In the two weeks it’s been online, Textie.co — the site that crowdsources responses to your most awkward, intimate texts — has fielded more than 200 text messages, many of them enough to make even the most seasoned texter cringe.
“I don’t love you anymore.”
“I never liked you like that. I lied.”
“You are fired.” (Just like that! Sans even a “goodbye”!)
The fundamental conceit of Textie — a prescient one, as it turns out — is that some portion of the 42 texts the average person sends and receives each day relates to topics more significant than dinner plans or morning-after party replays. Increasingly, in fact, we’re carrying out our most intimate conversations via carefully edited, asynchronous texts.
The majority of Textie’s submissions have to do with love and sex, particularly during those awkward pre- and post-dating periods when there’s no clear texting etiquette. But there are other topics, too: texts about dying relatives and mental illness and politics and estranged friends. Things that seem far too intimate, in other words, to discuss by text.
This is not, intriguingly, anything that the inventors of the text message anticipated. Manufacturers didn’t expect “SMS” to become a phenomenon, the communications scholar Colette Snowden wrote in her social history of the text: It was so cumbersome to tap out each message, so inconvenient to wait for a response — and so weirdly impersonal, in its silence, in compared with a phone call. But as cellphone use expanded in the mid-90s and more phones gained the ability to text, users began realizing that there were some practical advantages to the silent message.
“The seeming limitations of the SMS system became one of its strengths,” Snowden wrote. “The capacity for asynchronous silent communication was especially attractive to users because it extended the places in which their cell phones could be used.”
Psychologically speaking, there were some obvious, emerging selling points to text messages, too: like the fact that you could take your time to craft a perfect response, or that you’d be forced to simplify ideas and arguments that might become much more complicated in spoken conversation.
Most important, however, writes social psychologist and professor Theressa DiDonato, texting eliminates the nonverbal signals that account for the majority of human communication. Posture, expression, eye contact, gestures, tears — all replaced by the blissful convenience of 160 characters.
Behold: 60 percent of daters would now dump their partner via text, and texting plays a fundamental role in new-relationship formation. (The average relationship map today, DiDonato explains, is Facebook request → text message → phone call → date.) A 2011 study found that, after expressing affection, “discussing serious issues” and “apologizing” were the most common reasons people text, chat or e-mail a partner. It’s just easier, cleaner — certainly simpler! — to text “I’ve secretly loved you since third grade” or “you’re fired.”
Much of modern technology is, of course, founded on this premise: that we should streamline our lives, that we should cut down on mess. Even Textie, in its hackathon simplicity, is an attempt to “solve” an inherently human problem: that sometimes people share personal or difficult things and expect a response from us.
Is it bad that these intimate conversations have migrated to text? Well, the evidence on texting and relationships is mixed. Studies have found that couples who text frequently talk less … and, alternatively, that friends and partners who send affectionate messages are closer than their non-texting equivalents.
Still, there’s something to be said for mess. For awkwardness. For cringing, even.
As Sherry Turkle, the noted MIT psychologist, once explained: When you express everything via text, “the complexity and messiness of human communication gets shortchanged.”