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Sending Out An SMS (not an SOS)

By Nina S. Young

Published: February 21, 2002

Sting would be chagrined to find that I changed the lyrics to his classic song, “Message in a Bottle,” but the times and the medium have changed. One of the mobile phone’s initial purposes was to provide the ability to send out an SOS or emergency call, but now, messages with a social intent -- or messages with no intent at all -- are the norm. Undoubtedly, frivolous use of the mobile phone will drive consumer usage in the United States as it has done in Europe.

Upon arrival in Stockholm, I was a bit skeptical of phones in general. I was irritated by all the jarring beeps and silly custom ring tones. In addition, punching keys just to send a message seemed quite tedious. Now, like Pavlov’s dog to a bell, I react in a positive way, feeling excited when I hear a beep signalling a new message in my inbox. Furthermore, with the T9 function -- and even without it -- the inputting process seems worth the trouble.

Reach Out via SMS if a Phone Call is Fruitless

SMS is a wonderful feature for many reasons. It serves the practical purpose of providing a back-up to a voice call. For example, if friends are in a noisy bar, it's  much more convenient to send a text message with the bar’s name followed by several exclamation points to signify how much fun is being had instead of trying to shout out the information over the phone.

SMS also wins over voice when the information doesn't seem worth the phone call. For example, in Stockholm, apartments are not equipped with intercoms, and guests cannot be buzzed in at the push of a button. Visitors must know the entrance door code. Sending the information via SMS makes more sense than calling. The risk in orally transmitting the information is that it can be easily forgotten if not written down. If the information is sent via SMS, it can be stored on the visitor's phone. Other fairly practical uses of SMS include inquiries as to whether or not friends are interested in going out and for setting up appointments.

Strengthening Social Bonds through Frivolity

While text messaging can serve a practical purpose, it more often takes a frivolous turn. Two reasons for this is that it is used when people have free moments and when they have nothing really important to say. For example, during breaks between classes or when I am on the bus on the way to school, I send out pointless messages such as, “I’m tired. Do not want to go to drawing class.” The best reply I received was, “A little nakedness will pick you right up”. Similar to the situation in Tokyo, long commutes on Stockholm’s public transportation system have done more to encourage phone use than anything else.

SMS works to strengthen social bonds. When friends are doing the same thing -- such as watching the Olympic ice-hockey match between Sweden and Belarus -- but cannot be together, they can still share their feelings. Many a frustrated Swede sent messages such as “I hate player X,”, or “Oh nooooooooo.” After Sweden lost, I sent a message that read, “Oish :( That was depressing. Time to drink.” Another point in favor of SMS is that the recipient’s important activities are not interrupted. I once made the mistake of calling some friends during a hockey match when I should have sent a text message. The conversation went nowhere. There are more important activities to interrupt, but the fact remains that an SMS is not as intrusive as a phone call and does not require an immediate response. The recipient can respond to the message at their leisure.

The Ultimate Social Weapon

For the most part, SMS is a lot of fun. At the same time, it can be argued that it disrupts social ties and is sometimes used as a weapon. While it is possible to adjust to hearing message tones all the time and to be amused at people frantically checking to see if it was their phone that rang, it is anti-social when someone interrupts conversation to respond to a text message. The mis-use of SMS can also be considered offensive. Who a text message can and cannot be sent to and the types of messages to send should be learned rather quickly. For example, some friends think it is ridiculous to receive a message such as, “How are you?” and they would much rather receive a phone call. But maybe people send the “How are you?” message because they actually don’t want to speak to the recipient. SMS can be used to avoid confrontation, create social distance, and to hurt. While pondering how to end a relationship with a boyfriend, a former boss told me he’d give me a week off if I broke up with the man via SMS. While that was just a joke, it can get serious: A Swedish newspaper reported that a policeman had been sending harassing and threatening messages via SMS to his former wife.

I Just SMS-ed, To Say, I Love You ...  Frivolity Equates Cash

Is it possible to capitalize on pointless message transmission? The winning answer is yes. The day before Valentine’s Day, an advertisement in the newspaper read as follows:

“Don’t lose money unnecessarily over your loved one. Half-price SMS during Valentine’s Day. Tomorrow, you can send the text message for half price. That, however, can make even the best author’s hand’s tremble. But you can stay calm, we’ve thought of that. If you suffer from writer’s cramp or creative anxiety, just send an SMS with the keyword LOVE to 555 and we’ll reply with suggestions full of heartfelt love.”

I have no doubt that this offer was successful. In addition to major holidays, interactive programs and sporting events like the Olympics can drive traffic and income. Viewers can send an SMS voting for best song, hottest new star or most valuable player. The average price per message is roughly 10 to 20 cents, and to the the price-sensitive teen SMS serves as a cheap alternative to a phone call. It is so cheap people are willing to pay for it even if they have no legitimate reason to send a text message.

Some BonaFide SMS Exchanges

I’m tired. Do not want to go to drawing class.
A little nakedness will wake you right up.

How was the concert?
Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back?

Sent during a crucial hockey game:
I hate that player.
Oish :( That was depressing. Time to drink.

Anthon Corbin at Kulturhuset starting the 23rd.
(Culture House, a cultural center in Stockholm)

Can you open the door for me?
(text message sent instead of calling or ringing the bell to ask)



"SMS" at Amazon


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