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Why We Text

I am a major proponent of using social media in learning, education and training.

I dedicate a good deal of professional and personal energy explaining how organizations improve knowledge flows, how social media becomes a means for collective intelligence and how individuals and groups can improve performance, collaborate and innovate as knowledge and speed increase.

Text is vital to this communication evolution.


Many of my friends and I spend a good deal of time in front of our computers and on our phones building relationships and collaborations, maintaining more and more friendships through the distance. Still, when good friends online get together, we often look like this:

Why do we text, even when we’re together in the same shared space?

I was reminded by my good friend (and grumpy old man), Scott, of simulation and simulacrum.

sim⋅u⋅la⋅tion - noun the act of imitating the behavior of some situation or some process by means of something
suitably analogous (especially for the purpose of
study or personnel training)
sim⋅u⋅la⋅crum - noun an insubstantial or vague semblance; a representation of
a person (especially in the form of sculpture);
plural: simulacra

Twenty years ago if you wanted to talk to someone in anything close to real time you used your phone to actually talk to someone. No caller ID existed. We simply picked up the phone if it rang. Now we can abstract and filter the person on the other end of a message; using a phone to send text messages asynchronously. Each individual in each exchange decides when and how they will communicate and even respond (or if they will respond at all).

All this simulacra and simulation of face-to-face communication is resulting in interesting *side-effects.

I think the reason why we hit our mobile devices even when we’re together face-to-face is because we’re becoming hardwired to exchange that way.

* watch for more posts on this very topic where I’ll expand on what side-effects I see and what they might mean.

Related posts:

  1. Why do many people expect “social” online communications to be synchronous? [Quora]

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Profile Photo Jeff Ribeira

I find that first picture you’ve got there incredibly sad, but at the same time a great example of an issue very pertinent to modern society (I have witnessed very similar scenes myself). It begs the question: are we slowly losing the ability to effectively engage in and create normal human relationships? What is that kid going to learn from her parents if all she sees them doing is hitting their phones all day? Anyway, lots of sociological observations could be made here, but I’ll hold off for now. I do I agree that there are some definite side effects, and I’m very interested to read what you have coming in the future. Great post!

Profile Photo Aaron E. Silvers

Jeff, I think there are *many* questions that one could ask about what’s happening here. I’d argue that the picture above describes a new normal. Whether we like it or not is one thing. Life is filled with text messaging via emails, pagers, mobile phones, social networks, etc… we’re part of a generation conditioned to text as a primary means of communication. Look at us right now: text is how we’re exchanging with each other. With every blog and comment, we reenforce it.

Profile Photo Aaron E. Silvers

Nice one, Andrew šŸ™‚

I think when we only look at text as “this all we’ll ever need” then yes, we’re settling.

Perhaps we must take a longer view of what’s happening and realize that there’s a pattern here. For example, we can also look at how kids become acculturated to games. Anyone 40 and younger has had more gaming options and more technology that forced them to solve new problems than ever before in the history of humanity. By the time a kid gets out of middle school, they’ve had way more than their 10,000 hours of gameplay in a number of different modes.

The pattern is that such prolonged conditioning changes our patterns of behavior. Expecting everyone to “put the toys away at the table” might well be an unrealistic expectation (so to speak), because the toys are how many people are connecting with each other.

Profile Photo Aaron E. Silvers

Christopher, my wife and I have a rule: no devices at the dinner table. Except for very special occasions, no TV either. The kids admittedly have a more difficult time with that rule than we do, but even we find ourselves with exceptions — breakfast is mostly asynchronous for us so my wife will have the laptop out while I and the kids might have the iPads out. At least we’re reading together.

Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

+3 on the no device rule at the table. Sometimes we’ll go upstairs and watch the TV together, but only 1 night per week…

@Aaron – When devices become a problem: I’m talking to someone and they pull out their cell phone mid-sentence…even just to look at it, much less taking the call. Unless I know someone is calling me at a particular time, I really try hard to be present with the person in front of me…and I’d appreciate that kind of undivided attention from others. And I think we should be teaching our kids something about that as a core value…what would we call it? Presence? Attentiveness? It’s more than listening skills…it’s Respect, I think.

Profile Photo Aaron E. Silvers

Andrew, there’s definitely (for people like you and me) this feeling that it’s disrespect. I honestly think that most people who engage in that behavior, while totally rude, are simply clueless about it. More than respect, I think it’s “agency.” Whoever is texting has some agency, and the person texting in the middle of your conversation is giving them more weight than you. That is rude, but the expectation that someone is going to respond immediately to any text message I send, making it a priority over face-to-face exchange, is equally rude and implies power dynamics that are probably askew.

A friend of mine just forwarded me this article that talks about how college kids have a hard time “turning off” their networks. For all the push we’ve made on multi-tasking (check everyone’s job descriptions, I’m sure multi-tasking is in there somewhere)… well, that’s a behavior with emergent properties, and for every peer and authority figure that glances at their phone or (total jerk move) takes the call mid-conversation, that behavior gets normalized.

I address that situation quite a bit, Andrew. I simply tell people up-front if I can’t give them my full attention because I have a situation that requires my attention. I also keep my phone on vibrate, in my pocket (and sometimes in my bag or jacket) so it’s not a distraction to me or the people I’m with. I model the behaviors I’d like to see in others. If you are to influence without authority, it’s really all you can do aside from calling people on it.

But I admit that even I get twitchy when I leave a message, email or text and it goes too long without a response. I can only imagine what a customer or a manager feels like in an “always on” world.

Profile Photo Stephanie Slade

I definitely think we’re losing the understanding that being “on one’s phone” (texting, gaming, talking, whatever) while in a social setting is almost always very, very rude. I’ll never forget being at happy hour with some friends last summer and realizing at one point that all three had their iPhones out on the table and were typing away, practically oblivious to me. I felt pretty insignificant in that moment.

Probably the best book I read in the last year was “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr. If you’re not familiar with it, I highly recommend checking it out. Carr discusses how the internet specifically and technology more generally can physically reprogram our brains. So in that sense, it isn’t completely our “fault” we can’t seem to put down our cell phones (or close our laptops or turn off our televisions…). In a way, we’ve all been conditioned to need constant stimulation from these devices.

Profile Photo Carol Davison

I believe that if someone traveled someplace to met me they have precedence over most anyone communicating electronically. Ocassionally I’ve HAD to take that call, but always apologized to the person present. Considering that people post “I’m getting a Starbucks” which is rude in itself, the interruptions are even more rude. Our society may be programing us to respond instantly, but we are to rise above our programing.

I hear people complain that youth don’t know how to write anymore. I don’t necessarily agree, but agree with the Government Printing Office that the first time you use an acronym, you should spell it out. Having to figure out what a commuicator means is something difficult even when they use words.

Profile Photo Bryan Conway JD, PMP

Short of emergencies, I have never understood why messages from remote contacts automatically take priority over the people that are physically in your presence! At some point, shouldn’t you seek the physical company of that important person who you’ve been texting for 20 minutes?

Profile Photo Aaron E. Silvers

Carol, I don’t think it’s just youth who don’t know how to write. I think there are *many* people who believe they write well, but write the same way for every medium. Writing a grant proposal is different from writing a blog post, which is different from writing in a forum, which is different than writing work emails, which is different… it goes on.

I find Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” to be a very helpful resource, but opening myself up to different readers for criticism has helped me become a better blogger. This very post, for example, I approached differently from other writing I’ve done, and the payoff is evident. I’ve never had so many comments here on GovLoop before.

Profile Photo Aaron E. Silvers

Brian, I think that when many people spend 8-10 hours a day “reacting” to incoming emails that carry with them all sorts of loaded “problems” to be “solved” by our readers, that stimulus-and-response becomes something many people can’t turn off. Is that behavior rude, maybe anti-social? I can certainly buy that perspective. What I can’t do is turn a blind eye to the conditions we all re-enforce (I do it, too) that make that stimulus/response behavior happen. At some point, people stop prioritizing because it seems to a person at some basic level to just deal with the firehose. Dealing with the firehose is less work to them than turning the valve down or off.

Profile Photo Shannon Kennedy

Even before texting, my family had a “no telephone during dinner” policy, except for special circumstances of course. When i went off to college and came home with unlimited text messaging, my parents quickly made a “no cell phones on the first floor of the house during dinner” policy.

I myself love to text, and actually prefer it to phone conversations, but I also hate that it has become such an evil as well. Texting while driving is the worst, and I was once an offender of this. But thanks to texting being banned while driving in DC and Virginia and awesome commercials like this one, I have seen the light.

Sometimes we just need to put away the phones and be normal humans…

Profile Photo Aaron E. Silvers

Kay, the toughest part of a government job is learning (and unlearning) the acronyms. Every agency has a different style guide they adopt (MLA, AP, etc). When they switch (seemingly on a whim) it’s definitely painful.

Profile Photo Aaron E. Silvers

Shannon, I could easily give into reading while driving (the quick scan). I want to write a bit about something a friend turned me onto: the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) that, when combined with the stimulus of the ding or the red badge that indicates there’s a new message — it makes it really addictive and hard to turn away.

That ding and visual indicator is like Super Mario Brothers and getting a coin. You want more of them.

Profile Photo Shannon Kennedy

@Aaron I couldn’t agree more! There’s this tiny bit of anxiety that creeps up in us when we can’t read that text! I find that fascinating! If you write something about it please let me know! I’d love to check it out!