Short Messages – 20 Years of SMS

At instant speeds all reaction and adjustment are inevitable but too late to be relevant.

ἔρρει τὰ κᾶλα. Μίνδαρος ἀπεσσύα. πεινῶντι τὤνδρες. ἀπορίομες τί χρὴ δρᾶν.
Xenophon, Helenika

Twenty years ago today the first SMS was sent. And with the SMS begins the age of short messages, of asynchronous real time communication, and the epoch of laconism. Out of SMS came Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, Whatsapp, … currently c. 300,000 SMS are sent per second.

With the SMS we have learned to organize our lives just where we stand or go, without the need to get the Other ‘on the line’. Although the pager had been around before, it is the integration into one device that would not only let us make calls, but would let us text, and soon also make pictures and process our entire communication.

SMS, Short Messaging Service, a string of 140 characters (some providers might allow up to 255 in simple Latin alphabet though). SMS has educated us to be brief. Through it we have developed a new and extremely efficient language, laconic, like we see it in languages of the antiquity.

Laconism has its name from the Lacedaemonians, the Spartans. Xenophon passed on the dispatch quoted above, sent by the Spartan vice admiral during the battle of Kyzikos to his home city. The one-lined dispatch was intercepted by Athenian spies and thus ironically preserved for posterity:

“Ships sunk, Mindaros dead, men hungry, ran out of wits.”

The acute brevity of the expression soon become proverbial for Spartan culture, the reduction to the essential, abstination from all decor, that we now call Spartan.

What do SMS, short messeged news have for us twenty years later? Every new medium can according to McLuhan be analyzed in four aspects to get a clearer picture what the medium does to society and culture:

1. What gets enhanced by the medium?
2. What gets obsolete?
3. What is retrieved that was lost before?
4. What does the development flip into when pushed to the edge?

This Tetrade regarding short messages could look like this:

Efficiency, community, controle
Verse, metaphor, laconism, conversation

/Short messages

Flips into
Memetic communication, shitstorm, Pirate Party, Arab Spring, Big Data, Slow Media
Makes obsolete
Pager, voice mail, correspondance, newspaper, TV news

The Tetrade model by McLuhan: Four aspects how media effect culture and society.

1. Short messages increase efficiency. We share information in brief, highly condensed, and at the same time we are independent of the fact if the other is ready to receive. The continuous exchange fosters community. Not only are we able to organize ourselves within a larger group of people – when we want to meet in a beergarden, we usually no longer give an exact location anymore, we rather organize spontaneously. By ‘I am there and have experienced this and that” we share our thoughts, feelings, and experiences seamlessly and continuously with others. By this, SMS, Twitter, Foursquare etc. also increase control: We can demand from others to inform us, we can even expect it – “Your line was busy” or “You haven’t answered your phone” no longer work as a pretext.

2. The pager was obviously rendered obsolete by SMS. But even if many haven’t gotten this yet, this is also true for the answering machine, voice mail as people nowadays call it: It is a nuisance to listen through recorded voice messages just to extract the little of relevant information they convey, like the number to call back, that we have to take down manually, while short messages usually would allow direct reply.

I am convinced that it was SMS and not the email that pushed the written letter aside. Email is still a text of almost arbitrary length; even if it usually gets delivered much quicker than paper mail, it shares all other disadvantages with it: quickly the inbox is cluttered; before one could go through the time consuming statements of a letter are ingested and digested into a reply, all kinds of things have happened that outdated the content of the letter, lots of other messages, emails or letters have arrived, that also beg for response. Written correspondence, the drivel filling pages is no longer up to date and in recession; it is more than 15 years ago that I wrote my last letter – and this only because the recipient was in his eighties. The successor, the email thread, this we can say with confidence, will hardly bear anything that we would want to call literature.

The end of classic news media through Twitter can be taken literal. I is not just the lack of actuality in newspapers and TV news compared to the real time communication of short messages – it is primarily lack of filters. While newspapers and TV give us always the feeling to learn what we don’t want to know while leaving out what we would regard as really important to us, we are looking for the very people in our timeline who’s statements we find relevant. I don’t want to go into the problem of the filter bubble here, the phenomenon that we are confined in our own patch of reality. I don’t want to elaborate on the question if it would not perhaps be better if we still read the paper – it is just the fact that classic news has been pushed away by asynchronous real time updates.

3. There is a form of verbal expression perfectly suited for the 140 characters of short messages: the verse. Verse is the most important tool for oral tradition. Every sentence is a simple one-liner. Verse by verse one can memorize the myth, the fairy tale, the ballad. A test divided into simple sentences of almost identical length generates by itself its rhythm. With the printed book, verses were pushed to the fringe of literature to become a mere artistic format without practical implications; the persistence of printed literature made it no longer necessary to learn something by heart. SMS brings back the verse, the aphorism, the one-liner. And since poetic language expresses itself in highly condensed ways, by concentrating entire images into metaphors expressed in a few words with multiple layers of meaning, it is no wonder that the language of short messages is often metaphorical. But not only the verse-like form of short messages reminds of oral tradition. SMS, Twitter, etc. are in their core not textual media, but rather conversations, exchange of word and reply, often not just in a dialogue but over a whole group of participants.

4. We are already living through the changes in our culture caused by short messages. We have already written about the memetic turn. Metaphors, pictorial expressions that would make accessible their meaning only to those who can read the picture, generate a high extent of communality. Cat pics are the glue of society. By the immediacy of ‘I can reply right away’ we see messages built up to a literal storm in a positive loop, in particular when it is about indignation. The shitstorm is the trope of the age of short messages.

The culture of the Pirate Party is also closely related to short messages. Highly poetical, now Tweet without hermetical hashtag, highly self-exciting, and for people outside almost looking impolitely brief and direct. Even if there are more than 30,000 members in the Pirate Party now, the core of activists does not inform nor organize themselves via mailing lists or the wiki, but via Twitter; “140 Zeichen muss reichen.”
I am convinced that many of the political uprisings of the last years are closely related to SMS culture. I don’t say that we wouldn’t have seen an Arab Spring without Twitter or Facebook, but short messages have left their mark on these new forms of self-empowerment.

Beside search engines, it is the deluge of short messages which has lead to a new paradigm in IT: Big Data. The volume is just so huge, and so quickly do the new posts come in; and everything has to be processed in real time. Thus the old rules for hardware, operation systems, and databases had to be quickly abandoned. Short messages are conversations given in written form. This makes them readable to machines easily; it is thus not only volume and velocity, also machine learning was kissed to awaken from its deep slumber.

And finally: When real time has become reality, when it is thus no longer about accelerating communication because it has already reached total simultaneity, our goal now has to be to comprehend what is going on. We can now concentrate on what is really important to us, what we find really valuable.
Slow Media is our response, our synthesis of the SMS tetrade.

Twenty years of short messages – a historical epoch of greatest importance for the culture in most parts of the world, but in particular for us here, and for myself very personally.

Vita brevis,
ars longa,
occasio praeceps,
experimentum periculosum,
iudicium difficile.

Valueable recommandations
instead of fruitless rummaging.
Without Google: Day 1

[Original German Blog Post]

Yesterday, I made my mind to abandon all search engines for some time; so I would not hesitate to tell how my using the Internet is changed by that.

The most important means to get to valuable information, are my networks, Twitter at first. I would not want to get lost in a trivial eulogy on the great Web 2.0. However I have a strong feeling of security to get into all paths on the Internet that I would really want to follow, rolled out for me by my peer-group’s posts.

For the first time I bothered to watch in detail which links I would get recommended in my Twitter-timeline. Until now I had presumed that I would have clicked more or less at random on the one link or the other. To get a more objective picture I now archived every link that I would see as worth following in a list.

After looking what links I added came the surprise: I had in deed looked on about half of the Links from my timeline! Hardly there is any Spam. In fact, behind the links there lie almost always articles worth reading, or pictures that at least I would find funny. This efficiency in supplying content I find remarkable.

Here is the list of links, that I would have judged relevant to follow yesterday evening:

… and tomorrow it will go on. Also I am looking forward on the parallel report of @dasrhizom!

The other posts of my experiment “Without Google”:

  • Everything is turned into a highway
  • Digital Litercy
  • Censorship
  • Orientation with Openstreetmap
  • Valuable recommandations

    and the beginning of the experiment:

  • Without Google
  • Fostering Slowness

    The real innovation blogging brought to our media landscape has never been real-time. No, the most important difference between “regular” websites or portals and blogs is their archive and the beautiful possibilities for fostering slowness (philosopher Odo Marquard coined the phrase “Langsamkeitspflege” for a very similar concept).

    When German blogger and journalist Don Dahlmann wrote three years ago, “one really should create an overview of the German blog scene because very much will be lost very fast”, I started the Blog History Project. This project aims at preserving the early history of blogging in Germany.

    The projects extends from the first beginnings of blogging 14 years ago – among the pioneers were Robert Braun, Cybertagebuch and Moving Target – through the first Wave of Blogging in 2001 that even got noticed in some newspapers, up to the great blogging euphoria in the mid-2000s. Now, it already has been three years since I started the project, but the most exciting observation is: almost all blogs and their archives are still available. So, maybe we do not lose as much as we may have thought.

    Everytime I ventured into the field of oral history, I learned, that key elements of urban infrastructure such as post offices, where almost every citizen went many times a year, month or week to withdraw money, send letters or look up phone numbers, are kept in collective memory for about 10 years after they had been torn down.

    Sometimes there is not even a single photograph showing the buildings – in spite of (or maybe: because of) their banality. Paradoxically some of them are documented only on Twitter, a medium very frequently criticized for its banality and fleetingness. I suppose there are more pictures of the beautiful 1950s Aschaffenburg station on Twitter than in the building authority’s archives.

    We will probably stilll read our blogs in 20 years and browse their huge historical archives, while political real-time characters such as Ursula von der Leyen (called “Zensursula” by her web-savvy opponents) and former president Horst Köhler slumber in dusty, cobwebby corners of the Wikipedia. And that’s certainly not the worst development.

    I can only recommend the highly informative book by Florian Aicher and Uwe Drepper about architect Robert Vorhoelzer, the most important figure of the Bavarian postal architectural office in the 1920s, who planned many of the postal buildings pictured in this article.

    Schoenheit von Vogelsang

    [Original German blog post}

    “Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it.”
    Many agree with the cold panic of information hell that New York Times’ author and correspondent George Packer associates with Twitter as he describes in his blog post; last but not least the fugatiousness of twitter is something wonderful as well as frightening: nothing seems of value, nothing of lastingness.

    “Education needs time – and that is lacking in the Net”, says philosopher Markus Gabriel in an interview on – and on Twitter one might want to add, immediate transientness is even baked into the system – Twitter’s own search does only reach two days back into the past. All the beautiful thoughts sink so quickly into the depth of the timeline that we would like to stay, but a storm is blowing from Paradise that drives us irresistibly into the future.

    If we regard Twitter as news channel, I can sympathize with Parker’s panic very well. Every bit of news that has reached me (by Re-Tweet) for the second time seems outdated, somehow no longer relevant. And how desolate it feels when even the absolute media-mainstream gets replicated by Re-Tweet like here today: “Man Resigns On Twitter per Haiku”.

    However just this piece of news leads us to something in Twitter that is beautiful and valuable: lyrics and aphorism, beauty in linguistic cautiousness. The remarkable with Sun’s CEO’s resigning is not that he proclaimed it via Twitter. Twitter has become the most efficient channel for declarations of that kind – that’s all over town, been told by the host of social media experts for years. Remarkable is that Jonathan Schwartz chooses the meter of the Haiku. Brief real poems or exclamations resonating in their syllables are the beauty of Twitter for me. An update like “Mars can be seen all night” might have a factual background in astronomy. But regarded as solitary verse, the six monosyllabic words become a myth in which we get sight of the God of War, victorious over the realm of Neith.

    If you do not just see Twitter as a short messaging service but take the metaphor “twitter” serious, the never ending deluge of text loses its terror – it is no longer information but becomes music indeed, a stream you may drift away with.

    Sound of vernal showers
    On the twinkling grass,
    Rain-awaken’d flowers—
    All that ever was
    Joyous and clear and fresh—thy music doth surpass.

    Teach us, sprite or bird,
    What sweet thoughts are thine:
    I have never heard
    Praise of love or wine
    That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
    (Shelley, To a Skylark)