Social change

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Yesterday's Zits:

Almost eleven years ago ("Texting", 3/8/2004), I wrote:

I've visited Japan a couple of times before, most recently about a decade ago. One thing that's changed since my last visit is texting. Most younger people in Japan now seem to spend a lot of time sending and reading text messages on their cell phones.

This morning, I took the train from Meguro (near my hotel) to Ookayama (near Tokyo Institute of Technology). My car had about 60 people in it. Of these, 12 were busy texting. Among the other younger-looking people in the group, five were sleeping, and one was reading an English workbook. All of the other riders seemed to be older. […]

I don't think that I've even seen anyone texting in the U.S.

Following up a day later ("More on meiru",3/9/2004), I reported some of the then-current theories about why the U.S. was so different:

Discussions over lunch today in the TITech cafeteria clarified some things about Japanese cell phone text messages. […]

Japanese cell-phone text messages are always sent as email, and are fully integrated into the regular email system. That's why the same word meiru is used for both. Cell phones are not used for instant messaging, and in fact (at least among my consultants) instant messaging is not much used at all. […]

As for why Japanese people in general use cell phone meiru so much, there was agreement that it is considered rude to talk on the phone (cell or otherwise) in the hearing of others, and that talking on a cell phone in a public place would be especially impolite. It was also agreed that cell phone messaging is very cheap, almost free, whereas cell phone talk minutes are relatively expensive. Finally, cell phone message is done with one hand, and so can be done while standing on a train or on a platform or bus stop, where a laptop computer could not be used. Given that long commutes on crowded vehicles are the norm — one of my friends said that he has a short commute, only one hour each way — this certainly motivates a one-handed solution, whether for comunication or for web information access or for gaming.

My understanding of the situation in Europe is that the economics are different (SMS messages are far from free), and also that the cell phone messages are not normally integrated into the regular email system, but just go back and forth between cell phones, and that talking on cell phones in public is not any ruder than it is the U.S. So I'm somewhat puzzled about why text messaging by cell phone is so popular there.

Here is a weblog entry from that discusses differences between Japan and Europe, quoting other articles and blog entries — some (quoted) highlights:

— Pricing of SMS vs. mobile email is one major differentiator between Europe and Japan
— The Japanese message lengths are longer (in some cases, 1,000 characters)
— Some of Japanese are not familiar to PC. Cell phone is major way for mail and web.

And so far, this whole thing is not happening in the U.S. — because of pricing, availability and interoperability issues, and maybe cultural differences. Will the U.S. just suddenly catch up at some point? or go off in a different direction?

Four years later ("What's the difference?", 3/10/2008; "Texting efficiency", 7/8/2008), things had changed:

 An article in today's NYT (Laura Holson, "Text Generation Gap: U R 2 Old (JK)", 3/9/2008) suggests anecdotally that cell-phone text messaging is surging among U.S. teens. My own recent anecdotal experience bears this out — a 12-year-old of my acquaintance much prefers text messaging to talking on the phone, even when it seems to me that a voice conversation would be quicker and more efficient.

But just a few years ago, the situation was completely different. Although texting was popular in Europe and Japan, the rate of use in the U.S. was roughly two orders of magnitude lower — and was mainly confined to online trading addicts getting stock price alerts, sports fanatics getting score updates, etc. See "No text please, we're American", The Economist, 4/3/2003; "Why text messaging is not popular in the US",, 4/4/2003. I also noted this difference in a few posts three years ago ("Texting", 3/8/2004; "More on meiru", 3/9/2004; "Texting, typing, speaking", 7/1/2004).

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?

A year later, the comics were mocking adults who didn't know how to text ("How things have changed…", 11/21/2009). Some people offered plausible economic and technological explanations for the timing of the change, as in this comment from that 2009 post:

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.

Two years after that, I was still unclear about the balance among technological, economic, and cultural factors in the process ("What caused the texting tsunami?", 6/6/2011). And now, in 2015, it's really past time for a serious survey and analysis of the history. (If I've missed it, please let me know!)

As yesterday's Zits comic illustrates, we've now reached the point where many young people (not only in the comics) regard the whole voice telephony deal as a quaint holdover from olden times, roughly like the way that telegrams were regarded in the 1950s.  No doubt there are already ten-year-olds who can't recall every having seen anyone talking on an old-fashioned wired telephone, never mind one with an actual dial. Will digital imitations of the telephone voice channel (8 kHz bandwidth, missing low frequencies, etc.) still be around in a decade?





  1. Mike Briggs said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 6:22 am

    At the age of 80 I am proud (I think) to tell you that a couple weeks ago, having nothing better to do during a wee-hours layover in an airport, I used my phone to shoot a selfie of me and my wife and texted the pic to our four kids. Does that make me a non-codger?

    Seriously, for some time now I have been texting rather than calling people. As you say, it's more polite to those around one, and I think it's also more polite to the recipient who needn't stop whatever he/she is doing to pick up a voice call. It also avoids the dreaded voicemail.

  2. Edward Sanderson said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 7:04 am

    a wrinkle to this would be the entry of Weixin to the scene. For a fewe years now many people (at least in my experience here in China) have preferred to record voice messages in chats rather than type a message; weibo also added this feature to their direct messaging app at some point a few years ago, and this is also a feature of Apple's iMessage on an iPhone, so I wonder which came first…

    [(myl) I also noticed this last summer in China — and I've been wondering for years why something of the sort hasn't been available (or at least hasn't become popular) in the U.S., given that the broad mass of Americans ought (at least according to the stereotypes) be more comfortable with voice than with text.

    So maybe in ten years American youth will be passing multimedia snippets around via their networked wearable devices, and "texting" will be something that old folks (30-somethings?) do…]

  3. Jason said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 7:18 am

    If "Zits" is so cutting edge, why does the teenager dress like he comes from 1992?

    I don't hear ring tones much any more, but that's because just about everybody sensible leaves their phone on vibrate. It's got nothing to do with "voice calls are so over."

    And the ones that don't have a message tone, like the Galaxy message tone which is probably the most annoying sound ever invented once you hear it 40000+ times.

  4. bkd69 said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 7:43 am

    The gag of 20-somethings having a landline foisted upon them has already been done in two primetime sitcoms, Selfie, and New Girl. In New Girl, one of th characters quips that he hasn't had a voice call on his cell phone since 2007.

  5. Charles said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 10:04 am

    @myl: There is such a thing. It's called Voxer, and it's been around for years now. I have many friends that use it, in both the USA and Canada (where I live), as well as European countries such as Finland. I don't use it much myself as I mostly prefer face-to-face or the full length letter (via email) that I actually have to sit down and write. Text messaging (SMS) is mostly just for "Can you pick up milk on your way home?"

    In respect to the part about corded dial telephones, I'm a so-called "youngster" (under 20) and there's one sitting right here in my kitchen. We use it when we can't find the cordless phone or the power is out. And for the fact that we would never hear the phone ringing otherwise (there's nothing like a good 'ol BELL for a ringer).

  6. Martha said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 10:25 am

    I think it will be a while before voice calls are completely gone, since it will be a while for there to be a better option for communicating with businesses. I'm sure there are doctors/dentists who allow you to make an appointment online and send a text/email to confirm it, but I don't know of any. And when I wanted to talk to my insurance company the other day, I opted to call rather than send an email, because I knew if I called I'd get a person rather than an automated email and then have to wait a few days for an actual response, and my issue needed to be resolved immediately.

    From the original post, "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)" struck me, because haven't cell phones always allowed you to indicate in your phonebook whether the number was a cell phone? And at any rate, for as long as I've had a cell phone, (which is about ten years), if people are giving you their phone numbers it's going to be their cell number, even if they do have a house phone.

  7. cameron said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 11:27 am

    The cartoon uses the term "old fogey". As it happens, Michael Quinion posted a piece about the possible origins of that term on his website just the other day:

  8. Paolo said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 11:54 am

    Should "text" be interpreted as "SMS message" or also as any type of message sent by apps? In Italy nowadays the favourite texting medium is Whatsapp, SMS are used mainly by older people or those without smartphones.

  9. Adam said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

    we've now reached the point where many young people (not only in the comics) regard the whole voice telephony deal as a quaint holdover from olden times, roughly like the way that telegrams were regarded in the 1950s

    Another data point is the 2012 episode of Community "Origins of Vampire Mythology", in which Troy says of Britta: "She was born in the '80s—she still uses her phone as a phone!"

  10. Ginger Yellow said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

    So maybe in ten years American youth will be passing multimedia snippets around via their networked wearable devices

    They already are, via Snapchat and WhatsApp and other apps. It's just not as fundamental/integrated/standardised a technology as SMS.

  11. anseio said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

    I'm turning 40 this year. I don't mind texting, but anything more than 2 replied and I'm completely annoyed. I don't know how people can tolerate a non-stop stream of interruptions all day long. Ugh.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

    If "wired telephone" means non-cordless landline,* it's possible that my 13-year-old has never seen one being used in real life, although she was given as a semi-joke Christmas present a very old-fashioned Bell-System-monopoly-era style handset that can be plugged into her iphone. (Different brand/color than, but same concept.)

    *My older kids are probably vaguely aware that the cordless landline phones work via a base station that is physically wired into a jack in the wall, although I expect it's not intuitive to them why the jack in the kitchen wall is at chest/shoulder height when the jacks elsewhere in the house are only a few inches above the baseboards.

  13. David Morris said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 2:36 pm

    My students certainly have ring tones on their phones and make/get voice calls *in class*! (as well as sending/getting text messages).

  14. Adrian said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 4:22 pm

    I'm not sure which app she uses (Whatsapp maybe?), but my daughter often indulges in slow-motion voice-message conversations with friends, partly I think because it's free.

  15. Ø said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

    David, you have to stop them somehow!

  16. MikeA said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 6:55 pm

    Vinyl is making a comeback. Maybe some time before I die electronics will become so cheap that a mobile device will have as good a latency and voice clarity (not to mention full-ish duplex) as a landline phone of the 1950s. Then maybe folks will start using them to talk again.

  17. Brett Reynolds said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 2:17 am

    Do young people even use "old fogey" , or is that just something old fogeies say?

  18. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 4:56 am

    I'm over 60 and began texting with my teens sometime around 2007, simply because it's the most expedient way to get in touch with them and negotiate a dinner date or whatever without playing phone tag all day until our free moments happen to coincide.

    Voice calls still have value, though, because they're two-way connections. If somebody picks up, you can deliver your message in real time and know it's been received. In contrast, SMS and other forms of "instant" messaging are like a message in a bottle tossed into the digital ocean. Eventually it will wash up in the recipient's mailbox, and usually pretty quickly, but there are no guarantees of timely delivery.

    So when I set out to pick up my kids for dinner, I'll shoot them a text to let them know I'm on the way. But when I get to where they are, a voice call is the surest way to get them out the door and into the car quickly.

  19. Adam Funk said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 5:14 am

    [In Japan] … it is considered rude to talk on the phone (cell or otherwise) in the hearing of others, and that talking on a cell phone in a public place would be especially impolite.

    That's true everywhere, just flouted widely in the UK.

  20. Alan Palmer said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 5:22 am

    I've long thought that the telephone was a pernicious invention, well before the advent of mobile phones. It always seems to start ringing at an inconvenient moment, screaming 'Answer me! Answer me!' so you rush to pick up the call. If someone came into your home or office and demanded abruptly that you gave them your full attention immediately you'd think that person rude. For this reason I was an early adopter of using SMS messaging here in the UK – the recipient can glance at the message and answer in their own time (or ignore it). Obviously the voice call will never die out completely as it may be needed in emergencies and urgent instances, but almost all my phone use is via text. At work we have an application that allows voice phone calls or a form of instant messaging/texting (plus, of course emails) between staff and I try to avoid using the former.

  21. Miles said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 10:34 am

    Adam: I don't think what you say is accurate. I'm in the UK and I don't believe it is considered rude to hold a phone conversation (mobile or otherwise) in the hearing of others, so I don't think there is an issue of flouting a rule.

    Of course, it is possible to be inconsiderate to those around you when using the phone (eg having a loud personal conversation at work when colleagues are working quietly), but that can be true of face-to-face conversations, and it doesn't make all public phone conversations rude.

    Is it rude in the US to use a cell phone in public then?

  22. S. Norman said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 12:51 pm

    I work in a public building. A part of my job( sometimes it seems like most of it) is telling people to stop using their cell phones. It's always the 'old fogies', never the youngsters, who will sit under the 'No Cell Phones' sign chatting loudy about ailments, grand kids, and dinner arrangements. And they always give me the stink-eye when I ask them to stop. Put the phone back in the booth.

  23. Stephen said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

    "I'm sure there are doctors/dentists who allow you to make an appointment online and send a text/email to confirm it, but I don't know of any"

    My GP uses Patient Access
    and it is my understanding that many GPs use that system.

    The registration & log-in processes are terrible [1] but once in you can, inter alia, see o/s appointments & book new ones. This is much better than phoning as you can see when a particular GP has free appointments.

    1. To register you need the Practice ID, an Access ID and a PIN, all of which are numeric, 4-6 digits long. Once registered you are assigned an 11-digit (!) User ID.

  24. Marguerite said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 2:44 pm

    Jason – clearly you're not a regular reader :) – Jeremy wore modern clothes for a week, then went to "vintage" what he's been wearing all along :)

  25. richard said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 2:49 pm

    @Alan Palmer, are you familiar with the Captain Beefheart song "Telephone" (from the album Dock at the Radar Station)? The final lines are "It's like a gray hammer at the end of the hall / It's like a plastic-horned devil."

    Yes, I have it as a ringtone.

  26. Dan said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 7:05 pm

    Yet another data point is that most early adopters of SMS-based texting are in countries that are not even reported. For instance, SMS use in Southeast Asia exploded in the mid-to-late 90s due to free or nearly free SMS texting, combined with expensive voice call rates. For the next ten years or so, SMS texting is really a Southeast Asian phenomena. Japan is very much a johnny-come-lately. (While most western people see Japan as cutting edge, they are quite conservative when it comes to tech adoption, as the rest of Asia will tell you. We had Nokias and Sony Ericssons when they still had those silly DoCoMo handsets.)

  27. Mike Briggs said,

    January 17, 2015 @ 3:09 am


    My favorite restaurant here (Madison, WI) asks patrons not to use cellphones. Fairly standard around here.

  28. January First-of-May said,

    January 17, 2015 @ 8:43 am

    I don't really see how the triangular heck does everyone move to texting. I mean, I'd expect that people would often want to communicate a lot of stuff that won't really fit in an SMS (or that they aren't confident enough of to put in writing), and/or to have a quick two-sided conversation (which is hard to do with text messages unless there's some kind of a chatting system).

    In my personal experience, SMS/texting is for short, non-urgent messages (stuff like, yes, picking up milk on one's way home – that actually happened to me a few times). If you want to ask something urgently (as opposed to sometime over the next hour), you call. If you want to tell more than 2-3 sentences worth of stuff, you call. If you want to ask a question, get an answer, then (perhaps) ask something else depending on what the answer is, you also usually call (though it's a bit less certain than the previous two cases).

    Russia here by the way; one typically differentiates between home/"landline" and cell phone numbers by the area code (the numbers look similar otherwise, but cell phones have their own bunch of area codes, which aren't really used anywhere else; a common one is 916).

  29. Hershele Ostropoler said,

    January 17, 2015 @ 4:35 pm

    I'm 36, and I hate having phone conversations. I generally converse by SMS or chat when an in-person conversation is not feasible, which both arises from and reinforces my dislike of voice conversations (or whatever retronym we're using to describe talking on the telephone these days).

    My mother, who is the same way, embraced texting as soon as phones had real screens. My father was only very reluctantly persuaded, but he likes phone conversations.

    My sister, who's way younger than I am, talks as well. It don't think it's an age thing, certainly not in my family.

  30. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 17, 2015 @ 7:58 pm

    One complicating factor might be that cell phone calls, in my experience, have perceptibly greater transmission lag than land-line calls. This tends to confound the turn-taking dynamics of normal conversation: if I try to interject "Uh huh" or "Right" into the other person's pauses, they're likely to perceive it as an interruption, because it arrives too late to be construed as a pause-filler.

    So maybe this awkwardness accounts at least to some degree for cell phone users' preference for texting over voice calls.

  31. Lane said,

    January 20, 2015 @ 3:48 am

    Mark, for non-experts, a post on what's missing in a phone call ("low frequencies", you mention) would be really interesting. Most people I know who work in a foreign language agree that it's vastly harder over the phone than in person. Besides the obvious visual help, and those low frequencies, why is it so much harder to understand someone on the typical phone line? I know the answer in general terms (a lot of the sound is missing, but in a language you speak well it is trivially easy to fill it in mentally). But a detailed post would be really interesting. Could one quantify the information loss on a phone line?

  32. David J. Littleboy said,

    January 20, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    The latest thing in Japan is smartphones that aren't phones: basically, they're micro-ipads with cheap (US$7 a month or so) internet-only (email, chat, apps) communications. iPads, on the other hand, actually _ARE_ telephones (at least to the extent of being assigned a phone number that can be dialed. Go figure.) Smartphones are _expensive_ over here: my SO pays way more for her smartphone, then I pay for gigabit FTTH that carries internet, regular TV, cable TV, two landlines, and comes with a WiFi modem. (The cable TV is an extra charge, though.)

    I can't keep up with this, think it's insanely stupid to type at a smartphone, and have always refused to own any cell phone, smart or otherwise. Pisses my SO off something fierce, though.

  33. Ron said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

    I have a university sophomore and high school freshmen (twins). They always have their phones on vibrate because an audible ring is considered rude in a college library or classroom and is a sure way to lose the phone to a teacher in high school.

    My wife and I use text in a variety of ways, with each other, with the kids, with friends and at work. An important use is to schedule voice calls, which makes perfect sense in business and only slightly less with the kids. We happily chat, post, etc. like non-codger @Mike Briggs above, but we divert to voice or FaceTime when facial/body language or tone of voice starts to matter. One use case not mentioned above is to switch *with urgency* to another channel, usually either "Call me now!" (when a live voice is critical) or "Check your email!" (when a message is too long for text or is forwarded/linked).

    It was weird for about a year, but makes perfect sense now.

  34. _Mark_ said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 4:24 am

    > 8khz limitation

    I've started getting "HD Voice" calls which sound notably clearer (I don't know that they actually *are* better, psychoacoustics being what they are, but they use VoLTE as transport); I think it's only within T-mobile, but it's automatic if it's available. (I've also heard them described as "as good as Skype" but I have no idea.) So the market for dropping some of the "legacy" limitations is at least being tested…

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