Except perhaps for the fax machine, texting is my least favorite extant form of communication. (Come to think of it, fax machines seem kind of cool and retro nowadays, even if they’re obnoxious to find and use. Maybe texting is worse!) Somehow, it seems everyone in my generation but me likes texting, so I’m going to try to explain why I think it’s an awful way to communicate. Call it texting, instant messaging, WhatsApp, or whatever else you like; despite the business of basically sending words between people being worth a crazy amount of money today, it’s all the same thing.
Let’s start by looking at one of the most fundamental properties of forms of communication: synchronousness. Synchronous methods of communication involve immediate responses; both people have to be available and communicating at the same time for it to work. Face-to-face conversation, telephone calls, and videoconferencing are examples. Asynchronous methods are, well, exactly the opposite; email, snail mail, and voicemail are among the most common examples.
These two types of communication come with different social expectations on response time. If you call someone and they’re available, you’d like them to answer immediately so you can talk, because you can’t talk at all unless they answer. If you email someone, you imply that they need not write back until it’s convenient; somewhere between several hours and several days of delay would be typical depending on the context.
So where does texting fall? It’s not synchronous, because your message doesn’t get lost if you don’t answer right away: if you call someone and they don’t answer the phone, or you show up at someone’s house and they aren’t home, you just can’t communicate at all, whereas if you text someone and their phone isn’t on, you just have to wait longer for them to answer. But it’s not really asynchronous either in terms of how long people expect it will take to get a response; absent a good reason, it’s usually considered rude to wait a whole day before responding to a text message directed at you, and depending on the circumstances, an hour might be rude. And in my experience, people text indiscriminately for both trivial and urgent things, and my phone beeps indiscriminately for both. The only way to find out if I need to read the message now is to go read it.
So texting is kind of asynchronous. This is a big problem, because synchronous and asynchronous communication are good for different, generally non-overlapping purposes. If you need to discuss something complicated, you’ll have a much easier time talking synchronously so you can go back and forth quickly; on the other hand, if you want to pass on some information or a funny cat video or ask someone to do a task for you sometime in the next week, it’s much easier to just send it off without finding a time to discuss it and let the messages pile up until it’s convenient to work through them. It’s usually easy to choose the more appropriate type. But texting lies in this obnoxious gray zone where it’s sort of tolerable at everything but good at hardly anything.
Food for thought: I’ve heard it suggested that the difference between synchronous and asynchronous methods of communication explains why leaving a voicemail message is such an awkward experience. You elect to use a synchronous method of communication and call someone expecting to have a conversation, and suddenly, with only a few seconds of warning, you’re being asked to offer a neat, asynchronously delivered speech.
Here’s another problem: speed. Nowadays most texting takes place on smartphones, where average typing speed is about 25 words per minute at best. Even if someone’s using a well-integrated messaging tool like iMessage with a Mac or Facebook Messenger, has a full keyboard next to them, and uses it to type, most people still can’t type faster than 40-60 words per minute. For comparison, an average English speaker speaks at around 160 words per minute.
For properly asynchronous communication, that’s not a big deal. You can take as much or as little time as you like, all at once in one focused block, to write and edit your words, and I can read them when I get around to it. But people behave as if texting isn’t asynchronous. Partly because typing on a phone takes so long, and partly because of the kinds of things people tend to use texting for, typical text message threads are made up of a large number of tiny back-and-forth sessions, more akin to people talking on the phone than writing emails. When using plainly-asynchronous methods of communication, like email or letters, people use compensation techniques to minimize the number of cycles necessary to come to a common understanding, like asking a series of questions all at once, providing more detail than strictly necessary, and editing until they’re sure their meaning is clear. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t do any of that when I’m texting, and I don’t know anybody else who does either. When I text, I type as if I were speaking.
When you combine the way people talk while texting, low typing speed, expectations for response time, and the fact that people text while they’re out doing other things and only occasionally pull out their phone and respond, conversations carrying the content of five minutes of efficient face-to-face discussion can stretch into an entire day, particularly for conversations among a large group of people. That’s obnoxious and tremendously inefficient. It also turns into forced multitasking, something that’s bad all around: the conversation moves so slowly that you all but have to do something else at the same time unless you want to spend twenty minutes staring at the wall. But you can’t really focus on anything else either, since every few minutes your phone beeps at you and you have to go type one additional sentence at 25 words per minute.
Of course, people also text while talking to other people, text while driving, text while peeing (I watch this happen all the time in the men’s room!), text while walking into fountains, text while walking right up to lost bears, and all kinds of other stupid things. I don’t think that’s an accident; quite apart from the addictive nature of smartphones, texting actively encourages and even all but requires multitasking. But even if people never did any of these things, I would still think texting was misused and awful.
Does texting have a place? Sure it does! Texting excels in one specific situation: when you want to share a brief piece of information immediately without being disruptive. For instance, if you’re running late to an event or meeting, you might want to discreetly let people already there know that you’ll be a few minutes late without making someone answer the phone in the middle of a conversation. (Just don’t do it while you’re driving there. And don’t think using voice-to-text behind the wheel is safe – most research has suggested it’s not much better, if it’s better at all.) If we actually limited texting to these situations, I would love it instead of hating it. Let’s quit using technologies for things they suck at.
And if you have something to discuss with me, please call me. People don’t like calling because they feel like they’re being too immediate and interrupting, but I love to be interrupted once to answer the phone if it saves me being interrupted 15 times over the next hour.