Short Messages – 20 Years of SMS

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

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:

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

Medium:
SMS
/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.

Author: Joerg Blumtritt

Joerg Blumtritt (*1970) is data scientist and blogger. He co-founded the companies Datarella and BAYDUINO, based in Munich, Germany, and Baltic Data Science in Gdansk, Poland. Datarella develops data-driven products for the Internet of Things, BDS delivers data-science-as-a-service, BAYDUINO builds open source hardware. Before that, Joerg had worked for media companies in Europe and the US. Having graduated in statistics and political sciences with a thesis on machine learning, Joerg started as a researcher in behavioral sciences, focused on nonverbal communication. As political activist and researcher, Joerg works on projects regarding future democratic participation and open source IoT. He is co-author of the Slow Media Manifesto and blogs about media and art at slow-media.net, about data and the future of social research at beautifuldata.net, and about the IoT at datarella.com.

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