Texting is a form of communications used mainly with mobile phones. "Texts" are short written messages in lieu of voice communications. Besides actual voice calls, texting is probably the most popular use of mobile phones worldwide. SMS (Short Messaging Service) is the dominant texting protocol.
Messages of limited length go back to the days of telegrams in the 19th century. In the 20th century, telex messages and radiograms both used short text formats to convey critical information.
Much more recently, in 1985, representatives of the German communications company Deutsche Telekom and of France Télécom proposed the first version of SMS. It would be incorporated into Europe's mobile phone standards known as GSM. SMS texting became possible within Europe in the 1990s.
Texting spread slowly to the US and other countries until well into this century. Eventually, phone companies changed their billing to reflect reality, that a text message burdens their network much less than a voice call and is therefore cheaper. Consequently, text messaging has become hugely popular in many parts of the world, particularly for cross-border communications.
The most common protocol for texting, SMS, uses a subset of Latin letters plus punctuation and limits messages to 160 characters. Texting in other alphabets (Arabic, Cyrillic) and symbologies (Chinese) is supported in some areas, but limited to 70 characters. This limitation has encouraged a culture of using abbreviations, acronyms, and truncated words.
A sometimes interesting feature of SMS is that messages are not sent immediately (unlike voice) but rather when system traffic allows. Thus, messages often arrive late and sometimes not at all. A texting conversation back and forth can have a very irregular rhythm.
Uses and Consequences
Text messaging is used in several ways, creating new cultural practices and norms. The most straightforward use is personal messages that may go back and forth, creating a written conversation. Text conversations or single transmissions are appropriate in situations where speaking is inappropriate or impossible. The reverse is true also; texting while driving is a crime in many jurisdictions (right).
Cities and national governments have set up broadcast alert systems that use texting. These can inform people in specific areas at risk when a tornado, tsunami, or other danger approaches. There is some question as to whether cell tower systems can handle high-volume alerts of this kind. The cellphone system normally prioritizes voice over text, and this use turns that priority around. A variation on this use is text spam, which is unsolicited texts as advertising.
The content of text messages is full of acronyms and abbreviations. This is an evolution of practices developed in computer chat rooms and multiplayer games of the past two decades. In those contexts, abbreviations make typing quicker. That advantage is even more enticing on a cellphone that lacks a QUERTY keyboard. Typing is slower, and so "LOL", "OMG", and "2nite" make frequent appearances in messages.
Law enforcement officials know that text messages found on the phones of sender or receiver are a better record of events than voice calls, which must be deliberately intercepted and recorded. In the context of security, texting is no more secure than email, as both are stored unencrypted before delivery.
Texting stands in for email in poor countries, and even developed countries, for people without computers. Actually, service providers have gateways that allow one kind of message into the other network. Texting also gives access to Twitter and similar Internet interfaces.
The written word survives and thrives in an era of instant voice communications. About 8 trillion texts are sent per year. Texting is particularly popular in China, most of the rest of Asia, and Europe, with Japan and France using the service significantly less. Texting has possibly peaked in usage in the UK and some other places, being replaced by cheaper apps and by mobile e-mail.