The Great Text Speak Panic of 2003

I started school just as text messaging was making its transition from an obscure, barely-supported feature of mobile phones into a full-blown communication phenomenon. The medium itself was transformational; other than the few characters allowed on a pager screen or emails sent between PCs, digital text communication had not yet seen mainstream consumer adoption. Along with any new medium — especially those developed in tech’s formative years — comes interesting constraints, considerations and debates.

During the transitional era where computers were starting to fill homes all around the world, a collective social anxiety bubbled up to the surface and made its way into magazines, radio shows, and newspaper write-ins. Computerphobia, as it was called as early as 1970 in a New York Times article, was a conservative response to technology upsetting day-to-day life, decaying our values, and turning children into square-eyed shut-ins.

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Predictably, a similarly heated bout of public anxiety, outrage, and defiant letter-writing occurred when SMS messaging was made a default feature of mobile phones, and especially when it started to pick up momentum among school children. I remember how a concerned teacher came into our class to warn us against using text speak in essays. Emoticons were also forbidden, of course. My wife reports the same national anxiety in her home country of Latvia, where government-funded TV ads warning of the dangers of language degradation were on constant rotation.

Owing to the fact that it occurred in the early 2000s, much of the panic of the past is invisible today. A handful of articles remain, typically from right-leaning fearmongers like The Telegraph and The Daily Mail. Despite the scant source material, you can still feel the fear and outrage of the era in their hyperbolic headlines and overblown predictions. As far as I can tell — and from a distant memory of a BBC news report — the initial hand-wringing was pushed to bone-crushing levels when a 13-year old Scottish girl wrote an essay in text messaging slang.

“My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it’s a gr8 plc.”

The teacher’s response (that the essay was “riddled with hieroglyphics”) made national news and confirmed the worst fears of parents all over the country.

Most of the outraged responses that have carried over to the internet era remain on a BBC News article from 2004. In it, the author announces that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, a UK body then associated with the Department of Education, is intervening on the use of text language in the classroom. This comment sums up the overall sentiment:

“At long last! Spoken English is in complete decline, with teenagers either speaking in a mobile text language or in a form of English that breaks most grammatical rules.” — Pip, Tonbridge

(An interesting artifact of that article’s era is that several other comments go on to pin blame for language degradation on Ali G, Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard, and the rise of American and Australian TV shows.)

The same group who believe that email heartlessly destroyed letter-writing and that television preyed on the opera now had a new force of evil against to protest. The abbreviation, substitution, and desecration of English wasn’t just a touchy topic for parents and pedants; the problem traveled to academic spheres, too. By 2008, linguist David Crystal published Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 and put those participating in the technophobic backlash in their dusty, cobwebbed place.

Crystal — one of the world’s most well-known and respected linguists — ran a series of experiments in the years between the initial outrage and 2008. His findings indicate that the great text panic was just another technophobic myth.

To summarize the research:

  • Text messages aren’t full of abbreviations – typically less than ten percent of the words use them.
  • These abbreviations aren’t a new language – they’ve been around for decades.
  • They aren’t just used by kids – adults of all ages and institutions are the leading texters these days.
  • Pupils don’t routinely put them into their school-work or examinations.
  • It isn’t a cause of bad spelling: you have to know how to spell before you can text.
  • Texting actually improves your literacy, as it gives you more practice in reading and writing.

Naturally, Crystal was correct; not only in 2008, but in the decade that would follow. Despite articles from conservative panic factories as recently as 2013 and even 2017, the prevalence of text speak has declined at the same rate as the medium which facilitated it.

First of all, character limits don’t mean anything in 2017. The 2 biggest mobile messaging apps — WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — have a combined active user base of 2 billion, and, of course, no character limit. Secondly, the major differentiation between mobile pricing plans is no longer how many text messages per month can be sent, but how many gigabytes of data. In the past, character limitations may have been a driving factor behind text abbreviations but those constraints have since become obsolete.

Around the same time as the death of text messaging and the rise of apps like BlackBerry Messenger in the late 2000s, fiddly 12-key handsets also started to slip into obscurity. The thumb-crippling Nokia bricks transformed from essential devices to mere staples of that miscellaneous drawer in the kitchen with the bits of string and foreign coins. In their place, we got full QWERTY keyboards as phones mutated into computers. Again, this development made the act of contriving text language abbreviations more trouble than it’s worth; why bother with two parallel versions of the English language when you can type full words just as easily?

Predictive text is the final factor in the eventual death of SMS language as we once knew it. The predictive capabilities of phones have made amazing breakthroughs in the past year thanks to machine learning. Predictive algorithms now take into account the context of the sentence and the tendencies of the individual user; they can even retroactively edit words in a phrase to fit grammatically with the next. With a system like this, it’s harder to use text language. If you wanted to use text language, you’d either have a hard time making sense (because it would get autocorrected to random similar words), or you’d end up making perfect sense. I just tried to compose a text like a 13-year old Scottish girl writing an essay in 2003, but, to my dismay, it turned out word-perfect.

The text speak panic of the early 2000s was predictable. The Industrial Revolution brought about the Luddite movement in 1811, with workers smashing their tools to protest the mechanization of their vocations. The rise of video games horrified concerned parents of the 80s and 90s who believed their children were being inducted into satanic cults. This anxiety is also present in fiction, with notable examples being Terminator and I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream — both set in dystopian universes ruled by omnipotent computers.

AM, the tyrannical supercomputer from I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

AM, the tyrannical supercomputer from the PC game version of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

However it manifests, there will always be the fear that any new development will leave the venerable fabric of society in tatters. With the advent of virtual reality just around the corner, I expect that the vocal protestors of text language are once again sharpening their quills in preparation to post a letter to The Daily Mail protesting our willing submission to yet another damaging digital drug. Perhaps this time it really will turn us into illiterate, Satan-worshiping pedophiles.

Space landscape-obsessed dreck penman. Appears on TechCrunch, The Next Web, and on Secret Cave in a far less restrained capacity.