A Love For Textual Activity

Over the decent amount of time that I have spent working as a summer camp counselor and as an instructor for middle and high school students, I have met and spoken with a bizarre number of parents, teachers and general educators who seem nothing short of baffled by the amount of time that their students spend texting and on social networking sites. Although I cannot come close to matching the habits of the worlds texting elite, and have never entertained the slightest interest in having a myspace, I do spend a fair amount of time on facebook and (while I still had a phone) had a pretty regular set of running text conversations. A recent question proposed by a teacher got me wondering: What is it that makes text based communication so appealing?
Lets start with the numbers- Nielsen, perhaps the most reputable census taker on all things digital- media, reported that in late 2008, the average teenager sent and received something in the neighborhood of 80 text messages a day. To the horror of psychologists and specialists in adolescent development, this number is almost double that from the year before, and it is quite likely that a repeat increase will be found by the end of this year. When so many phone plans now come with unlimited talk as a standard feature, what is it that prompts so many individuals to choose texting over standard conversation? While many of the leading phone companies promote texting from a standpoint of convenience (A text can be used in a myriad of places where a phone call would simply not be possible. Class, the movies, dinner…), and while most educators see it as a developing trend of laziness, I think that the reasons lie far deeper in the human psyche than just a need to simplify our conversations. Perhaps a text fulfills a need for an emotional connection that has been lost in our modern context.
One of the main tenets of traditional Greek theatre came in a set of rules pertaining to the depiction of violence. Very simply put, acts of violence were never to be displayed on the open stage, rather they were acted out audibly from somewhere out of the audience’ view. This was by no means from a belief that graphic violence was unsavory. The idea behind this style came from the though that the human mind was far more capable of creating its most horrible thoughts when given less information. Based on the suggestive violent sounds coming from offstage, the mind of each person would fill in the unspecified details, intentional blanks as they were, in a manner that it found to be most horrifying. This concept fits in quite well with more modern understandings of the brain. In order to better process the unspeakably massive amount of information that it receives each moment of the day, the human mind does not seek to have a complete understanding of each event it encounters, but instead builds some of its own assumptions to allow a person to move through the thousands of thoughts without having to process each one individually. In many ways, it condenses the millions of minute signals it receives into larger, more digestible thoughts. Much like an agent deciding which fan-mail makes it into the hands of their star.
If you find yourself saying “yes, this is all well and good, but what of the texting revolution?”, fear not! In my mind, it is wrong to say that today’s youth seeks digital communication to avoid the commitment required by a face to face (Or even voice to ear) chat. Texting and other services similar to AIM and facebook chat are inherently limited in their ability to convey complicated ideas during conversations. When speaking face to face, or even just on the phone, the person uses a large array of senses to help with understanding the conversation. These can include facial expressions, tone of voice, speed of speech and many nearly undetectable signals. When using text-only based communication, we have access to none of these indicators, and as a result it would not surprise me to find that the mind of the individual substitutes many of these missing tidbits with information that the person already has about whomever they are communicating with. Going ever farther than this, it would make sense that the mind selects the things that it likes best, allowing the words to be tailored in a way that makes the most sense to the person (Do you ever find yourself narrating a text message in the voice and personality of the person you receive it from?). This makes a lot of sense when used in the context of texts between people who have recently met. Without having extensive imbedded knowledge about the person you are communicating with, and without having those primal signals to convey a deeper meaning, a conversation can take any tone that your subconscious wishes. While I will not deny that this often creates a false sense of understanding in communication, one cannot deny that it is thoroughly addicting. Though I have yet to hear of a texting-rehab (Don’t laugh just yet, video game rehab is a reality), many individuals have begun to suffer physical damage from extensive stress to the thumbs and poor posture due to looking down for extended periods of time. And don’t even ask about texting while driving.

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