## How things have changed…

In today's Stone Soup, Val tries to catch up:

The previous few strips sketch her motivation:

But even among young people, texting became popular in the U.S. only a couple of years ago, more than five years after it became widespread in Europe and Japan. See "What's the difference?" (3/10/2008), and some of the links there, e.g. "No text please, we're American", The Economist, 4/3/2003; "Why text messaging is not popular in the US", textually.org, 4/4/2003.

The explanations offered for the geographic difference, back then, included Japanese commuting habits and social conventions discouraging phone conversations in public; greater availability of networked computers to Americans; different voice, SMS and internet pricing structures between Europe and the U.S.; the fact that SMS "was originally defined as part of the GSM series of standards", while U.S. cell phone service is more diverse in terms of its underlying technology.

But in general, these things haven't changed (as far as I know). So why are U.S. adolescents suddenly texting up a storm? Is this a cultural change driven by purely cultural factors?

Where are the social scientists when you need them?

As it happens, today's Non Sequitur has a theory to offer:

You'd have to add some extraneous hypotheses about overseas testing, but of course a good conspiracy theory thrives on extraneous hypotheses.

[And here's a lexicographic question that the OED won't help with: when and where did an L handshape on the forehead, meaning "loser", move from ASL into general use?  (I assume that's the direction of borrowing…) I know that the phenomenon was promoted by the song All Star in Shrek 2, but it seems to be older than that.]

1. ### Paul D. said,

November 21, 2009 @ 9:09 am

I have never seen Shrek 2, but we used to make the "loser" sign up in my corner of Canada when I was a kid 15–20 years ago.

2. ### Carl said,

November 21, 2009 @ 9:50 am

I always associated the forehead L with supposed "Valley Girl" culture: "Loser… Like whatever."

3. ### uberVU - social comments said,

November 21, 2009 @ 9:54 am

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by VTPG: Why did SMS take so long to catch on, and why is it so popular now, given that not much seems to have changed?
http://is.gd/50l15

4. ### Kee said,

November 21, 2009 @ 10:03 am

Anecdotal evidence: I'm a late 20 something American who has been living in Europe of the past few years. The main reason everyone gave for texting when I moved here was the price difference between texts and voice calls. I adopted texting immediately partly for that reason, partly because I have never liked talking on the phone to begin with. My American family and friends only started using text messaging when AIM linked in with SMS so people could IM them when they were not at the computer. From what I can tell, the increase in txting in America is directly related to instant messaging and social networks, while connectivity with social networks like Twitter is lagging behind in Europe for lack of free numbers to txt tweets to. (I still can't link my phone number with AIM.)

In California in the early and mid-nineties, the loser L was often paired with the whatever W, but not necessarily brought to the forehead unless you really wanted to emphasize it.

5. ### Amanda D said,

November 21, 2009 @ 10:12 am

I believe I first saw it in Jerry McGuire (1996).

6. ### The other Mark P said,

November 21, 2009 @ 10:19 am

In New Zealand teenagers text mostly because it is cheaper. They don't have much to say most times anyway, so a text contains all the useful information quite happily.

It may also have something to do with being at school. They cannot answer the phone for a large part of their day, but they can check texts between class. Unless you keep a lid on it, many of them will text all class time too.

Texting is also possible while you talk with your friends or watch TV. Most of them can text quite happily without looking.

7. ### Dan Scherlis said,

November 21, 2009 @ 10:57 am

(You asked for sociologists, but you got a telecom-industry survivor. Rotten luck.)

Two huge details that put North America far behind the rest of the world in text messaging:

1) Mobile/Landline number-ambiguity:
In most countries I've visited, residents can tell at a glance whether a phone number is mobile, versus landline. In N. America those numbers look alike, so that I can't know whether your number is mobile, and thus whether it will accept an SMS (a text message).

2) Late, late N. American SMS-interoperability:
In the UK, all the mobile operators could exchange SMS messages between their customers by 1999. For the US, the top 5 carriers didn't achieve interoperability until early 2002. Nextel and others joined in even later. And, yes, our delay was aggravated by our competing, incompatible network infrastructures.

As a result, for several years I could send you a text message, but only if I kept track of which numbers were mobile (this constraint still applies, but now my phonebook is dominated by mobile numbers), AND if I knew that we shared a carrier.

Those details pushed us behind by some years. Plus, our peculiar focus on prepaid plans means that the marginal cost to make a mobile call is almost always zero. Our texting-enabled community eventually reached critical mass, despite a late start and reduced financial incentive, but even a few years ago I only received texts from fellow techies and from European expats.

(Our love of zero-marginal-cost calling follows from our historic use of unmetered local calling from our landlines. A billing practice, by the way, that helped us establish leadership in Internet connectivity, back when we used telephones for that sort of thing. Phones that were wired right into the wall. Honest, kids, it's true.)

8. ### Jesse Sheidlower said,

November 21, 2009 @ 11:08 am

And here's a lexicographic question that the OED won't help with: when and where did an L handshape on the forehead, meaning "loser", move from ASL into general use?
I'm not sure, but on a somewhat related topic, there's the term L7 'a socially inept person; SQUARE', which derives from the fact that "L" and "7" together form a square. Wentworth and Flexner cite a 1956 jazz source stating that people formed an "L" and a "7" with their fingers to dismiss someone as a loser.

9. ### Alex Stroup said,

November 21, 2009 @ 11:12 am

Yeah, for the loser thing, I first noticed it gaining broad use after it was prominently done in Jerry Maguire (when Tom Cruise gets dumped by his girlfriend, she does it to him).

I'm sure it's older than that but it did seem to gain from the popularity of the movie.

10. ### Melissa K Fox said,

November 21, 2009 @ 11:31 am

I got L-for-loser on the forehead at summer camp in Canada in about 1990 (and it was a well-known meme there at the time, so it can probably be backdated another couple of years even from that point).

11. ### joshua walker said,

November 21, 2009 @ 11:35 am

The question of why texting suddenly caught on in the States, even though the initial conditions that had prevented it from catching on had not changed (such as cheaper talk plans), is something that I have been thinking about, too.

My own background involves living in Moscow from 2001-2002, where texting was extremely prevalent as it was cheaper than phone calls (with the added factor that voice mail was rarely used in Russia). I then returned to the US, 2002-2005, to find texting gaining ground among Stanford students, but still firmly in second place. Then I lived in Russia again from 2005-2007. At this point, texting seems to have made massive gains in the States.

Here is a guess as to why texting has become more popular in the US: once users become more comfortable with the style of interaction on facebook and twitter (short, text-based messages), it establishes texting as a more comfortable form of communication. By "comfortable" I have in mind soemthing that I hear in Ireland today quite often, that sending a text is preferred because it is "less intrusive."

I have some anecdotal evidence for this one, as well. Sometimes I'll make short phone calls to my Irish girlfriend, and she'll ask me why I didn't just send a text (even though we have a plan where calling each other costs nothing extra). It's not that she thinks I'm being "intrusive" here, just that a phone call has become an unnecessary ordeal.

So once a population becomes comfortable with shorter, text-based communication (whether because of price advantage of texting, as in Europe ca. 2000, or with the rise of social networking, as in the US 2005-now), the phone call increasingly becomes more of the ordeal I sketches above.

That said, I have absolutely no idea how one could test my hypothesis other than to pair every American to a European significant other, give them a few phones, attach a few electrodes, and see what happens.

12. ### ruidh said,

November 21, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

Well, certainly L on the forehead for Loser certainly became mainstream before it was featured in the movie poster for the 2000 movie starring Jason Biggs.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0217630/

November 21, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

The L-for-loser gesture was completely unknown to me until I read this post. I've been out of the US, more or less, since 1981. Of course, it's possible I was out of touch since before then, but even so it suggests the early 80s as a date before which it was not part of mainstream culture (Wentworth and Flexner's jazz musicians notwithstanding). And (again, unless I'm more out of touch than I think) it's not used in the UK even now.

14. ### Brett said,

November 21, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

I was familiar with the L gesture starting some time in the early 1990s (when I was a teenager, probably making my peer group the most likely to use the gesture). The first time I saw it on television or movies was definitely in Jerry McGuire. In that instance, however, Jerry's ex-girlfriend doesn't just make the gesture. She also mouths the word "loser" very clearly, in case people didn't get the gestural reference.

15. ### Nassira Nicola said,

November 21, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

The L-for-loser gesture is not originally from ASL – even now, it's only used in ASL as an ironic, very self-conscious borrowing from hearing culture.

As for where it *is* from … not sure. For my part, I've always associated it with the movie "Clueless," much like the two-L-handshapes-forming-a-W gesture that means "whatever."

16. ### Rick S said,

November 21, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

According to Field Guide to Gestures by Nancy Armstrong and Melissa Wagner, the "L" gesture dates back to Jim Carrey's 1994 film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective: "Carrey's character used the "L" on the forehead as his trademark gesture, making sure everyone who didn't measure up knew it." They say the movie's popularity spread the gesture in pop culture, and Clueless and Jerry Maguire picked it up from there.

17. ### Benjamin Zimmer said,

November 21, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

It's not too hard to find mentions of the L gesture predating Ace Ventura. It was even known in the UK — here's a quote from a column in the Evening Standard of Sep. 16, 1992:

Of course, true aficionados of the OKG [Ostentatiously Kind Gesture] scorn Kenneth Baker's effort as coarse and transparent, hardly better than Bart Simpson-type American brats who make an L-sign on their foreheads with their finger and thumb and shout 'Lo-ser! Lo-ser!'

Slightly earlier, here's the Toronto Globe and Mail of June 1, 1992 describing a video about teen culture created by anthropologist Grant McCracken of the Royal Ontario Museum's Institute of Contemporary Culture:

The video about language is particularly revealing as various girls sneer at wannabees (they talk the talk but can they walk the walk?), freshies (recent immigrants) and Ls (losers – signalled by making an L sign with the fingers as one passes them on the street.)

Since we've already heard other early reports from Canada (and of course Jim Carrey is Canadian), perhaps that's where it originated.

18. ### Rob P. said,

November 21, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

Armstrong and Wagner are definitely wrong. My friends and I used it in the mid-80s.

19. ### Rob P. said,

November 21, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

In Virginia.

20. ### John Cowan said,

November 21, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

My daughter (born 1987) has essentially the same attitude to the telephone as my mother (born 1919) had: a nuisance whose use is to be avoided at all costs in favor of written communication (handwritten for my mother, texted for my daughter). My daughter will even ask anyone handy to make a business call for her instead, because she feels so uncomfortable (or something) talking on the phone. Her mother (born 1943) and I (born 1958) were and are complete telephone weenies: we in fact conducted a lot of our courtship on the phone, an expensive proposition because we were in different states (though quite close by) at the time (around 1980). I'm also an email weenie, the only one among the four.

21. ### Charles said,

November 21, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

I did a search on Proquest and found a 1991 Canadian result:

Trying to translate teen talk; Linguistic labels leave lingering legacy; [FINAL Edition]
RICK MCCONNELL Journal Staff Writer. Edmonton Journal. Edmonton, Alta.: Oct 7, 1991. pg. B.3

Feature on 1990's slang used in schools. See sidebar, B3

Edmonton

Even a mondo lame-o knows: you can't have a radical rep without bodacious babble. Like, get with the program, wuss.

Confused? Don't have a cow, dude. Get a teenager to translate.

Unless you're totally out of it, you've probably noticed that kids say the darndest things. Not for the first time in history, the younger generation has developed its own particular vernacular to bemuse and befuddle the nerds among us; a nerd is anyone over 25 who isn't a rock singer or a movie star.
[skip many paragraphs…]

Along with the words, some groups have developed hand signals only the "in" crowd can share. By holding the thumb and index finger in an L-shape beside the temple, a signaller can indicate the person they're talking to is a "loser." Holding the same shape on the forehead means "major loser."

Still, there's good news for the 1960s crowd. "Far out" is still in use. And thanks to its inclusion in the lyrics of a new dance tune, that old standby, "groovy," is making a comeback.

22. ### Charles said,

November 21, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

This is not a 100% match but it involves an L on the forehead, Scarlet Letter style:

A GENERATION OF LOSERS
Ron Borges
13 November 1988
The Boston Globe

[…]
It is not easy to wander through the political darkness every four years with a scarlet "L" reflecting off your forehead. Especially when no one is quite sure whether it stands for Liberal or Loser, although these days it seems one equals the other.
[…]

23. ### Benjamin Zimmer said,

November 21, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

For some users of the gesture, "L" might stand for "lame" instead of (or in addition to) "loser". From the Milwaukee Journal, August 10, 1991:

You knew it wasn't exactly a hot event at Alpine Valley Music Theater when even some ushers were giving each other the L-sign (as in lame) just before the Stevie Nicks show was to begin Friday night.

24. ### Steve Hartman Keiser said,

November 21, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

Here's some evidence to suggest that mutiple parallel independent innovations of "Loser"-L are highly likely:

The "L" handshape (not on the forehead) was used by some friends in high school in Cedar Falls, Iowa in the early 80s. It meant "Later" and carried the same sense of good-humored scorn that "Loser"-L does now. I think "Later"-L meant something like, "See you later–that was so stupid/ridiculous that I just can't stick around" or sarcastically in response to a suggestion "Good idea, we'll do that…later". Of course no one ever said these entire phrases. If someone did or said something dumb you just flashed them the "L" and said ""Later".

I was surprised then in the 90s when the "Loser"-L became a widespread phenomenon used in almost the same scenarios as I would use "Later"-L. I am not suggesting that "Later"-L morphed into "Loser"-L, but I'm just noting that the handshape is easy to make, easy to see from a distance, and easily associated with a particular word/phrase to convey a message quickly and wittily. So parallel independent innovations of "Loser"-L seem very likely.

Personally I think the attitude conveyed by "Later"-L is much more laid-back and slacker-like than the name-calling "Loser"-L. But that's just me reliving high school.

25. ### Steve Hartman Keiser said,

November 21, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

Just saw Ben's comment on "L" = Lame. Yet another piece of evidence pointing to parallel independent innovation.

26. ### Rubrick said,

November 21, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

I didn't start texting until I had a smartphone with a qwerty keyboard; possibly the increasing ubiquity of smartphones helped push texting to a critical threshhold in the U.S. I don't know what percentage of the main (perceived, anyway) texting demographic, teens, have smartphones, though.

27. ### Stilgherrian said,

November 21, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

Something which I don't think has been mentioned yet in the context of SMS in the US — and I'm in Sydney, Australia so I'm not sure how true this is — but in the US is not the recipient of an SMS billed for it, as well as the sender? If so, doesn't this act as a disincentive, lest you be seen as causing the recipient unexpected costs?

Whether that's true or not, I'll certainly go with the comparative price of calls versus SMS as being the key factor.

I was in Tanzania earlier this year where there's good mobile coverage through 70% of the villages. Even local village administrators, in villages where the average family income is the equivalent of USD 120 a year, have cheap Chinese-made mobile phones. They seem to send SMS rather than make a call for two reasons. 1. SMS costs USD 0.003 (that is, a third of a cent). 2. SMS hardly affect battery life. The second point is very important when the phones are recharged from a lead-acid car battery which in turn has to be taken into town to be recharged.

28. ### Cath the Canberra Cook said,

November 21, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

I had some idea that L for loser was maybe in Wayne's World, or Bill & Ted. I recall it being used in Australia in the early 90s, but I've never encountered W for wevs.

29. ### J. Goard said,

November 21, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

One thing to consider, IMHO, is the prior relative frequency of "loser" among similarly-charged epithets, compared with the degree to which an upright "L" shape (as opposed to the "gun") filled an empty slot among easily recognized basic handshapes. As others have suggested, the consensus that the handshape stands for "loser" may have been a later development.

Jesse's reference to "L7" = square in 1950s jazz culture is provocative, though. Just try making a square that way, and imagine how long it would take people to quit contorting their "7" hand (especially if they want to keep holding their drink!)

30. ### Don Sample said,

November 22, 2009 @ 2:28 am

The "Loser" gesture certainly is used in the UK. The place I've seen it most often is in episodes of the BBC car show "Top Gear."

31. ### peter said,

November 22, 2009 @ 6:54 am

Even in Europe, texting took some years to become popular. The first GSM networks were launched in 1991 and 1992, and even by the mid 1990s, the numbers of mobile users using text at all was still only a minuscule proportion of the total user-base. Texting only became popular in most European countries at the end of the 1990s.

Also relevant is that SMS was primarily invented to enable one-way broadcasts of emergency messages TO subscribers, and most mobile network operators had to undergo a cultural shift and then make appropriate equipment investments to support its use for user-to-user messaging.

32. ### Frans said,

November 22, 2009 @ 9:33 am

I wouldn't know about the social structures surrounding all of this stuff, but speaking for myself, I think that telephone conversations almost always interrupt you while you're doing something. With e-mail, IM, or text messages you can reply whenever you've got the time available. Even if it's just 30 seconds later, you didn't have to interrupt what you were just doing. If something's too complicated to deal with by e-mail, I'd rather make an appointment to meet someone in person than handle it by phone. If that is not an option due to physical distance then I'd still prefer to make some kind of an appointment of calling/expecting a call between, say, 3 and 4 PM. I'm really very similar to my father in this regard (born '35), except he has to use the phone more than I do due to not being as well integrated with modern technology, so to say. Things are slightly different in regard to calling companies (the only thing to care about is their opening hours), but that's more of a necessary burden due to a lack of their answering e-mails sufficiently than anything else.

33. ### Kym said,

November 22, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

Even "All Star" is a lot older than Shrek 2. It was released in 1999 and also used in the film Mystery Men…

34. ### Aviatrix said,

November 22, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

Of the group sitting around me, the Canadians remember the Loser sign from the early eighties, and the American from the early nineties. If you extended the second finger instead of curling it, it was the "3D loser." I had no idea it was from ASL, but the same sign in British Sign Language means "German" (representing the Kaiser-era helmet spike).

35. ### Benjamin Zimmer said,

November 22, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

@Aviatrix: As Nassira notes above, the direction of borrowing was not from ASL to general use as Mark surmised — in ASL it's "an ironic, very self-conscious borrowing from hearing culture."

36. ### D. Sky Onosson said,

November 22, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

I'm Canadian, and was in high school from around 1986 to 1989 – and I definitely remember the L for loser from that time. It may predate that by a few years, but certainly it was in use by then. I also remember thinking it seemed very American, though I'm not sure why.

37. ### Anonymous said,

November 22, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

Where are the social scientists when you need them?

danah boyd?

38. ### Chris said,

November 22, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

I didn't like using the phone when I was a kid/teenager, and I was born in 1966. My mom reports the same thing (b. 1942). Maybe the phone has just been a hard thing to get used to all along.

39. ### Katherine said,

November 22, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

All Star was in Shrek 1, not 2.

In NZ there was a pretty big* marketing campaign by Vodafone to make txting (SMS) sexy when it came out around 1999. Telecom phones couldn't send or receive txt (SMS) at that point so I think that was why Vodafone advertised it so heavily.

*I still remember the exact ads on TV even though I didn't get a phone til a few years later, so it must have been big, right?

40. ### Peter Taylor said,

November 22, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

@Cath the Canberra Cook, L for loser doesn't feature in the first Wayne's World film. I don't have the television sketches or the second film on DVD to check.

41. ### Devilbunny said,

November 22, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

Another reason I think SMS was slow to catch on in the US: not only do you have to pay to receive one, you cannot accept or decline a single text. You must take them all, or none. Answering a call costs airtime, but ubiquitous caller ID means that you know whether you want to answer or not. Since receiving a text and sending a reply cost more than a one-minute phone call, the economics were easily on the side of calling.

42. ### Graeme said,

November 22, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

I've not come across the L sign in Australia. Did it pass from ASL to other sign languages?

55. ### Mark Reed said,

November 26, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

L for loser feels very 80's to my memory. Certainly when I saw Ace Ventura I recognized it rather than regarding it as an innovation; the new bit was the exaggerated drawn-out "luh-hoo-oo-oo-ser" pronunciation.

@Dude: Left-to-right doesn't apply to visuals within a single panel. Panels, yes. Speech/thought bubbles, yes. But it's perfectly acceptable to have someone on the left reacting to something on the right, especially if you're going for a "reveal" effect.

56. ### Stephen Jones said,

November 27, 2009 @ 4:25 am

I was under the impression that texting took off first in Asia, particularly the Philippines. As well as the difference in cost, there is the fact that you can still send a text message when the phone lines are saturated (it was originally developed for telephone repair men), and it didn't disturb people around you, or around the person you were texting.

57. ### Keith M Ellis said,

November 29, 2009 @ 1:09 am

J. Goard, ASL and BSL don't share a relationship like American and British English do and therefore one shouldn't be surprised that they are very different. In fact, ASL and BSL can be considered to be in completely different language families, as their respective evolutions were separate. In contrast, ASL and French Sign are similar because they share an origin.

This distinction has both linguistic and cultural importance because many people wrongly suppose that ASL is something like a conversion of English to a sign format. ASL is its own distinct language. However, there is such a thing as "signed English". Forgive me if you're aware of this—almost certainly you are.

I'm no expert on signed languages, but I recall this from Oliver Sacks's excellent "Seeing Voices". (France and then the US were the world leaders in Deaf education; ASL began as an import from the French deaf educators and community.)

58. ### Watch Saw 6 Free said,

December 4, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

Armstrong and Wagner are definitely wrong. My friends and I used it in the mid-80s.

59. ### Watch White Collar Online Free said,

December 4, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

I always thought an L to the forhead meant lesbian (not a native English speaker here). So the cartoon was a bit confusing at first. And I am told L to the forhead does indeed mean lesbian in ASL.

60. ### Jesse Sheidlower said,

December 30, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

Just to push the provable date of the "L for loser" sign back a few years, I was reading Tad Friend's memoir _Cheerful Money_ (http://www.amazon.com/Cheerful-Money-Family-Last-Splendor/dp/0316003174), which describes in the text, and conveniently includes a photograph, of the author and some friends flashing this sign in 1988.

61. ### Bob said,

March 23, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

And here's a lexicographic question that the OED won't help with: when and where did an L handshape on the forehead, meaning "loser", move from ASL into general use?
I'm not sure, but on a somewhat related topic, there's the term L7 'a socially inept person; SQUARE', which derives from the fact that "L" and "7″ together form a square. Wentworth and Flexner cite a 1956 jazz source stating that people formed an "L" and a "7″ with their fingers to dismiss someone as a loser.

62. ### Lee said,

June 11, 2010 @ 5:00 am

I was certainly using the "L to the forehead for Loser" symbol in 1986 in Minnesota, at the bank I worked at. I remember waking up once after a heavy drinking session with a huge bruise on the back of my hand and my forehead and it taking me a while to figure out how they got there!

I don't remember where it came from and I thought at the time we started it, but since it became popular most places after that I am sure it must have come from somewhere else even if only subliminally.

Coincidentally, we bordered Canada where several of the other early instances come from?