What caused the texting tsunami?

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Today's Zits:

I'm still waiting for some enterprising social scientist to describe what happened between 2003 — when texting was widespread in Japan and Europe, but almost non-existent in the U.S. — and 2008, by which time the situation described in today's strip had become established.

I asked this question a few years ago ("What's the difference?", 3/10/2008):

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", textually.org, 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?

And I still haven't seen a good answer. [Though there are more attempts in the comments on a later post, "How things have changed…", 11 21 2009.]

There must be highly-detailed historical data out there about who did how much texting where and when, as well as how pricing, standards, and hardware evolved. So how, where, and when did the change in U.S. texting habits happen? Was the change preceded by changes in standards, tariffs, or devices? Was it driven to any substantial extent by advertising? Or was it (as I suspect) an almost purely cultural wave, with the devices, tariffs, and marketing trailing along in its wake?

Perhaps there's already some literature on this — if so, I hope that well-informed readers can inform the rest of us.


  1. Kathleen said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 8:49 am

    I could have sworn that I read a discussion of this issue on this very site, where the author suggested that the change was caused by a switch in pricing. When people were charged by the text, they sent few. When the big companies started offering data plans that included unlimited texting, the number of texts skyrocketed.

    I have no idea if this is true or not, or (obviously) where I read it. On average, I probably send five texts in a year, so it is hardly a trend I'm participating in.

  2. Heather said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    I wasn't around for the previous conversations, but yeah, the price played a huge role in the rise of SMS. The first SMS bundle I remember selling (I worked tech support from 2000-2007) was 150 incoming text messages for $5. The marketing for it was purely for getting alerts. There was no outgoing SMS because I don't think the cell phone companies saw a need for that. They were making their money off of minutes (2003 was the time of the unlimited local usage rate plans) and so didn't see the need for it. When customers finally started getting phones capable of outbound SMS, customers started demanding better SMS rate plans. At Alltel, we had customers complaining for a full 2 years for an unlimited SMS plan before we offered it, and we didn't start offering it until other companies did. Once the better plans came out, people who had been raised on using various chat programs naturally started using SMS as a discrete form of chatting. But nobody running the cell phones companies (at least from what I saw) recognized the natural link between chat and SMS.

  3. Jan Freeman said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    Kathleen is probably remembering the comments on Mark's 2009 post, "How things have changed," http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1911.
    Lots of testimony there about pricing schemes.

  4. Jonathan Badger said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    I'm not sure which direction the connection goes (perhaps the hardware was introduced to capitalize on the gaining popularity of texting), but modern phones with on-screen (or even physical) QWERTY keyboards makes texting much more practical than doing it on a numeric keypad as one had to do in the early 2000s.

  5. Justin said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    Data point: Here in Germany, texting was already quite popular before 2000, even among young people not accustomed to internet chat. This despite the fact that one text often costs about as much as 1 minute of phoning. So at least here, it was probably not a reaction to reasonable pricing.

  6. Bruce Stephens said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 9:55 am

    Presumably it's some combination of things. One thing (from the perspective of a European) is the expectation/fear that the recipient might have to pay for receiving a text. AFAIK that's not the case elsewhere, so when sending a text I just need to worry about how much it's costing me.

    Jonathan Badger's comment doesn't seem all that persuasive; texting was (and is) popular in the UK with candybar phones without touch screens or qwerty keyboards. But who knows, maybe that had an influence in the US?

    I agree it seems like something that social anthropologists ought to be studying, if they're not already.

  7. Charles in Vancouver said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    Perhaps that's how long it took for young North Americans to commonly have cellphones affordable enough to call their toown, and with decent SMS capabilities. In 1005 at age 23 I still didn't have one but I frequently borrowed from my parents. The next year I got my first text capable phone, and shortly thereafter my parents and sister became addicted to Blackberry devices.

  8. Charles in Vancouver said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    In 2005 rather!

  9. Jonathan Badger said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 10:37 am

    Well, I, at least, never sent a text until I had an iPhone (and even now, I tend to reserve it for what the non-novelist David Mitchell claims is the appropriate use of texting — one-sided messages saying "we're in the upstairs bar" and the like, rather than chatting), but then my friends and I weren't teenagers in the cell-phone era, I suppose.

  10. Heather Meadows said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    Twitter may have helped. Originally it was a service to enable texting to a group while only incurring the cost of one text (to Twitter), or no texts at all (through the web interface). Pricing probably had something to do with it as well. Nowadays texting feels like a good way to get messages to friends on the go (less obtrusive than a phone call), and I've read articles that indicate teenagers do it just for a sense of community and closeness when they can't be physically near each other.

  11. Charly said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    I went to a private high school full of wealthy teenagers, and one girl was so adept at texting around '04 that she could do it without looking at the phone itself. It's true that I talked on the (landline) phone much more then than now, of course.

    When I began college, in 2005 into 2006, IMing (mostly MSN messenger) and Facebook-ing took the place that texting does for people younger than me. My brother-in-law, sixteen, sends an unholy amount of one-word texts. I just use Google Talk on my smartphone.

  12. Charly said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    texting, circa 1005 A.D.

    Ælfric: omg cináed 3 is dead :((
    Clement: no way
    Æ: yeah that d-bag malcolm kylled him in monzievard
    C: uuuggggh
    C: what are we going to do?
    Æ: dunno. Go fight the danes in s. ing., i guess
    C: sounds fun
    C: . . . not

  13. KevinM said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

    Oh wait, G2g. Another message is icumen in.

  14. Lars Clausen said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

    A small-ish change in pricing structure (say, just one major company or a few minor ones offering flat texting) could lead to a critical mass where text is suddenly the "got to have" thing. Better phones would help, but can hardly be a significant part, seeing what Europe and Japan used for massive texting.

  15. Ross Presser said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

    Pricing and marketing. Call something "unlimited" — even if it isn't — and it sells so fast the empty shelves are still burning.

  16. secretivek said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    It's a little bit the rise of phones with keyboards, but it's almost all simply because it wasn't till about 2005 that text messaging between different carriers became possible. Prior to that, only GSM carriers in the US (Cingular, SBC, Voicestream/T-Mobile) even implemented it, and it only worked reliably to numbers on the same phone carrier. CDMA carriers (Sprint, Verizon/Bell Atlantic) didn't implement it at all.

    It was around then that carrier-to-carrier texting started working in the US. Without it, you would have to know which carrier your friend was on before knowing that your text would work, and 3/4 or more of people would be unreachable.

    [(myl) I don't think that this is accurate. When I tried SMS tests in 2003, I ran into user ignorance, not carrier incompatibility. And this article from April 2002 says that

    Verizon Wireless last week began offering its subscribers the ability to send and receive text messages to and from subscribers of other service providers, making it the fifth national carrier to offer such interoperability.

    AT&T Wireless announced SMS interoperability in November. Cingular Wireless, VoiceStream Wireless Corp. and Sprint PCS soon followed suit. Nextel Communications Inc. says it plans to work toward interoperability but has not announced a solution provider


  17. DRK said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    Pricing was a factor for me; I really did not text much at all until I got a smart phone with a better texting plan. But the big tipping point was when I realized it was the only way to get certain people to respond quickly to my electronic attempts at communication. My kids, who are in their twenties, may or may not pick up the phone or look at their emails. They hardly ever listen to their voice mail. But they almost always respond promptly to a text.

    I've noticed this phenomenon particularly with people who do not have a land line.

  18. Soto said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

    In my case, it was the lack of availability of real text messaging. Back in 2003 I was on the Sprint network and none of the phones that were in my price range had the SMS text messaging system already ubiquitous in Europe. Instead we had a kludgy hybrid that was closer to email without actually being as convenient as email. So any attempts to 'text' on my Sprint phone were slow and frustrating.

    Pricing will always be a factor, but only after the technology is actually available to the customers. Once I switched over to a Blackberry (and later iPhone) texting became part of my regular means of communication.

  19. Just another Peter said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

    I'm an Australian and I've been using SMS since I first got a mobile phone (not a lot, but I don't use the phone a lot for calls either). I mainly use SMS for conversations where the response doesn't have to be immediate, for example "Do you want to do something tonight?" being sent in the morning and perhaps not being responded to until lunchtime.

  20. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 9:08 pm

    I tried texting once but I was all thumbs.

  21. Mark P said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

    A large part of the drive, at least in New Zealand, is that it is possible to politely text in situations where talking is considered rude. The cinema, a bus, at the dinner table even.

    Teenagers are a main driver because they can do it at school and home in situations where talking is either forbidden or frowned on.

    Similarly my wife texts me at work because, as a teacher, I am usually unable to talk. It's far more convenient (and reliable).

    [(myl) But all that was equally true in 2003, when texting was ubiquitous at least among young people in Japan and Europe, and almost completely non-existent in the U.S.]

  22. Carl said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 12:03 am

    I wonder if part of it was the rise of the Motorola RAZR? I think that phone took the American market by storm and revolutionized how phones were used. Before that, getting a phone with a color screen was a bit outré. The Wiki says it launched in 2005, so the timing fits.

  23. John Walden said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 1:38 am

    Was the early adaptation of pagers in the US anything to do with it? There was a time when they were in the pockets of teenagers, at least in the plots of films from the US, when I don't recall them in Europe, except in the hands of business men.

  24. Joel said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 8:45 am

    As an American living in Japan, I too noticed the difference. After obtaining my mobile plan with the Japanese carrier Softbank, I realized that the typical mobile plans from Verizon, AT&T etc. were different with respect to allotted phone minutes (I remember having 400 per month in America in addition to roll-over minutes). As a Softbank user, I pay an expensive monthly fee in addition to 21¥ for every 30 seconds talking on my phone. With prices like that and an unlimited data plan, I found myself texting/e-mailing more than making actual phone calls.

  25. marc said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    Any non-professional with a pager was deemed to be a drug dealer in the US in the 80s and 90s. They were never that popular with teenagers.

    Has anyone looked at changing patterns of behavior after pricing has been accounted for? I have friends (around my age – ca. 40) who have never texted in the past despite having text-capable phones, but have started in the past year or two. I have, too, in fact. Is it just because more people are doing it? Or is there something inherent in the mode of communication? It's certainly more convenient, a kind of half-way point between emailing and leaving a message.

  26. Simon Hawkins said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    With regard to pagers, when I taught high school in Prince George's county Maryland in 1990, they were extremely popular with my students.

    For another data point with regard to texting, in "The Cell Phone and the Crowd" (http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5t1376v0;jsessionid=4346A09F41B4284E70FC5A8AED0B934E) Vincente Rafael discusses the popularity of texting in the Philippines. He describes texting as becoming the preferred use for cellphones in 1999. Pre-paid cards made it useful for the poor, who could not afford land lines or long term subscriptions. Certainly this predated smartphones or QWERTY keyboards.

    Does the irrelevance of such technology for spreading texting in some contexts mean that it was therefore irrelevant in the US? Not necessarily. The adoption of new technology need not always follow the same path.

  27. John Cowan said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    The difference between paging and texting is that paging is one-way: teenagers carried pagers because their parents wanted them to, as a way of reaching them, not because the teens wanted to.

  28. TonyK said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

    >Any non-professional with a pager was deemed to be a drug dealer in the US in the 80s and 90s.
    You forgot the call girls. Or do they count as professionals?

  29. Kris said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 4:09 pm


    This article is kind of interesting. Though I am not convinced that this answers the question as to why texting boomed in popularity. It does hint later in the document that new technologies in phones, less expensive data rates, and social media certainly help, I can't say that ALL of these things were really a driver in 2004-05 (or whenever the texting rate skyrocketed). But this article does provide a study to help explain what people use texting for, and does have references for studies done in other countries if someone wants to look further.

    Perhaps it was an advertising blitz to help cell providers gain huge profits.


    There were (still are?) the commercials about kids sending thousands of texts a month, driving the dad crazy when he saw the bill. Then dad got a special plan with more texts allowed, and it only cost him another 10 dollars per month. What came first, those commercials or the U.S. texting boom? I would think the boom came first (otherwise, how would people relate to the irritated father?), but I can't recall the exact time I started noticing those commercials.

  30. Ken Brown said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    None of these factors explain why the USA was different from the rest of the rich world. Why didn't the phone companie offer cheap text before? They did in other countries? Why didn't Americans thumb text on oldstyle phones when others did?

    Here in Britain I think I and many of my middle-aged friends got into SMS between about 2000 and 2002. Teenagers were using it well before then.

    Smartphones liberated us from SMS. They drove the ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter. I'm writing this on my iphone from the pub.

  31. Mark F. said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

    Hasn't secretivek answered the question? I'm not as familiar with the details of the cellular market in 2004, but if texting really wasn't interoperable or even available on all the major carriers, then that by itself explains why it wasn't heavily used. It's not how how hard it was to thumb-type the texts, it's that you had fewer people to text. Once interoperability happened, network effects took over.

    There's the question of why Europe had interoperability when the US did not, but that leads to the harder question of why Europe always seems to have better standards. No ideas on that one.

    [(myl) This article explains why SMS interoperability was an issue in North America, and notes that in Canada,

    Since April, 2002 Bell Mobility (CDMA), Telus (CDMA and iDen), Rogers (TDMA, GSM/GPRS) and Microcell (GSM/GPRS) have allowed short messages to be exchanged between any two mobiles on their combined systems through a CMG Interoperability gateway. This significant advance in messaging was a major factor in pushing major US carriers in the same direction.

    I haven't yet been able to find out when full SMS interoperability arrived in the U.S., but this issue was obviously a factor in the slower adoption of texting in North America. However, I tried the technology out in 2003, and the problem that I ran into was not that the people I texted to couldn't receive it, but that they often didn't notice that it happened, or thought it was some sort of prank, and then had no idea what to do in response, and were not especially motivated to find out.

    This article from April 2002 asserts that

    Verizon Wireless last week began offering its subscribers the ability to send and receive text messages to and from subscribers of other service providers, making it the fifth national carrier to offer such interoperability.

    AT&T Wireless announced SMS interoperability in November. Cingular Wireless, VoiceStream Wireless Corp. and Sprint PCS soon followed suit. Nextel Communications Inc. says it plans to work toward interoperability but has not announced a solution provider

    This would explain why my tests in 2003 ran into ignorance but not technical barriers — either Nextel had joined the other major carriers, or my experiments happened to sample only recipients whose carrier was on board.

    Anyhow, I think it's clear that texting in the U.S. didn't take off until several — maybe three or four — years after SMS interoperability ceased to be a significant problem. ]

  32. Amanda said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    I think that part of it is because younger people didn't have cell phones as prevalently back in 2003. I'm 24, and I didn't get a cell phone until 2005. Very few of my friends in high school had cell phones when I was there. I don't even know if I knew what text messages were when I got the phone. Text messages seemed to be a phenomenon of the younger generation, at least at first, but it seems like a lot more kids in junior high and high school these days have phones than 5-10 years ago.

  33. Mark Dunan said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    @Joel – I had the same situation with Docomo, but I didn't mind once I realized how infinitely more convenient and less stressful texting is. I loved having people send me an e-mail that I could respond to in a few minutes rather than being interrupted by a phone call that basically has to be answered in under 10 seconds. (How long does someone typically wait for the other party to pick up before hanging up?)

    E-mail also arrives with perfect fidelity, unlike a phone call where you might have to ask the other person to repeat what they said.

    When I frist got my phone in 1999 few of my friends were interested in mobile e-mail, but steadily that number grew to the point where I might send zero minutes calling people and have over a hundred e-mail messages in a month.

    I think the QWERTY keyboard is a big factor. Until it came along, I actually found myself sending e-mail in Japanese to fellow English speakers (who also knew Japanese), not to show off, but because it was just so much easier to type! Software that would predict your next word for you helped a lot, as did the fact that the Japanese language has no spaces between words. (Advancing the cursor one space after every word in English was a lot more annoying that you might think.)

    Now I have an iPhone with its virtual keyboard and use English with English speakers. Predictive text input really has come a long way.

  34. JR said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    Keep in mind that the stereotpye in the US of Japanese tourists was that they take pictures of seemingly anything and everything. Now we Americans are doing the same thing and, in places like Mexico, that is their stereotype of us.

  35. German Dziebel said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

    "And I still haven't seen a good answer."

    Maybe the question should be posed slightly differently: why texting increased, while calling decreased. Here's the latest stats: "According to the semi-annual survey by the U.S. trade body CTIA The Wireless Association, minutes of use (MOUs) and the number of text messages sent — two key industry measures for wireless usage — are trending in opposite directions. MOUs, which represent talk time, declined in 2010 after two decades of growth, while the number of text messages sent rose 31%. At the current trajectory, 2011 will see the number of text messages sent in the U.S. surpass MOUs for the first time, officially making voice a secondary mobile communication mechanism. " (Elkin, "Forget about Post-PC. Welcome to the Post-Phone Era", Ad Age June 8, 2011). One might argue that the decline in calls is fully driven by the uptick in texting but I don't think this would be self-evident. One could imagine a situation in which both texting and calling went up (as is the case, for instance, with TV and computer usage – both have gone up lately), but this didn't happen. The inverse relationship between texting and calling growth curves is reminiscent of the earlier case of decline of physical newspapers with the advent of the web. In the latter case, the trend was caused by both sociology (physical newspapers lost credibility with the reading public) and economy/technology (cheaper, faster ways of delivering news to a broader audience became available). In the case of texting vs. calling, it's only the decline of calls that may need a sociological explanation, while the increase in texting maybe purely of economic-technological origin.

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