Yesterday, December 3rd, text messaging turned 20. And, like many people of its generation, it woke up that morning to a deeply uncertain future. While media outlets up and down the country were quick to recollect and praise the transformation that text messaging has effected on our lives, they were equally quick to predict its imminent demise. For the first time since text messaging entered general use there has been a fall in the number of texts sent in the UK. Following two quarterly declines the number of text messages sent this year has fallen to 38.5 billion in Q2 2012 from a high of 39.7 billion in Q4 last year. This phenomenon is not simply UK based, with the United States showing a similar decline and the Finnish carrier Sonera showing a fall of over 20% in the number of text messages sent on Christmas Eve 2011 when compared with Christmas Eve 2010. What is clear is that alternative forms of electronic communication are slowly chipping away at the dominant position that text messaging has occupied in the lives of mobile users over the last 20 years.
What is particularly interesting about the historical development of text messaging is the way in which it has paralleled, and in many ways foreshadowed, the social effects and concerns brought about by changes in internet use. Worries about the effect that new technologies would have on literacy, privacy and the mechanics of personal relationships were all raised about text messaging in advance of their being talked about with respect to the internet and the development of social networking. Similarly it has been argued that the development of ‘txt speak’ and personalised acronyms has been used as a way of strengthening group cohesion, establishing a generational gap in a similar way to the rise in mainstream popularity of internet memes. So what does the beginning of the decline of text messaging have to tell us about the future of both the mobile phone and the internet?
In many ways that future is already around us. Predictions suggest that by 2015 mobile phones will be the most used devices for accessing the internet, and new messaging services, such as WhatsApp and iMessage, are gaining in use as smart phones become even more ubiquitous. The prospect of data only plans being available in the near future is an appealing one, and would benefit consumers who have for years been paying over-the-odds for text message bundles. What is clear, however, is that while the text message itself is declining in use, it is being replaced by a service that fills exactly the same role in people’s lives. The only substantial differences between the services offered by iMessage and conventional text message are improvements on the limitations of text messaging (send/receive delay and unreliability), rather than dramatically transforming its functional role in day-to-day life. Despite the availability of phone email and Facebook messages, the text message replacement is as popular as the text message was in its hey-day. While startling advances have been made in mobile phone technology, the appeal of the service offered by conventional messaging has not waned. While it may have been an unhappy birthday for the text message, the future remains bright for its descendants.