One of my fondest memories of college is a weird conversation that I once had with a classmate of mine in the middle of a lecture. The conversation itself wasn’t weird: the way we had it, was. So this friend would write what she wanted to tell me in her notebook and then pass it on to me. (We were sitting beside each other.) I would read and respond to it in my own notebook and give it to her. We kept doing this throughout the lecture — masking our amused faces and suppressing our childish giggles. Thankfully the professor didn’t notice.
I do not know how this idea struck us. But I wonder — in this age of WhatsApp — would anyone find this way of communicating even remotely interesting? The internet-based instant messaging apps like WhatsApp — and BBM before it — have transformed texting. They have not only increased the volume of textual communication but fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other.
My first exposure to texting was Yahoo Messenger. Later on I used Orkut Chat, GTalk, Facebook Messenger, etc. But the problem with these desktop IM apps was that you could not carry them in your pocket. You had to go “online” to use them, and there were only so many hours in a day you could be online. Besides, the person you wished to talk to also had to be online, thus diminishing the usability further. Mobile instant messaging apps have solved this problem. The production of cheaper smartphones, affordability of mobile internet services and the advent of WhatsApp — the coming together of all these things have taken texting to a new level.
The biggest benefit of texting is that you can always stay in touch with the persons you wish to stay in touch with — no more need of “time nahi milta yaar” grouses as everybody is just a ‘hi’ away. A phone call has this same affordance but it has other limitations. A phone call needs to be answered immediately and you cannot take a call in a noisy place. And the biggest disadvantage of a call (or any aural communication for that matter) is that you can be overheard. I think this last point is what makes texting so much more alluring. Even if you are talking crap, bitching about someone or sexting your partner — you can rest assured that no one can eavesdrop on you (except the NSA maybe).
This is not the first time that man is using written words to communicate. We have been writing letters for centuries. But texting is quite different from letter writing or its digital avatar, email. Texting is generally instant, informal and impromptu. It comes a lot closer to face-face-face communication than any other mode of textual communication. Therefore, the language also resembles speech a lot. Punctuations are sparingly used, or not used at all, messages are sent in small chunks consisting of monosyllables or phrases, and emoticons are used to imbue feelings in the conversations.
When talking face-to-face, you have to get the intonation right, show right expressions on your face, and have proper body language. This is a lot of work for someone like me who is always low on energy. Texting requires you to only use your fingers. There are no awkward silences in texting: you can take your time to come up with a witty reply. And if you are sad, upset, angry — you can easily mask those emotions too.
Facebook just bought the world’s biggest texting app WhatsApp. This has worried some people who think Facebook may ruin the charm of the app by introducing ads or killing its simplicity (yes, security concerns also figure right at the top). I read a Guardian article which makes a case for an open network texting app on the lines of the email. The writer says
If Gmail users could only send email to other Gmail users, and my Thunderbird desktop email software could only send to others using the same package, email would soon turn into a monopoly controlled by one company. The open internet created email standards that were available to everyone, and the monopoly never had a chance to happen.
I hope to see the same happening to texting where we are able to send texts from WhatsApp to WeChat or WeChat to Viber and Viber to WhatsApp, etc. But whatever turn the technology takes, it is my firm belief that it’ll not turn us into robots, it will only make us more humane.