Still Life of a Text Message


When an artist composes a still life of a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers, it is often with the intent of paying studied homage to a subject that has been rendered nearly invisible by its ubiquity.

Here, then, is my still life of that most common of contemporary artifacts: the text message.

Born on a pager at NASA in 1989, the text message has brought down governments.

The text message has killed people in automobile accidents.

It has sparked romances, sexual affairs, and murders.

The text message has enslaved some people through addiction and set others free as an affordable form of mass communication.

It has bankrupt some, and made others filthy rich.

It has put people in jail.

The text (as the text message is known to its friends) can zip around the world in a flash or, infuriatingly, take minutes to hobble down the block (that’s an eternity for a devoted texter).

Japanese texters in the early 90s considered texting an intimate act that deepened and improved the quality of a personal relationship.

Now, around the world, friendships hinge on the text message.

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Google all completely rely on it, perhaps more so than even the web.

Texting is now our most prevalent form of communication.

As of 2008, its use exceeds both emails and voice calls. By a long shot.

Over one trillion texts were sent in the United States in the first 6 months of 2009.

It won political credibility in 2001, when it brought down Philippines president Joseph Estrada.

Mexican president Felipe Calderón may have won his country’s 2006 election with text messages. Likewise, Barack Obama.

On the other hand, text messages helped force former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick out of office and into jail.

Today, to reach young voters, the text message is an essential component of any campaign, political or otherwise.

The text message has evolved into the single most defining element of communications culture today.

Yet, to look at the text message, it isn’t much.

As its name suggests, it’s just text. No pictures. No movies. No sounds.

And there’s not much text at that. Just 140 characters. That’s really only a sentence or two.

It’s this barren simplicity that enables the medium’s omnipresence.

One can text, quite literally, from almost anywhere in the world, using any mobile device.

Texts are usually typed with only thumbs on a keyboard that is generally no larger than a box of matches.

They take moments to compose and are filled with grammatical and spelling errors.

Or perhaps they are wrought of a new language altogether: textese.

u gt a prblm w tht?

A lot of people do, and they decry the death of English. (Never mind the fact our mother tongue is a serial killer itself.)

w/e

The text message is to the new millennium what rock and roll was to the last century. Grown-ups, by and large, just don’t get it.

In the US, about 90% of young people send an average of 188 text messages each month. Not even a fifth of folks north of 40 even pretend to text.

The text message is a stamp of independence for today’s kids. It helps them grow up and away from the family nest.

(And this is important. So parents: keep your nose out.)

Yet even as some of us line our phones with texts, other are lining their pockets with them.

Texting is the telecommunication industry’s cash cow.

Charged out at 15¢ each, an accumulation of 1 megabyte of text messages cost over $1300.

Compare that to a song on iTunes: 99¢ for a file that weighs in at about 7 megabytes.

This is an especially interesting evaluation when you consider that text messaging networks cost telecommunications carriers almost nothing to operate.

Few companies break out text messaging as a line item in their financial reports. But profits are no doubt in the billions.

Remarkably, the text message is growing and shows no sign of ebbing in use or popularity.

It is arguably our age’s greatest communications triumph and it is everywhere.

Odd then how it seems to be nowhere at all.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 14, 2009.