In the last post we talked about some tragedies resulting from texting, a habit that young people have especially embraced. As promised, however, this time we’ll look at the more innocent aspects of this phenomenon.
But first, I can’t help but feel that the late media seer Marshall McLuhan might well be surprised – if not shocked – to see that this recent iteration of the digital age has actually brought young people back to the written word.
And he would be downright speechless over the fact that many prefer it over audio-visual communication. For it was McLuhan who, among other things, predicted that what he called “the electronic age” (television then) was taking us back to the pre-literate tribal era of oral — and aural – communication.
Not so, according to nearly all my college students here at California’s Azusa Pacific University. This week I opened up a lively discussion in two of my classes about preferences of texting vs. calling.
The hands-down winner among these young 20-somethings? Texting.
When I asked how many students send and receive at least 20 texts a day, the room broke out in laughter. “Are you serious, Dr. Willis?” one student asked. “How about 100 to 200 a day?”
I thought she was kidding until others joined in agreement. Turns out the average fell between 100 and 150 texts sent and received in a given day.
And I’m still reeling from that, because I haven’t even made it close to the 20 mark myself.
The most common answers to the question, “Why is texting so popular?” were that texting is quicker and more convenient.
More convenient to type out a 20-word message than to punch in a seven-digit phone number? Yes, they said, especially if you are doing something else at the time … like sitting in class, trying to look like you’re attuned to what your prof is saying. Blackberries and I-phones fit snugly into one’s lap, after all.
One student said her mom used to try to call her several times during the day, and that often those calls would come while she was in class. So the student negotiated a deal with her mom to text her instead.
One senior told me that she will answer texts quicker than she will answer phone messages. During our discussion away from class, her phone did ring, and she ignored it. “See?” she said. “If that had been a text, I might have answered it right away.”
This same student then said that texting has become the preferred way for a young person to show interest in someone he or she has just met.
“It’s a lot less threatening than risking face-to-face rejection,” she said. “And,” she added, “how long it takes for the other person to respond to that text is very important. If it takes more than an hour or two, forget it. He’s just not that into you.”
Texting = Flirting?
In fact, she said many young people have come to equate the term texting, as in “John is texting Jennifer,” to mean John and Jennifer have romantic interests in each other, or at least that they are flirting. On the other hand, to say John has texted Jennifer refers more to a simple exchange of information.
Another student agreed that texting is used as a preferred way of meeting people, estimating that, “Ninety percent of all new relationships begin with texting.”
Have times changed since I was 22 or what?
One sophomore said he texts some people “who I would just find it weird to talk to.” Weird? “Yeah, you know. Some people you just have a hard time talking to. But texting them is different and it often works when talking doesn’t. It’s just not as weird.”
What we’re talking about here is the chilling effect that non-verbal cues can have on a communication exchange. In the world of texting, e-mails, and chat rooms, no such non-verbal cues need exist.
That’s fine, unless you believe you can really know another person without experiencing their non-verbal language. Because you can’t. Most of us care more about how someone says something than what they actually say. That goes for how they laugh (and how often), too.
Still, the first time I realized students come alive more in text is when I taught my first class online, some 12 years ago. After worrying about how a text-based system of real-time communication would work in a virtual classroom, I was pleased to find that online students open up much more than when they are face to face.
I remember one particular moment when a colleague passed by my open doorway and did a double-take when he heard me laughing out loud at the computer screen. The textual exchange had reached the point of hilarity, and I couldn’t contain myself. From that moment on, my fears about online teaching disappeared.
One of my students at Azusa Pacific informed me yesterday that a word now actually exists for the person who can open up online, but has trouble doing it in person. The word is “textrovert,” or that person who is an introvert in the flesh but an extrovert in texting.
It’s a great word and an accurate one. I have taken the same students who sat speechless in a regular classroom, put then in an online room and watched them explode into textual commentary on what I was saying.
Another student posited that texting allows us to focus more on ideas themselves and less on the person we’re talking to. For certain kinds of communication, that’s not bad.
Oops … Make that “s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g”
One problem with texting, opined another student, is bad spelling. And, she said, it is often not seen as a problem by the person guilty of it. “They think they’re getting their message across, but what they don’t realize is others may be making fun of what a bad speller they are,” she said.
And another problem? The occasional student who uses texting language in a college paper. It is not that uncommon to find an occasional “cuz,” “omg,” or other textual shortcut show up in a term paper. Results are predictable and are usually contained within the single letters of D or F.
One other surprising finding from my students: they aren’t that much into tweeting. Twitter seems to have captured only about 10-15 percent of them. Texting works just fine for short-burst messages of 20 or so words, while Facebook or e-mails take over nicely for longer messages.
Is it a different world out there? You bet. But hey, for me and a lot of other college profs like me, it’s just great to see kids falling in love with the written language again.
Sorry McLuhan. You were right about so many other things.
The use of new communication technology that seems to puzzle so many people is the use of cell phones for texting. At the same time it is puzzling some, however, it has become an integral part of daily life for many others.
How widespread is it? Statistics show that nearly 70 percent of all Americans send at least one text a day. Nearly every teen who has a cell phone sends several texts a day.
Like all applications of the new media, texting is only as good or as bad as who is texting, why, and — especially for this application — when.
In many cases, when time is at a premium, people prefer to text short bursts than phone in a message. And texting is obviously a welcome phone format for voice-impaired users.
Other times, though, texting is not so great.
For example, just this week regulators have determined a text message probably cost 25 people their lives in a tragic accident in California.
That happened on Sept. 12, 2008, when a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train carrying 350 people collided head-on with a Union Pacific Freight train at rush hour in the L.A. suburb of Chatsworth. Both trains were traveling aboout 40 mph on impact, twenty-five people were killed and more than 100 were injured.
An official 16-month probe of the cause of the accident pointed to the commuter train engineer’s text-messaging as the primary cause, as noted by the Associated Press this week. That engineer was one of those killed in the crash.
“Tragically, an instant message turned an ordinary commute into a catastrophe,” the AP was told by Deborah Hersman, chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board.
In short, according to the NTSB, the commuter train engineer was texting and missed a red signal, sending his train into the nose of the freight train.
As a result of the accident, regulators have banned cell phone use by in-service train engineers.
A more widespread misuse of texting, though, occurs among motorists who text while they drive. Statistics show as many as 46 percent of those drivers who text are teenagers, who of course are inexperienced drivers in the first place. Not surprisingly, many accidents have resulted from this hazardous multi-tasking.
From Texting to Sexting
Another tragic misuse of texting is one many parents fear as much, if not more.
It is the practice known as “sexting” when teens — and even pre-teens — text sexually explicit messages and photos or their nude or partially nude bodies to a boyfriend or girlfriend, only to have those photos redistributed to a much wider array of teens. Sometimes it’s done by the posting of those embarrasing photos on sites such as Facebook.
The humiliation resulting from these redistributions has caused at least two young girls to commit suicide over the past 12 months. Last September, 13-year-old Hope Witsell of the Cincinnatti area hanged herself in her bedroom after a topless photo she sent to a boy wound up getting much wider circulation at her school and another high school.
Last March, 18-year-old Jesse Logan of Hillsborough, Fla., killed herself when a nearly identical incident occurred. The only difference was that the boy who recirculated her photo was her ex-boyfriend, while Witsell sent her photo to a boy to get him interested in her. A third party, using the boy’s phone, saw the photo and sent it on to others.
In both cases, bullying and biting sarcasm from others at school proved too much for each girl, and they chose to end their lives rather than continue to bear the brunt of others’ scorn.
Some Teens Arrested
Something some teens don’t realize is that sexting is a felony in several states. Last week, three teenage girls and three teenage boys — all between the ages of 14-17, were charged in Pennsylvania with child pornography for the sending and receipt of sexual messages and photos. Similar charges are pending for other teens in Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
And the practice is not confined to just a few teens, either. The National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has reported that 20 percent of all teens have admitted to engaging in sexting. Other estimates push that to as high as 39 percent.
Next Up: A Lighter Look
Next time we’ll take a lighter look at how college students view texting , why they spend so much time with it, and at the new provocative meaning of that term has among so many young people.
I recently finished a 2,400-mile road trip from Cleveland to L.A., making the run in 46 hours. I’m always a little nervous about embarking on this kind of trip, although not for the reason you might think.
Being cut off from a wi-fi connection for that long makes me jittery and even irritable at times, and a 2,400-mile road trip makes it hard to stay connected, especially if you don’t have a Blackberry or I-phone. Amazing, I suppose, that there are still those among us who don’t.
You’re probably in the same boat (or car, in this case) in fretting over being cut off from cyberspace. If so, we both hope the march of time hasn’t created yet another addiction to tempt us and from which we have to go through withdrawal pangs.
I suppose it’s for people like us that the latest wi-fi transformation is coming about: dashboard internet.
The idea of in-car internet systems is nothing new, and there is even a history to efforts that tried and failed because they were overtaken by other permutations of mobile wi-fi gadgetry like those Blackberries and I-phones. For example, Opel unveiled a concept system way back in 1999 that featured on-board internet, although it was for back-seat passengers and featured a now-outdated laptop keyboard instead of a touch screen.
Wi-Fi in 1999? Yep. As of July 2005, there were at least 68,643 Wi-Fi locations worldwide, a majority in the US, then the UK and Germany.
But Ford is forcing other automakers to revisit the idea of in-dash internet. A few years ago the company introduced the SYNC information system, which let drivers voice their commands to the dashboard MP3 player. Other car makers caught on, developed similar systems, only to have Ford take things a step further with its MyFord Touch (and My Lincoln Touch) system, which is plans to launch this year in the Lincoln MKX.
The new system is built upon an approach Ford calls “simplexcity,” in which the goal is – what else – to make things simple. So ditch the archaic laptop keyboards (hard to drive and type at the same time, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission would have something to say about this anyway). Enter the touch screen keypad and a safety feature allowing the driver to browse the Net only when the car’s transmission is in Park. Photos and a video of the new system can be found at http://www.spike.com/blog/ces-09-myford-touch/91242
The MyFord system lets drivers use their cars and trucks as WiFi hotspots by plugging in a compatible USB mobile broadband modem into the vehicle’s USB port, which will then makes available a secure WiFi signal throughout the vehicle. So your passenger could play Scrabble with a friend back home while you’ve just passed the last gas station for 80 miles in the Mojave.
But Ford isn’t stopping there. The company has also worked with partners in creating some new bluetooth interface software they call the “App EcoSystem.” So it will be possible for new devices like an iPhone or Android-driven cell phone to interface with the MyFord system, letting the phone show information on the car’s display, have the device read back text from the phone in oral verbal format, and even send some data back in the mobile device.
For technophiles out there, here is a partial list of what Ford says the new MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch systems, powered by SYNC, will offer:
- SD Card slot
- Additional USB port for a total of two USB 2.0 inputs
- RCA A/V input jacks
- Full WiFi capability including Internet “hot spot” connectivity and a built-in browser for use while in “Park” (late availability)
- Integrated browser supports tabbed page navigation, “drag” to pan and scroll and a provides a 3-D carousel for bookmark browsing
- Support for on-screen and USB-connected keyboards
- RSS feed aggregator and text-to-voice reader
- Mobile in-car WiFi “hot spot” capability through USB-installed air card or USB mobile broadband modem
- Phone book contact photo download and 3-D carousel browsing
- Birthday reminders
- Enhanced error correction and reporting
- Direct speech commands and “flattened structure” for quicker, more responsive voice control
- Voice-command activation of selected climate control functions
- Voice commands will be available for most radio functions, including AM/FM, HD RadioTM Technology and SIRIUS/XM® Satellite Radio
- SIRIUS Game Finder application will facilitate automatic voice tuning for desired sporting events using commands such as “Tune to Detroit Lions game” or “Show NFL games”
- AM/FM/CD, SIRIUS Satellite Radio, USB-connected MP3 players and memory sticks
- New HD Radio capability
- Song tagging capability via HD Radio Technology, allowing listeners to identify song information and store it for later use
- Browse tracks by artist, scan lists of tracks with identical names, and browse through devices without having to change audio sources
The technology launches this year on 2011 Ford Edge and goes global with availability on 2012 Ford Focus. MyLincoln Touch will be standard equipment on new Lincolns beginning with 2011 Lincoln MKX.
In a time when many find fault with negative uses of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, it’s been good to see news reports showing the good that is coming from these sites.
I’m referring to the communication link that these sites are providing the devastated victims of the earthquake in Haiti. By their own accounts, without Facebook and Twitter, they would have no way of communicating with the outside world. These sites are also serving as very effective ways to raise a lot of money for relief efforts in this Caribbean nation.
As one ABC reporter noted, the same social media that have been struggling to make money for themselves have become an important way to raise money for others in need. Case in point, by Thursday night of this week — just a day or so after putting out a plea on Facebook and Twitter for funds for Haitian relief — singer Wyclef Jean’s Facebook plea had garnered pledges of over $1 million. And the Haitian musician was hoping to get a multi-million gift from golfer Tiger Woods.
Another ABC report has noted that this donation, plus those coming in from similar Facebook and Twitter pleas generated by entertainers like Ben Stiller, Dr. Phil, the Dixie Chicks, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tyra Banks has resulted in the most money ever raised for relief in such a short period of time.
But the fund-raising has been only part of the role that the social media have played in this Haitian disaster. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have been the only communication many Haitians have had with the outside world, and vice versa. Family members and friends from around the world have largely been unable to contact their loved ones in Haiti by phone and have gone to the social meda sites instead where many have made connections with those they sought, or at least have received news about them.
USA Today writer Judy Keen has written that one Michigan woman in Haiti, Terri Vruggink, used a satellite Internet connection to let family and friends back home in East Grand Rapids, that she was alive.
“Facebook is my lifeline right now,” she said told Keen via Facebook’s messaging system.
Vruggink, a photographer documenting a missionary group’s work in Saint-Marc, is among many people using social-networking sites to share news and photos, ask for help finding missing loved ones or seek donations, Keen said.
“Facebook has been the only way that we could let people see what is happening,” said Phyllis Bass, one of five members of the Gateway Free Will Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, Va., Bass touched down in this country just an hour before the earthquake struck. She is using Facebook to tell her friends she is okay and to send photos to them of the devastation. She spoke to USA Today via Facebook’s messaging system.
As of Thursday, more than 1,500 Facebook status updates containing the word “Haiti” had appeared since the quake hit, according to the site’s spokesman, Andrew Noyes.
The cell phone companies are also collecting a lot of money for Haiti. Verizon Wireless set up a system whereby cell phone customers can text 90999 to give $10 to the relief effort, and that amount will automatically be charged to their Verizon bill. As of Wednesday, the company’s spokesman Jeff Nelson said more than $1 million had been received.
When I was in grad school at the University of Missouri (refusing to become a Tiger fan, especially when the Sooners were in town), I learned some stuff that was useful and some that was not.
One of the useful things was that often “common sense” is more of a personal perspective than a common one.
I learned this one night when I was out getting a beer with a newfound friend from New York City. At one point on the drive home in his convertible, I asked him what he noticed most when he came to Missouri.
Without hesitating, he said, “The sky. I never got to see the sky growing up in Manhattan. Too many tall buildings.”
For me, however, it was the trees and hills that caught my attention. We didn’t have that many of either in Midwest City when I was growing up.
So here we were, both in the same new state now and yet seeing it differently because of our backgrounds. You might say because of our tribes.
I learned some other useful things from a guy I never met but came to know through readings. His name was Marshall McLuhan and he was this quirky (at the least) Canadian English professor who became the darling of the media world when he started weaving into soundbites all these neat pronouncements about us and television in the 1960s and 1970s.
Among McLuhan’s more famous lines were, “The medium is the message,” and my favorite, “The medium is the massage.”
The first thought connotes that the media that bring us the messages are just as influential to us — maybe more — than the message itself. The second thought suggests that the media don’t just deliver messages; they take hold of us, shake us up, and leave us in a different emotional or mental state than when they found us.
Additionally, each different media form massages us in different ways. We can read about a traumatic event like 9/11, following the thread of trauma from one thought to the next and forming a mental and emotional opinion. Or we can watch that same event on television and become instantly and emotionally rocked. Television delivers not just a message but all the jarring shock of the experience itself.
McLuhan also had a lot to say about the tribes that the new media — as he knew them in the 60s and 70s — were creating. These observations composed some of his best “flips” of thinking. For example, he said the original media forms of writing created a literate society of humans who could come together in a common place, socialize and trade a wide variety of perspectives and ideas.
But the “new media” of television (and he later added rock music) split that community into bits and pieces, creating a myriad of tribes often within the same family. Each member would pursue his or her own interests and traditions, and even speak their own language in a way.
In short, he said the mass media were sending us back into tribalism.
Some of McLuhan’s ideas have not panned out as the decades have passed, but this one about tribes has. Whatever McLuhan envisioned to be true about TV creating new tribes has become exponentially more true when it comes to the Internet and especially those sites we call social networks. By this very name, sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter are tribal-forming.
We may call members our “Facebook friends” but we could also call them our tribe.
For years now, I’ve been wondering if the mass media area in which I teach has moved beyond that description. There is nothing really mass about a person’s Facebook site which consists of a select few, like-minded people. I have something like only 30 Facebook friends. But even accounting for one of them who has 1,400, that still doesn’t fall into the “mass” category.
We’re talking tribes here; we’re talking personalized media and not mas media. There are a lot of plusses to that for those of us so mobile that our tribal members are scattered all over the country. But we also still need that central pool of information, knowledge, and awareness that is found in what we would now call the traditional media of newspapers and television.
In other words, it’s okay for me to look out there into the Missouri night and see the trees and for my friend to see the sky as long as we both know those are only parts of the whole and that there is much more to learn and discover about this new place we’ve landed.
To help meet that goal, maybe we should go buy a newspaper.
Ryan Bingham is the focal point of the new George Clooney film, Up in the Air. Bingham prefers the life of insulation and an arms-length approach to deep relationships. He flies about 320 days out of the year, leaving him 45 days a year to suffer through being in his home city of Omaha.
He makes a living as a traveling consultant who fires people for client companies who are downsizing and don’t want to do it themselves.
This is the new cost-efficiency system proposed to his firm that can wipe out all those travel expenses incurred by Bingham and his 22 colleagues who do the same job for his consultancy. When he watches Natalie Keener, the 23-year-old Ivy League inventor of the system, fire a distraught 57-year-old employee in Detroit over a webcam, the dehumanization of this new media system hits home and even Natalie herself.
It’s barely a step up from being fired over the phone by an unknown recorded telemarketer.
It doesn’t help that this poor guy has done nothing wrong other than cost the company too much in salary as a longterm employee. To the consultants and their company, he is just another name to check off the list.
But this scene also hits home to anyone who thinks interpersonal communication is somehow better in the computer’s virtual reality than in flesh-and-blood and face-to-face exchanges. Certainly we live in a time when online communication is vital and enhances many areas of our lives. But there are still times when face-to-face interaction just does it better.
Communication is the goal of talking and listening. But it is also the process by which we verbally and nonverbally try to create specific meanings, images, and feelings in the minds and hearts of others.
Effective communication occurs when the message intended equals message received, and when we convey connotations as well as denotations. When you take all that and apply it to online communication – even with webcams – you encounter a problem. That problem is we lose what I would call effective emotional feedback. This is the kind of instant feedback that takes place when you want to respond immediately and appropriately to what someone is expressing emotionally through non-verbal cues.
If you are linked via webcams, you can certainly see some of those non-verbal cues (although things like fidgeting hands or white knuckles would be outside the camera shot), but you are still responding to a camera and not a person.
If you have ever had a Skype conversation with your wife or husband, you know what I mean. Perhaps one of you is on a long business trip; maybe even out of country. It is late at night, and you are both missing each other and realizing you love each other a great deal. Think about how easy it is to express that feeling of love when you are together looking into each other’s eyes vs. looking into your webcam lens.
In Up in the Air, effective emotional feedback was needed when the veteran loyal employee had just been told he was no longer needed in the company; that he was losing his job. But the young executive Natalie could not express an effective kind of feedback because she was firing him over a webcam from another location.
He was crying softly into a camera in his office; she was frozen in an emotional prison in hers. It was a sad moment for both individuals. One needed the feedback; the other wanted to give it but was prevented because of the isolating technology used to communicate.
As hardened as Ryan Bingham was to this business of firing others, even he realized that what he was observing here was too much; too detached and too cruel.
This particular scenario is part of what psychologist Kenneth J. Gergen calls postmodern consciousness, or the syndrome of Americans who are so bombarded by media-created images, personalities, and relationships, that they have trouble hanging onto their own personal identities and recognizing the authenticity of traditional reason and emotion.
Gergen believes the driving force behind all this is technology that showers us with vicarious social relationships as opposed to real ones.
If we use computers and the Web to exchange content, to stay in touch, and to expedite the handling of a myriad of business practices, these are effective applications. But if we wind up using ths kind of detached communication to exchange feelings and to comfort, encourage, or inspire each other, we are probably asking too much of the new media and its reality which — after all — is virtual.