The last txt, the last tweet

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A recent xkcd:

Morse code was first used for telegraphy in 1844. I'm not sure when the French navy started to use it, but I understand that transmission of Morse code by radio began in the 1890s, so if that last plaintive message was sent in 1997, Morse code in the French navy would have had a run of just about 100 years. LiveJournal was started in April of 1999, and of course some people still use it, but it flowered and faded in the U.S. over a period of about a decade: "In January 2009 LiveJournal laid off some employees and moved product development and design functions to Russia", according to Wikipedia.

Yesterday I attended a workshop on Social Media Data at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and it occurred to me to wonder what the social media landscape will be like ten years from now.

In particular, I remembered the situation ten years ago, when I visited Japan and saw everyone texting all the time on the street, in public transport, in a university cafeteria, and so on. At that time, I couldn't find any Americans who had ever sent or received a cell-phone text message, aside from a handful of curious techies who had tried it to see how it worked.  ("Texting", 3/8/2004; "More on meiru", 3/9/2004).

Others had noticed this American exceptionalism and commented on it (e.g. "No text please, we're American", The Economist 3/3/2003). All sorts of explanations were floated at the time for the lack of American texting uptake; and there has been some speculation since about how and why the situation changed so radically and so quickly. ("What's the difference", 3/10/2008; "How things have changed…", 11/21/2009; "What caused the texting tsunami?", 6/6/2011). But anyhow, change it did.

So I wondered how the social media landscape might be different ten years from now.

As Yogi Berra said, "It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future." But here's an easy one: multimedia messaging will take over from text-only messaging. This has already started to happen in various different ways, with things like snapchat, WhatsApp, and wechat.

Therefore it's plausible that in a few years, SMS will be as dead as Morse code, with text messaging one small facet of diverse open-ended multimedia systems for personal communication. The 140-character SMS messsage will have something like the current cultural role of the haiku.

But what about Twitter, which was founded in 2006? Will a last plaintive tweet soon echo across the sere landscape of a deserted twitterverse?

As it happens, there have been two radically different different takes on this question in the past few days — Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Meyer, "A Eulogy for Twitter: The beloved social publishing platform enters its twilight", The Atlantic 4/30/2014; Will Oremus, "Twitter is Not Dying: It’s on the cusp of getting much bigger. Here’s why.", Slate 5/1/2014.


A side note on "eternal silence"….  Presumably the French navy's last Morse code transmission was in French, not English — does any know what the French text was? In particular, it would ironic if the French version of "last cry" was actually "dernier cri"… It's suspicious that the French Wikipedia entry for L'alphabet morse doesn't mention this event, though the English counterpart does. Could this be an urban legend, starting as someone's poetic rumination on the passage of a grand cultural tradition, and gradually transformed into a pseudo-historical event?

But the Wikipedia article "Radiotélégraphiste de station côtière" has a sub-heading suggesting that it was not the French navy but rather the French coast guard, and that they actually did broadcast in English, and that the Economist's quotation was no more faulty than journalistic quotations usually are:

 

However, though this is authentic-looking, no source is cited.

 

 

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33 Comments »

  1. GeorgeW said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 6:36 am

    Butt what about Twitter, . . ." Intentional spelling?

    [(myl) Alas, no.]

  2. cM said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 6:56 am

    Apparently, the final text was indeed in English, as even the wikipédia cites it as this:

    —————————————————
    cq cq cq de ffu ffu ffu
    f/cl down broadcast =
    this is our final cry on 500 khz before eternal silence stop
    nearly all the century round ffu has provided w/t svc at the tip of brittany stop
    thank you all for good kii good cooperation over decades and best wishes to those remaining on air stop
    good bye from all at brest le conquet radio stop
    silent key for ever stop
    adieu 31 01 1997 / 2348 gmt b de ffu + + va. …
    —————————————————

    The string "cq cq cq de ffu ffu ffu" has some more ghits leading to the English text, and additional modifications with words trying to coax out an assumed French version lead nowhere.

    I can't find anything that would qualify as a primary source though.

    [(myl) Thanks -- I found this and updated the post just as you were adding the comment. Please let us know if you find any other clues about the event and its context.]

  3. ===Dan said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 7:32 am

    I found the transcript, apparently in English for the most part: http://bit.ly/RayH67

    The link was provided in explainxkcd:

    http://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/1362

  4. ===Dan said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 7:34 am

    (You can delete… I didn't see cM's comment when I posted.)

  5. cM said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 7:47 am

    I shall, my curiosity will not let this rest.

    This is one of those things that sound just a bit too good to be true, and have just the right amount of unsourced sources to be suspect – but still actually might have happened.

    There is some… let's call it "circumstantial Morse code culture evidence" in favour of it happening though: It happened again, exactly two years later, on the occasion of Telstra morse coverage shutting down:

    THIS IS THE FINAL MORSE TRANSMISSION FROM THE TELSTRA MARITIME COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK. WE CONCLUDE OUR FINAL CW WATCH AFTER 87 YEARS OF CONTINUOUS SERVICE WITH PRIDE AND SADNESS. TELSTRA, THE AUSTRALIAN MARITIME SAFETY AUTHORITY AND THE BUREAU OF METEOROLOGY WISH ALL SEAFARERS, FAIR WIND AND FOLLOWING SEAS. MARCONI IF YOU CAN HEAR THIS WE SALUTE YOU 73s = 31ST JANUARY 1999 2359 UTC AR VA
    (Perth version, the one sent from Melbourne differs, see first link below)

    This time, the source situation is a lot better. There are photos! And names! And even archived posts from internet mailing lists from 1999. So yeah, this one happened.

    In my opinion, this makes the story of Le Conquet at least plausible.

    I know a couple of very interesting people in the "historical radio enthusiast" scene, I'll ask around – maybe someone knows someone who knows something.

  6. mcur said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 8:25 am

    "But here's an easy one: multimedia messaging will take over from text-only messaging."

    Like all easy predictions, already true. I've barely sent a traditional text for perhaps a year, and as far as I know my friends are the same (we're all in our 20s).

    [(myl) Your IP address indicates that you're in Australia. If you're typical of Australian 20-somethings, then what I hear from American undergraduates and graduate students (i.e. your age and somewhat younger) suggests that the U.S. is lagging again.

    Which applications do you use for your non-traditional texts?]

  7. Matt Juge said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 8:55 am

    My impression was that the 140 limit applied to Twitter, but not to SMS, which allows 160.

    [(myl) From the Wikipedia article on SMS:

    Messages are sent with the MAP MO- and MT-ForwardSM operations, whose payload length is limited by the constraints of the signaling protocol to precisely 140 octets (140 octets * 8 bits / octet = 1120 bits). Short messages can be encoded using a variety of alphabets: the default GSM 7-bit alphabet, the 8-bit data alphabet, and the 16-bit UCS-2 alphabet.[40] Depending on which alphabet the subscriber has configured in the handset, this leads to the maximum individual short message sizes of 160 7-bit characters, 140 8-bit characters, or 70 16-bit characters.

    So it depends on the encoding used by the application in question. I had the impression that Latin-text applications now generally use 8-bit characters, which allows for ISO/IEC 8859-1 encoding of the characters needed for French, German, Italian, Portuguese, etc. But I'm not even close to being an expert in this area.

    And I see that the Google Voice texting application counts down from 160, suggesting that my impression was wrong.]

  8. Sili said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    Most SMS'es concatenate seamlessly, so the length limit only applies to charging – much like telegraphy, I guess.

    It's a pity this question only arose now. My uncle was a keen radio amateur, but he died recently.

  9. Mara K said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 10:02 am

    Morse code is still the go-to cipher in the media. (This week's Welcome to Night Vale episode was full of plot-relevant Morse. Not to mention the Hound of the Baskervilles episode of Sherlock.) I wonder if it'll ever be phased out there, given how deeply embedded into the public consciousness it seems to be.

  10. Jeff DeMarco said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 10:06 am

    Those transcripts puzzle me, as there is no character in International Morse for either + or =. They may be replacements for some special Morse characters. I can't imagine why someone would spell out "stop." In amateur radio, at least, one would use the conjoined letters BT (which takes just about the same time to send as the letter "p.")

  11. jfruh said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    Could you really not find any Americans who were sending SMS messages 10 years ago? It wasn't exactly common then but it wasn't unheard of either. My wife got her first cell phone in 2004 and specifically got one with a texting plan because she worked with teenagers and that was already considered at the time to be the best way to keep in touch with them. I got my first cell not long after and I definitely was texting as well, though mostly with her (and we were in our late 20s/early 30s at the time, not too set in our ways but not teens either).

    I would say that was right around the time texting really started to spread. If you had said "12 years ago" I wouldn't have batted an eye, but texting was definitely not some weird foreign concept in 2004 America.

    [(myl) As of February-March 2004, I asked friends, family, and a few dozen random Penn undergrads about texting. A few had tried it to see what it was like; some had never heard of it; most had heard of it but never tried it.

    I knew a few people who were already Blackberry addicts at that time -- this was a different technology, a different social group, etc.]

  12. Craig said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    I think for mid to late twenty somethings SMS isn't dead but is used very differently. Between smart phone users though, the character limit is not really a factor, as you can seemlessly create messages where you can't even tell that there are multiple SMSs strung together. It's also easy to add pictures and sounds (although I don't know anyone who adds sounds), as the phone can handle larger files and the software that handles even SMS messaging runs smoother on newer platforms.

    Also with smart phones, you can expect an email to be replied to on a reasonably short time frame, and you can keep many people in on the message. You run into problems when you try to get in contact with people who still have flip-phones or other non-smart varieties (like parents or hold-out peers). Thus SMS helps keep them in the loop.

    Maybe self reporting isn't great in this case, but at least amongst my peers, the case is is that SMS is still used but not experienced in the way that it used to be. As a recent convert to a smart-phone I experienced the pressure to update my communication, and I expect that fairly soon it may even be fully impossible to not use smart phones for mobile technology. At that point, SMS can be traded for something that mixes representational aspects to a greater degree. 20-something from MN.

  13. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    I wonder if the sender of the French Coast Guard message, translating "appel", replaced the sense "call" with the sense "appeal" to give "final cry"?

  14. Kevin said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

    Most phones will try to use a 7 bit GSM alphabet then fall back to less efficient encodings if you use characters that can't be represented. Watch the remaining character count if you add a Chinese character, for example.

  15. Aaron Toivo said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

    I doubt simple SMS will really die out anytime soon. Plain old telephone calls may be less used than they once were, but continue to have utility and have not been wholly replaced by video calls as was once predicted; text-only email remains well used despite the advent of texting and twitter. Similarly, there are many small communication tasks for which unadorned SMS remains the simplest effective tool, such as "heavy traffic, be there a bit late" or "my plane just landed, meet me at baggage claim" (these are among my actual recent texts), so while it may lose popularity, I really can't see it falling wholly out of use until handheld mobile phones themselves do. Dead to the extent email is, maybe, but not to the extent morse code is!

  16. Levantine said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

    jfruh, I moved to the USA from the UK in 2006, and the difference in texting culture was significant. People just didn't seem to text as much here, and I went from sending/receiving several messages a day to exchanging barely a few a month. It didn't help that American texting plans seemed so unconducive to SMS conversations (I balked at the idea of paying to receive a message, and so was hesitant to send any of my own).

    Since the smart-phone revolution, things have really changed. iMessages, Viber, WhatsApp, etc. mean that we no longer have to pay to send or receive messages, and with this shift, American texting habits have begun to approach those of the rest of the world.

  17. Carl Offner said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

    Yogi Berra may have uttered that wonderful quote, "It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future." But others may have as well. I myself first heard it attributed to Neils Bohr. And I just quickly found a web page (http://larry.denenberg.com/predictions.html) where it's attributed to over 20 people, some more convincingly than others. I haven't followed the links there, and my guess is that this is at this point unknowable, or just one of those things that lots of people come up with on their own.

  18. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 9:26 pm

    There's still plenty of Morse on the air, mostly in the amateur bands (20 & 40 meters particularly). CQ (dah dit dah dit dah dah dit dah) still means "calling any station." I don't think that there's any jurisdiction that still requires code for licensing. The above stations were operated by national coast guards and monitored the 500 kHz international marine distress frequency. CW (continuous-wave) signals could be read through a lot of interference. There's still a certain cachet among hams to being able to "pound brass" and I think that Morse will survive another generation or so.

    (Yes, I know that no one uses true Morse code. It's been International Code for years and years.)
    KB3JRL (formerly OX3BC)

  19. Walter Underwood said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

    According to the Maritime Radio Historical Society, "The last commercial Morse message in North America was transmitted from the Globe Wireless master station in Half Moon Bay, California on 12 July 1999."

    http://www.radiomarine.org/gallery/show?keyword=eom

    Though this was the end of regular commercial Morse service, volunteers operate the station on the maritime frequencies on the anniversary every year.

    http://www.radiomarine.org/gallery/show?keyword=kphnon
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYhrSEERvbI

    Radio station KSM continues to operate on maritime frequencies for several hours every Saturday, staffed by volunteers.

    http://www.radiomarine.org/gallery/show?keyword=ksmstation

    But if you want to know the last message that was sent, it was "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT SK". The "SK" is sent as a single character and indicates the end of the transmission. The mnemonic is "silent key", and it is also a respectful term for operators who have died.

    Much of the Morse on the amateur radio bands is automatically translated from typing on a keyboard, though most operators are capable of sending with a key.

  20. Mark Mandel said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 12:40 am

    For me, "eternal silence" from a French source immediately cues an allusion to a quote from Pascal's Pensées: Le silence eternel des ces espaces infinis m'effraie – The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.

  21. Michael Sommers said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 1:43 am

    500 kHz was (and still is) the international distress and calling frequency. In the olden days coastal radio stations and ships at sea were required to monitor the frequency, at a minimum during the two 3-minute silent periods every hour. However, as satellite communication became more common, its use dropped off. When I was at sea in the USN in 1980 and 1981 I never a single call on that frequency (although that could have been because of equipment problems; we had no way to test our receiver, as neither we nor any other navy ship I knew of had a transmitter for that frequency). In the late 1990s almost everyone (if not exactly everyone) stopped monitoring the frequency.

    It is entirely plausible that a station would transmit a farewell message when it stopped guarding 500 kHz, if only to let other stations know not to call it. It is also plausible that the message would be in English, for the same reason that all airplanes communicate in English.

    As for the '=' and '+' in the message, the prosigns AR and BT are identical to those signs. The prosign VA is the same as SK, which is more familiar to amateurs. And my recollection is that "stop" is or was more common in commercial radio than in military or amateur communications, so it might have been used, or it may have been sent as a period but copied down as "stop".

  22. John Walden said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 3:50 am

    Here's a video of Ceefax, the BBC teletext service, saying goodbye:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-foyle-west-20044323

  23. John Walden said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 4:00 am

    You may not be able to watch that outside the UK. Here it is, along with non-digital TV shutting down, on Youtube:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLtZvNEtbHw

  24. mcur said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 6:19 am

    @myl A few of us are Japanese, so we mainly use Line. Many of my friends back in Japan are now on internet-only phone plans, so they can't even send meiru any more. Line is universal.

    In Australia I think most people use WhatsApp, though I also have some Korean friends who mainly use KakaoTalk. I guess nothing is dominating the market in this part of the world just yet.

  25. peterv said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 7:56 am

    Aaron Toivo said (May 3, 2014 @ 4:05 pm)

    "I doubt simple SMS will really die out anytime soon. Plain old telephone calls may be less used than they once were, but continue to have utility and have not been wholly replaced by video calls as was once predicted; text-only email remains well used despite the advent of texting and twitter . . . ."

    No communications medium ever completely disappears. We still carve words on stone tablets and walls for specific occasions (eg, memorial headstones next to graves; the names of office buildings, etc), for example, and still engrave metallic drinking vessels and jewelry.

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 8:04 am

    Almost a hundred years ago a rather specialized monument was dedicated in Battery Park at the lower tip of Manhattan in honor of maritime "wireless operators" (presumably all using Morse code rather than voice in those days) who had died in the line of duty. http://cather.unl.edu/nf014.html is a contemporary piece on the monument by Willa Cather. It's still there although I think it stopped getting updated with names of new honorees many many decades ago (probably before WW2).

  27. Mara K said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 9:41 am

    @mcur Yesterday I met a group of American college freshmen who mainly send messages through Snapchat because one of them has a limited texting plan. I wonder if that's a fluke or a sign that the US is catching up.

  28. Mara K said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 9:41 am

    @mcur Yesterday I met a group of American college freshmen who mainly send messages through Snapchat because one of them has a limited texting plan. I wonder if that's a fluke or a sign that the US is catching up.

  29. Mara K said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 9:42 am

    Not sure why that posted twice. Stupid smartphone.

  30. Michael Watts said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

    No communications medium ever completely disappears. We still carve words on stone tablets and walls for specific occasions (eg, memorial headstones next to graves; the names of office buildings, etc), for example, and still engrave metallic drinking vessels and jewelry.

    Unfired clay tablets are way down. Wax cerae (the same thing, but wax instead of clay) are also way down, although admittedly wikipedia indicates that they were in use until the 1860s. We still have carvings and engravings not because they're traditional but because we still have the same communication goals that the people of the past satisfied with carvings: "I want everyone in the future to be able to read this", or more generically "I want a symbol of absolute permanence".

  31. Valency said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 8:11 pm

    "Look unto the once great lords of Internet; behold! The glory of ICQ hath past away, the glory of Yahoo hath past away, the glory of Livejournal hath past away. Verily I say unto ye, the LORD reveals it to me; even the great Facebook, mighty as the battlements of Tyre, shall one day pass away. Yea, Facebook, today thou standest proudest among the empires; thy splendour a beacon in the night; but thy sins will find thee out. Thy firewalls shall be stormed, thy revenues turn to drought, thine users shall desert thee. For the fat of the Internet stealeth away as quickly as a thief in the night. All is vanity; all go to the same place. All came from the dust and all shall return to the dust. Thus saith the LORD."

  32. Michael Conner said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 9:05 am

    Di-di-di-dah di-dah.

  33. NQA2 said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 7:33 am

    Those transcripts puzzle me, as there is no character in International Morse for either + or =. They may be replacements for some special Morse characters. I can't imagine why someone would spell out "stop." In amateur radio, at least, one would use the conjoined letters BT (which takes just about the same time to send as the letter "p.")

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