Recently, Facebook paid 19 billion dollars to acquire a texting application for mobile phones called WhatsApp and a lot of folks asked why? How did an app popular primarily in Europe, and even more so in emerging markets, become the biggest tech purchase of all time? 1
WhatsApp adds one million new users each day and has added 250 million in the last nine months alone, with a total of more than 450 million users, 72% of whom log in every day.
While Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp appears to be more of a texting land grab than a technology acquisition, it says a whole lot about the popularity of texting. First what many people still don’t realize is that texting has become the primary means of human telecommunication. Second, this didn’t just happen overnight. According to 2Nielsen, text messages overtook phone calls way back in 2008.
The First Text Message
Texting, or messaging, was used for the first time in London on December 3, 1992 when a test engineer by the name of Neil Papworth used a personal computer and the the Vodafone network to send an SMS (Short Message Service) that simply read “Merry Christmas” across town to the phone of his friend Richard Jarvis. According to a Pew Research Center Internet and American Life Project poll from 2012, of the 85% of Americans who owned cell phones, 80% of them were texting on a regular basis. In a New York Times article from this past February, columnist Nick Bilton noted that he now had 24 different ways to send and receive text messages available to him on his iPhone. A quick search on Apples iTunes App Store reveals 619 apps available for texting - and that doesn’t include all the apps available for Android and Windows phones. Finally, according to 3Staticbrains Text Statistics, the average number of texts sent per month was 62 in 2005. That number increased to 432 by 2011. In 2012, with 98.7 million text enabled users sending 423 billion texts worldwide per month, 19% of those texts are being sent by college and university aged students, people 18 - 24 year olds. Without a doubt, texting is a preferred means of communicating among young people today.
A Language All Its Own
As texting has grown in popularity it has also grown from a capability standpoint. In its original incarnation it only supported text messages up to 160 characters. With barely more than Twitter at 140, texting didn’t allow for a lot to be said. Early users of SMS took advantage of a kind of shorthand that had developed on early internet bulletin boards and chat rooms. This shorthand utilized abbreviations made up of initials, the omission of determiners such as “a” and “the” and punctuation - and incorporated the use of pictograms. Numerous dictionaries have popped up on the internet to extend and translate this new language. With the advent of Apple’s iPhone in 2007, and the proliferation of smartphones worldwide that followed, came the introduction of MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), enabling users to append pictures, video and sound files to their text messages. Now, with the addition of artificial intelligence apps like Apple’s “Siri” and Google’s “now”, users can even dictate and send a message using their phones without ever touching the keyboard.
While texting has become a way of life for many, it is not without its controversies. According to a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited by Long Island Newsday, texting while driving has become a greater hazard among teenagers than drinking. The report notes that 3000 die annually while another 300,000 are injured as a result of texting while driving. The upside of texting is the ability to stay in contact; the downside is that texting, particularly in the classroom, is yet another distraction facing students, teachers, and administrators alike.
Texting at Schools
How best then to use this technology to take advantage of this direct channel? Many colleges and universities established text based systems as a result of the tragic shootings that resulted in the deaths of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech in April 2007. In the years following, schools have augmented these systems with other modes of communication to reach as many people as possible in the case of an emergency. Other channels include email, Facebook and Twitter posts, as well as public address system to reach faculty in particular who may not have easy access to a cell phone or computer screen while teaching. Texting at colleges and universities is now used to deploy and even collect a wide variety of information including:
- Voting or polling students quickly
- Announcements of sports and cultural events and other campus activities
- Alerts for emergencies, delays due to inclement weather, traffic and parking availability
- Reminders regarding application, enrollment and payment due, class availability even reminders about assignments and testing schedules.
As always, third parties are springing up to assist colleges and universities in leveraging the power of texting. Textus.biz and Monarch Broadcast Messaging are just two of the companies eager to provide the infrastructure and host text messaging, not just to reach existing students and parents, but to market schools to potential students and their families.
While it is clear that texting, particularly when combined with other forms of communication, is a great way to reach out, notify and engage, it does have its limitations. There are still situations and information that is best communicated either in person or through mail or email. Anyone who has tried to have a conversation through texting knows how frustrating it can be. Sometimes students need to be reminded that it is still a phone after all.
Written by: Tim Coutis - The Write Stuff
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