Can Society Truly Communicate in 140 Characters or Less?
In 1985, Freidhelm Hildebrandt typed out a random series of short questions and answers commonly used between individuals. Counting the number of characters for each message, he arrived at a “perfectly sufficient” number of 160 (Milian 2009).
Then, approximately 24 years ago, a team of engineers began working on a protocol to enter and transmit short messages between cellular telephones—the dawn of text messaging. At the time, the cell phone industry was in its infancy. It offered poor quality calls and spotty service-area coverage. The idea was that text messaging might help communication until service was improved.
Little did Hildebrandt and his cohorts know that they were about to establish the standards for Short Message Service (SMS) upon which an entire generation of Americans would communicate electronically.
In 2008, for the first time ever, Americans were text messaging more than placing or receiving cell phone calls. American cell phone users sent out nearly 75 billion text messages from their tiny keyboards while sitting in the park, walking to work or driving down the street (Reardon 2008). That staggering figure represents 246 messages of 160 characters or less for every man, woman and child in the United States.
Web-based texting on social networking sites like Twitter has since exploded onto the scene and limited communication to 140 characters. In 2009, media personalities, politicians and Hollywood celebrities suddenly became enamored with Twitter. While it took Google nearly a decade to become a verb, Twitter’s tweet became a common verb in the American language practically overnight.
Some would argue that this evolution in technology is more like a de-evolution in communications. Or is it? Social networking is surely one of the Utopian applications envisioned by Internet pioneers. A growing number of visits to popular sites like MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Digg and Twitter far outpace other categories on the World Wide Web (Wilson 2009).
It is well documented that the rapid growth of social networking has become a routine way to meet online friends, reconnect with old acquaintances, and stay in touch with distant friends and family. However, the social impact is little understood, as researchers struggle to keep pace with evolving technology and its applications.
Even less understood is SMS’ potential impact on the workplace. When is an Instant Message (IM) to your boss appropriate? Should you “tweet” frustration about your job to your online social network? In November 2008, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh set a new standard for open short message communication by “tweeting” his thoughts about a major layoff at his online shoe company. When General Motors declared bankruptcy, a professionally produced image management campaign appeared shortly after on YouTube.
The Next Generation
Hildebrandt could not have possibly conceived how his perfectly sufficient text messaging concept would influence 21st century society. Instant messaging and social media challenge the way we live, learn and communicate. It is certain that the future captains of industry will have grown up very comfortably in this uber-connected environment. Their experiences of today will influence how we exchange ideas tomorrow.