Why Do People Still Text



  • Original discussion on Spiceworks. Reposted here when Microsoft Send released showcases some of my points about just putting a text interface on email.

    I'm been meaning to write a paper on people needing to use appropriate communications media to their intended delivery but AJ and I got discussing texting tonight and while he's a texter, he didn't know why he texted. I've been wondering for forever why anyone would send a text. There was a time when email on phones was rare and that was the excuse that people gave. But then texting died out once email was everywhere. But then, somehow, texting came back. But I know, now, of no positive to texting. Here is what I know:

    • Texting costs extra both to the texter and the textee so it isn't just not-free, it is honestly rude as you force the recipient to pay for a text they might not have wanted. You can't turn it off, the cell carriers did this to force a "everyone must pay" scenario.
    • Texting is inconvenient. You are trapped to the mobile device, no option for a different format.
    • Texting tethers. You are bound to your mobile device always and everywhere. In an era when you never be tied to any device, texters voluntarily take up the yoke again.
    • Texting is device centric - you text a phone, not a person. Email is about a person. If I lose my phone, okay, text it. But if I want a person, I should email them. It's analogous to how mobile phones made phone calls more about calling a person (or their device) rather than calling their house. You normally want a person, not their house to answer.
    • Texting is limited in management. You can't run a spam filter, have autoresponse while away or asleep, set day/night schedule, store things in folders, look things up, etc.
    • Texting binds you to a phone number. We were supposed to not need phone numbers tied to us anymore a decade ago. Texting changed that. We were almost free of "device associations" with humans and suddenly we reversed course. All of the work that email, Google Voice, etc. did to free us and make communications personal went backwards two decades. Now we need our phone numbers for life once again.
    • Texting makes you helpless when you lose or break your phone. This might seem redundant from above but it is non-obvious. If you use email you are device agnostic. If you use texting and you flush your phone, not only can you not reach anyone, no one can reach you. You stop responding.
    • Texting makes you burn your battery even when you are using a computer and could be saving it for while not at a desk.
    • Texting makes you use multiple devices at all times instead of only when you want to. With email I can shift from phone to iPad to laptop to desktop to remote desktop and do all things from one place.
    • Texting doesn't have DNS so you have to remembers numbers like it is 1990 rather than using words with email addresses. Again, something we were free of but then, reverted.
    • Texting is only useful if you talk to very few people. There is no way to text in a huge contact pool. I avoid texting like the plague yet have way too many conversations and contacts to track what is going on.
    • Texting is tracked and recorded by the phone company and the government. Everything you do from the words to the time to the location is recorded, exactly. Email might be tracked or might not, you have a lot of control over that depending on how you use it. But the control is mostly with you and the "right" to track you isn't guaranteed.
    • Texting isn't international or incurs big fees. In a global world where half my emails are to people outside of the country, this is a big deal. Texting pulls us back to a US-centric worldview of our personal contacts. Email makes international not only free but completely transparent.
    • Laws often target texting but not emails.
    • Texting has huge negative social connotations where email typically has fewer.
    • If someone changes a phone number you lose contact with them via texting. But people own email forever. If keeping track of people over time matters, email is the "never lose contact" media. Texting lasts only as long as they keep a mobile phone, the same number and a texting plan.
    • Texting limits you to person to person messaging and stops you from being able to talk to arbitrary groups.
    • Texting doesn't have the capacity for presence association. Some email does (but not most.)
    • Texting is interrupt driven - you assume that the person on the other end will get an immediate, interrupting alert and that what you are sending is important enough at that exact moment to warrant that alert. True people can disable audio alerts on their phones (I do) but this stops them from ever being alerted to calls and text (like me - if you need to call me and it is important, I'd have seen an email with the info first) so for people using texting, we assume that the texter is making a judgement call that it is worth attempting to be the highest priority item for the other person.
    • Based on the interrupt above - we now have to be conscious of timezones with texting. You must know what timezone the other person is in and what their sleep schedule is or you will interrupt them while sleeping or whatever. Most people with mobile phones need them to ring in case of emergencies so can't disable them just whenever. By using the emergency channels for casual, anytime communications we either raise all communications to the level of emergency alert or we forego all emergency alerting.
    • Children and those too poor to have regular cell phone service still get email for free. My four year old has her own private email address at her name (she owns the domain) as well as a GMail account that she uses to talk to family. Many children have mobile phones today, but it is still relatively rare for those below around ten years old to have them. Email is far broader acceptance.
    • Email has far broader handling for accessibility. It is trivial to get email devices for the handicapped, elderly, blind, etc. Texting/mobile phones address this to some degree but the degree of effort difference is extreme.
    • Texting requires you to know which phone numbers can receive texts. I lose texts all the time because people attempt to text my home phone rather than my cell phone. I do the same thing to other people because they give me multiple numbers and I can't tell which one is the texting one, if any, or multiple.
    • In case of emergency there is no way, of which I know, to handle texting forwarding. If you know you will be without access to your phone (traveling for example, on a cruise, on a plane) you can't have your texts forwarded to someone to deal with the issues. An uncommon need for personal use but it does exist. I was off the continent for over a month and it would have been great to have my texts go somewhere other than my phone as I could not deal with them on the phone.
    • Texting is a form of communications "sprawl." It fills no needed niche, ads nothing to our experience, but forces people to pay for and monitor another channel through which some people might choose to communicate. It attempts to resolve a problem that was solved long ago. Email is a necessity, everyone needs email today for something. So texting can't attempt to replace it, it is, at best, a side channel.
    • Texting is a "hipster" activity. Doing something "old school" that is less efficient just for the purpose of doing it. It has arisen in direct correlation to the hipster movement and age group and the reasons for using it are never technical but typically "because email is for old business people." Texting isn't winning because of being a better idea, but because of a perceived superiority of youth.
    • Texting doesn't allow for robust searching and archiving. Email allows looking up old conversations and information easily. Texting allow the government to discover old conversations but not the end user.
    • Email allows simple transfers to other mediums such as being able to print out a document or directions, saving a file for use, etc.
    • There is no means of identifying an SMS or MMS enabled phone number. The knowledge of this is transient, due to porting, and is kept completely by the end points.

    @thanksajdotcom did eventually come up with a feeling that texting is informal while email is formal. That makes sense although totally took me by surprise as email has a 30+ year history of being blasted for being so casual and informal.

    So, are there upsides to texting? Or is it just another consumer scam like the Nextel walkie-talkies where people pretend that it is easier than hitting "dial" on the phone but, in reality, is more cumbersome and just looks silly?

    [Below edited for new updates since May, 2013 when the original was written.]

    • Apple Messages on the Mac makes texting much easier than it used to be. However it does not work with all SMS and only certain ones. This actually makes texting worse, not better, as you do not know which messages are being received and which ones are not. You could be texting with a dozen people and not know that a few others having an emergency cannot reach you. It actually covers up problems with SMS rather than fixing them.
    • Microsoft Garage has released Microsoft Send for the iPhone which gives a text interface to the email system highlighting my long standing points that the complaints were, as far as I can tell, around the impressions of the interface rather than of the technology. Email has always had the ability to act like text and there have always been systems like Send, but none likely as popular and well polished.
    • Many people stated that the need for a subject line was a reason that email was too difficult to use. But subject lines are not necessary in email so this should not be a valid point.


  • It should be noted that this article was focused on people in the first world with Internet access. People living in the post-convergence world. In a world where voice traffic went onto the Internet a decade ago, that we are still mimicking the telegraph over voice lines for basic async text conversations is extremely odd and counter to all normal technology trends. It's actually a move backwards as society had moved to a more modern system and is now falling back to something more primitive.



  • Do you consider things like Google Voice (which has now merged with Hangouts) to be texting? or is that messaging?

    Google Voice also solves a lot of the problems of being tied to a single device (not neccessariliy a single phone number, though!). I currently have 3 PCs, 2 Tablets, and a phone that all get messages to my Google Voice / Hangouts account.



  • First world? 🙂 I can't get internet access in about 30% of the UK.

    I love text. Fast. Reliable. And I don't get any spam. The whole world e-mails me (well, not quite the whole world, but it sometimes feels like it), but only people who are important to me text me.



  • @Carnival-Boy said:

    First world? 🙂 I can't get internet access in about 30% of the UK.

    I love text. Fast. Reliable. And I don't get any spam. The whole world e-mails me (well, not quite the whole world, but it sometimes feels like it), but only people who are important to me text me.

    We have the opposite issue in the US. Much of the US does not have cell coverage. And email is async so whenever you do get coverage it sends and receives, texting (at least no device I've seen) does this.

    When you say access in only 30% of the UK, do you mean open countryside? Because the nice thing about email is that whether you are on a landline, wifi, in a hotel, on the cell, etc. you can send and receive. With texts you are limited to only being able to be contacted when the physical device works and when it has signal. Email I can "always" find a workaround to make sure I am getting.



  • @dafyre said:

    Do you consider things like Google Voice (which has now merged with Hangouts) to be texting? or is that messaging?

    Texting is a specific technology, the SMS protocol.



  • @dafyre said:

    Google Voice also solves a lot of the problems of being tied to a single device (not neccessariliy a single phone number, though!). I currently have 3 PCs, 2 Tablets, and a phone that all get messages to my Google Voice / Hangouts account.

    Google Voice is a completely third technology with no relationship to email or SMS. Much like What's App.



  • While texting has been around longer than Siri has, Those with the ability to use Siri can have it send the text, so no typing.

    That isn't practical for all - I do realize that. My AT&T plan has been the same plan for more than 10 years - I'm grandfathered into their true original unlimited plan. Texting costs me nothing more, and I roll something on the order of 500 minutes a month (last check I had 3000 rolled over minutes,... which do expire...)

    You can text someone (most of the time) if their carrier allow via email. Google Voice (GV) has an iPhone app, but also the web access. I can send as if it was a normal phone, from my cell or from my PC.

    I took a weekend out, and didn't have AT&T service.. but the Verizon hot spot did have spotty coverage. I was able to send a text via GV if I sat the hot spot right.



  • @scottalanmiller said:

    We have the opposite issue in the US. Much of the US does not have cell coverage. And email is async so whenever you do get coverage it sends and receives, texting (at least no device I've seen) does this.

    When you say access in only 30% of the UK, do you mean open countryside?

    Cities as well. There are parts of central London where I can get decent cell coverage but can't get any 3G signal. I find 3G access very flaky, at least with my carrier (Vodafone). I find text generally more reliable.



  • Texting is Free in the US on most phone plans. Data is not.



  • @anonymous said:

    Texting is Free in the US on most phone plans. Data is not.

    At the time of the writing, texting was not free on most and especially not on the largest. Most plans that have free text also have free data. Data is now free even without a plan for some devices (iPads on Tmobile get data for free, for example.) Internet is available far and wide for free (libraries, cafes, McDonald's, etc.) but nowhere is cell phone service free.



  • Also, I was told that in the US is the only place you pay for incoming messages?

    That incoming messages are free everywhere else in the world?

    If this is true, then there is no forced costs, just don't reply 😉



  • @Carnival-Boy said:

    Cities as well. There are parts of central London where I can get decent cell coverage but can't get any 3G signal. I find 3G access very flaky, at least with my carrier (Vodafone). I find text generally more reliable.

    Ah, you mean just while on the phone. Yes, that makes sense. You should try TMobile, I had great coverage over London and I walked like six miles across it with nothing but my phone 🙂

    Having text as an emergency backup makes sense. But using it as the primary communications method is what I really mean. Since with email, even if you don't have service, you still get and send emails as service goes in and out. And at least here, I don't need 3G for email to work.



  • @anonymous said:

    Also, I was told that in the US is the only place you pay for incoming messages?

    That's likely true. It's a really important thing to consider that in America people are encouraged (or were) to use texting because if some people did it, it financially forced everyone to pay for plans to keep from getting billed for things that they could not disable. That's what happened to us. Other people kept sending us billable messages until we paid for a plan to stop it. It's literally a form of socialized extortion.



  • @anonymous said:

    That incoming messages are free everywhere else in the world?

    If this is true, then there is no forced costs, just don't reply 😉

    As long as you don't have an American phone, which most people here do.



  • @scottalanmiller said:

    At the time of the writing, texting was not free on most and especially not on the largest.

    Verzion, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all have free texting..... o_0



  • My parents have flip phones, so I still need texting for that.....



  • @anonymous said:

    My parents have flip phones, so I still need texting for that.....

    My dad does too, but he doesn't have good service so it is still email that reaches him reliably.



  • @anonymous said:

    Verzion, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all have free texting..... o_0

    They did not at the time of the article.



  • The ubiquity of unlimited talk and text is a new thing.



  • @anonymous said:

    @scottalanmiller said:

    At the time of the writing, texting was not free on most and especially not on the largest.

    Verzion, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all have free texting..... o_0

    Verizon has free data now too, when texting went free, so did email on most carriers. TMobile remains the only one to have actually free (you don't pay anything) Internet. No one is offering text for free. Internet remains the free choice. Texting is now cheap and included with voice plans, as is Internet. But texting is not included with data plans.



  • @anonymous said:

    My parents have flip phones, so I still need texting for that.....

    Do they keep their phones with them at all times, even when home? I suppose if they don't have a computer and email that would make sense. I've not seen many people using flip phones as their primary gateway to the world in the US. In the third world I understand that non-Internet phones are common and the only standard thing. SMS is key there, but they went to SMS while waiting for the Internet (which isn't there yet) rather than going to it after having had the Internet.



  • I recognize the need to text people because other people only text. I'm not suggesting that many of us are not trapped with it. I have it and use it because lots of people in the family just don't check their email or have email (seriously, I feel like it is the dark ages, I've had email since I was 18 and before I worked in IT - everyone I know of my age had email just from going to college in that era) but my question is really.... at the base of the pyramid, what is making the people for whom there is no text dependency choose texting instead of cheaper, easier, more reliable communications methods that replaced texting decades ago?



  • I've heard from a few people that it is literally a rejection of technology by kids that is driving it, a desire to rebel by going backwards with technology. Part of the culture of "cool" to be behind (like hipsters, etc.)



  • And I'm not saying that texting doesn't continue to make sense as it always has.... for paging. Texting is the name for bidirectional paging. If you watch 30 Rock it is hilarious because they have that running gag about paging coming back and being cool again. And it's true, that's what has happened. People just don't use the term paging to refer to the messages anymore.



  • Your point about the sender choosing if the message is important or not, things being an emergency or not...

    To me this is the primary reason I use texts. Like you I disable notifications on new email, or else my phone would never shut up some days... but texts, like phone calls, I leave notifications enabled. This is the case for most people I converse with regularly.

    It's true that I'll use text messages for non quickly needed responses from time to time.. but normally if I'm sending a text I need or want an answer right now. Example, message the wife I'm going to the store does she want anything - this message is important enough for her immediate notice, but not so important to require a call to ensure she gives me an answer this instant.

    I'd say I'm equally frustrated by people who won't just call when they need something NOW. Instead they text you, and text you again and then maybe they'll call you - but more often than not the suddenly decide it's not that important and give up, though they generally would have gotten the answer they needed by calling instead (sometimes I don't hear the text tone, but will almost always hear the phone ringing it's longer ring tones - I suppose I could make the text tone more annoying and long).



  • @Dashrender said:

    Your point about the sender choosing if the message is important or not, things being an emergency or not...

    I agree. You receive much less spam through texting. I do get spam every couple months, but that is nothing compared to email. I don't see this as an issue. If you don't like texting, that is fine. What about the other people who do like it and it serves their purposes? Just because they communicate differently doesn't mean it's wrong. It is also old fashioned to use a telephone or to meet someone face to face, and we all know that is quite productive compared to text or email.



  • I don't and would be opposed to using texting for business, but for personal it's still quite handy.



  • @IRJ said:

    If you don't like texting, that is fine. What about the other people who do like it and it serves their purposes?

    Because it forces you into carrying devices and for many years, paying against my will, to do so. Email is free, texting is not. Now I have it with other plans, sometimes, but not always. Now that I travel a lot, texting is a problem again. There are whole blocks of time that I don't have access to it or the costs are like $1/message. And it makes people just have lots of things.



  • @MattSpeller said:

    I don't and would be opposed to using texting for business, but for personal it's still quite handy.

    Other than being forced into it, what handiness is there? I know of nothing that I can do with texting that email won't do, but a lot of things in the opposite direction like transparently handling dropped connections, crossing devices, being ubiquitously free, etc.