March 10, 2008

What's the difference?

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?

Anyhow, we're still not quite at European levels of texting, at least among adults. So the management of advertising space on parking-meter and lamppost padding in American cities remains a business opportunity for the future ("Padded Lampposts Tested in London to Prevent Cell Phone Texting Injuring", Fox News, 3/7/2008; "Padded lampposts coming to London, for the protection of stupid text messagers", TechDigest).

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 10, 2008 08:28 AM