are believed to be as high as 70-80%. [note 3] For many commentators - lay and academic alike - mobile telephony has heralded important new cultures of communication (see, for example, Rheingold, 2002).
According to cultural critic Umberto Eco (2002), we live in an age where the diminutive, the brief and the simple are highly prized in communication; if this is the case, then there's little doubt that text-messaging embodies this zeitgeist. Like many earlier communication technologies, however, the mobile phone has come to evoke and/or embody a range of projected fears and hopes (cf. Turkle, 1995). In fact, the history of the development of communication technologies is one marked by periods of excessive hype and hysteria about the kinds of cultural, social and psychological impacts each new technology is likely to have. Having said which, few people - professional or lay - could have predicted the extraordinary rise in popularity of the mobile phone in many countries and its sister technology SMS 'short messaging service'. (Also known as text-messaging or texting, for more explanation see Bernatchez's What is SMS Text Messages?) Initially intended for purely commercial purposes (Bellis, 2002), text-messaging is in fact yet another example of how the human need for social intercourse - a kind of 'communication imperative' - bends and ultimately co-opts technology to suit its own ends, regardless of any commercial (e.g. the telephone) or military (e.g. the internet) ambition for the technology. In fact, figures published by the Mobile Data Association show that 1.7 billion text-messages were exchanged in Britain in May 2003 - a cumulative annual total of some 8 billion messages.
Typical of media representations about the role of mobile phones in the lives of young people, Bryden-Brown's (2001) characterization in the The Australian newspaper (heading above) presents yet another image of the media-savvy, technologically-enslaved young person [note 4]. Of course, it is not unusual for young people to be caught up in adults' anxious projections about the future (Griffin, 1993); in the case of mobile phones, however, there is a 'double-whammy' of adult mythology, with the coming together of popular discourses about young people and about new technologies. Nonetheless, it is partly in response to prejudicial characterisations of young people that scholars are starting to challenge the misleading hype inherent in popular notions like 'cyberkids' and the 'net generation' (see Thurlow & McKay, 2003). In fact, as Facer & Furlong (2001) note, there are many children and young people in supposedly technologically privileged countries like Britain who still face a kind of 'information inequality' - not only as a result of poor access at home and school, but also because of individual resistance to, and the perceived irrelevance of, some new technologies. It is precisely for this reason that homogenizing assumptions about the role of technology in the lives of young people and young adults need constantly to be challenged.
While adult exaggerations about the significance of technology in the lives of young people may be questionable, the fact remains that, in many countries, the mobile phone is an altogether far more popular, pervasive communication technology than in others (Katz & Aakhus, 2002a). What is more, although by no means any longer the sole province of young people ( Cyberatlas, 2001a ), in a country like Britain, it is understood that half of all 7-16-year-olds have a mobile phone of their own ( NOP, 2001a ) and marginally more girls (52%) than boys (44%). In fact, the same NOP survey also shows that as many as 77% of 14-16-year-olds have mobile phones. Ling (2002) also reports more recent figures from Norway, another mobile-saturated country, which specifically identify young adults/older teenagers as the heaviest users. Unquestionably, a core feature of almost all young people's mobile phone use is the text-message, with most sending upwards of three text-messages a day.
Central to the hype and hysteria of popular, media representations about new communication technologies are concerns about the way that conventional linguistic and communicative practices are affected. A fairly typical example of this is the comment quoted in the heading above made by John Humphreys (2000), a British radio journalist notorious for his 'verbal hygienist' (Cameron, 1995) concerns about, amongst other things, the putative 'death' of the apostrophe in English.
Much popular and public discourse nowadays attends to the perceived communicative paucity of young people ( Thurlow, 2001a ) and both 'teen-talk' and 'netlingo' (or 'webspeak') are often blamed for supposedly negative impacts on standard or 'traditional' ways of communicating. The same is especially true of young people's use of mobile phones and text-messaging, where, as in the journalist's comment quoted below, they are often understood to be - or rather accused of - reinventing and/or damaging the (English) language.[note 5].
As a dialect, text ('textese'?) is thin and unimaginative. It is bleak, bald, sad shorthand. Drab shrinktalk. The dialect has a few hieroglyphs (codes comprehensible only to initiates) and a range of face symbols. … Linguistically it's all pig's ear. … Texting is penmanship for illiterates. (Sutherland, 2002).
In this sense, therefore, added to popular discourses about young people and new technologies are the usual folklinguistic concerns (see Niedzielski and Preston, 1999; Cameron, 1995) about threats to standard varieties and conventional communication practices more generally - that young people and new technologies might be to blame merely compounds matters. And it is not only lay people and journalists who are responsible for this kind of exaggerated and often prejudicial rhetoric.
[Text-]messages often bear more resemblance to code than to standard language. A text filled with code language expressions is not necessarily accessible to an outsider. The unique writing style provides opportunities for creativity. (Kasesniemi & Rautiainen, 2002: 183 - emphasis ours).
Netspeak is a development of millennial significance. A new medium of linguistic communication does not arrive very often, in the history of the race. (Crystal, 2001:238-9)
As has been the case with language on the internet where, for example, the language used by young instant messagers is described as a 'new hieroglyphics' (Pew Internet and American Life Project 2000), lay and academic discussions about the language of text-messaging are invariably caught up in an exaggerated sense of its impenetrability and exclusivity - hence references to 'code', 'unique' and inaccessibility in the Kasesniemi & Rautiainen quote above. In his popular book on language and the internet, Crystal (2001) dismisses SMS as simply giving young people something to do - a point of view which seems not only patronising but also underestimates the intricate and integral role text-messaging plays in their social lives. What is more, for all his millennial rhetoric about 'netspeak', new linguistic practices seldom spring from nowhere, neatly quashing pre-existing forms and conventions. Just as technologies do not replace each other, nor is it really possible to imagine communicative practices breaking completely, or that dramatically, with long-standing patterns of interaction and language use.
With reference to other communication technologies - most notably the internet and web - scholars of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have for some time been challenging the assumption that technologically-mediated modes of communication are necessarily impoverished and antisocial (Walther & Parks, 2002; Spears et al., 2001) . Not least because so much CMC is text-based, more specific interest has also been with emerging linguistic forms and practices - or computer-mediated discourse (CMD) (Herring, 2001; Herring, 1996; Baron, 1998; Werry, 1996; Collott & Belmore, 1996). Not only as a technology for communication but also as a text-based format like instant messaging and online chat, the study of SMS is easily brought within the remit of CMC. As Grinter & Eldridge (2001:219) put it, mobile phones are, in effect, 'mini-terminals for text-based communication'.
One of the principle arguments of both CMC and CMD is that generalizations about communicative and linguistic practice are inherently problematic, conflating as they do important differences in the affordances and constraints of different technologies such as email, online chat, instant messaging, newsgroups and bulletin boards, webpages and 'virtual worlds'. Specifically, as Herring (2001) also notes, language will necessarily be affected by technological (or medium) variables such as synchronicity (e.g. where instant messaging is synchronous, email is asynchronous), granularity (i.e. how long or short text may be) and multimodality (e.g. whether or not graphics, audio and video are included), as well as other non-linguistic variables such as participants' relationships, expectations and levels of motivation. To begin with, however, SMS may be broadly defined as asynchronous, text-based, technologically mediated discourse.
Apart from being unambitious, talking about text is yet another way of focusing on young people. …grown-ups often seek to legitimate their own conversation by orienting it around youth … putting their own spin on the youthful activity of text messaging - but what of the activity itself? (Calcutt, 2001)
Distinguishing between 'expert framing' and 'folk framing' respectively, Katz & Aakhus (2002) comment on how little academic input there has been to balance everyday, popular discourses about mobile phones. Indeed, with the exception of their own edited volume and one by Brown et al. (2001), academic interest in text-messaging is only recent and fairly scattered. [note 6] While the Information Society Research Centre at the University of Tampere in Finland (e.g. Kasesniemi & Rautiainen, 2002) has been researching the mobile communication culture of children and young people since 1997, this is seldom the case elsewhere. What is more, for all the hype and hysteria about text-messaging and young people's use of text-messaging in particular, we know of very little published research which has specifically examined the (English) linguistic/discursive practices of text-messaging in the way that, say, Baron (1998) has done with email messages or Werry (1996) has done with online chat. [note 7] Nor is there an extensive mobile phone survey to compare with the Pew Project's (Pew Internet and American Life Project 2000) report on the use of the internet and instant messaging (IM) among young American people - the CMC technology which competes most directly with text-messaging for the attention of young people in the USA. This lack of attention to discursive aspects of technologically-mediated communication is consistent with the struggle of the scholars like Herring (Herring, 1996; Herring, 2001) to prioritise discourse in CMC.
It was because of this noticeable hiatus, and in the face of popular discourses like those sketched above, that we were keen to undertake the following 'snapshot' survey; for us, this was a means of tracking the use of ever new communication technologies by young people, and also a way of rendering more empirical populist claims about the language of text-messaging. With both Baron (1998) and the Pew Report (Pew Internet and American Life Project 2000) as inspiration, our investigation was framed by two straight-forward research questions relating to the linguistic forms and communicative functions of young people's text-messaging: (a) what are young people using text-messaging for? and (b) to what extent are they experimenting with conventional language in their text-messages? It is answers to questions such as these which help to improve the sociolinguistic or discursive mapping of new communication technologies more generally (cf. Thurlow, 2001b).