The initials “BRB” may refer to many things: the British Railways Board, the Banco de Brasilia, the Belorussian currency. But one thing it increasingly does not indicate is the practice of leaving one’s computer and later coming “right back.” This is 2015! We keep our computers in our pockets.
According to Google Trends — the only reliable oracle for this sort of thing — U.S. searches of the phrase “brb” have fallen pretty steadily from their all-time high in 2010. (There was a spike, in May 2011, but that likely related to the exploits of some basketball-playing Brazilians.) Meanwhile, global smartphone sales have more than quadrupled during that time, according to the IT research firm Gartner: from merely 81 million phones sold in the third quarter of 2010 — to a whopping 330 million sold last quarter.
I’m not saying the smartphone killed “brb,” per se … but it definitely made that kind of chat shorthand passe.
This is not an original observation, mind you: the rumored death of brb has recently become its own sort of meme. Since January, it’s appeared twice on the front page of
and zillions of times on
: asynchronous social platforms that never needed that kind of signpost to explain a bathroom break or other brief absence from the computer.
Where brb has been helpful, historically, is on semi-synchronous chat platforms: places like AIM or Gchat or Facebook Messenger, where your thoughts are posted almost as soon as you have them. The Internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme traces the earliest recorded use of “brb” back to a chat session in 1989, when users with screen names like “THE GIBBER” and “Deadhead13” stepped away from their blocky, 8-bit Apple IIs for a little offline time.
Even in those early pre-World Wide Web days, though, chatters were realizing that semi-synchronous conversations could get … a little weird. They had a good model for asynchronous communications, like letters and telegraphs, and they knew how to converse in real time IRL. But online, you couldn’t easily tell whose turn it was to type — let alone if your conversation partner was paying attention. An extended silence from Deadhead13 could mean he got up to get a drink, or you just offended him.
Faced with those kinds of quandaries — what a team of Cornell researchers once termed “threats to the coordination of online conversations” — chatters quickly developed their own code of status indicators. An away message meant you weren’t at your computer. “Discourse markers” like “mmmm” or “…” meant you were there, but pondering what to say. And brb — along with its lesser cousin, “away from keyboard” or afk — became shorthand for a brief and foreseeable stepping-away.
But where would you have to step now to avoid incoming messages? Thanks to the rise of the smartphone — and SMS, and the mobile Internet — being away from one’s keyboard is no longer an excuse for not answering a text. Repeated studies have shown that we feel pressure to carry our phones everywhere: into our beds and our bathrooms, on our coffee “breaks” and to our family dinners.
Predictably, an entire ecosystem of apps have cropped up to exploit the trend and further suck us in: What are WhatsApp or Slack or Facebook Messenger if not attempts to lasso our constant, uninterrupted attention? (It’s maybe worth noting that people do still bust out “brb” in exactly these sort of desktop chat environments — but because all three come with mobile apps, you can easily continue the conversation by phone after you’ve shut your laptop.)
Recently, of course, researchers and ordinary phone-addicts alike have gotten worried about questions like these. There are whispers that constant contact via smartphone is addictive, or that it links to depression and anxiety. Scholars have actually begun to study the ridiculously named “nomophobia — a fear of not being able to check one’s phone constantly. And yet, when someone launched an app to address nomophobia in 2013, it sputtered out within mere weeks.
The app, which let users post mobile away messages to their networks, was appropriately called BRB.
As BRB’s fate might suggest, people just aren’t all that interested in taking breaks from their phones. That might only become more true as smartphone-natives get older. According to Gallup, 11 percent of all adults say they check their smartphone every “few minutes;” the figure doubles when you zoom in on the under-30 set.
Ironically, even smartphone-makers didn’t initially think their devices would work this way. In a 2007 patent, filed six months after the launch of its very first iPhone, Apple described a system that would automatically indicate to would-be chatters whether the person they wanted to text or call was present and available. One mock-up shows a list of Jabber contacts on an iPhone screen, each marked with his own little away message: “at work,” “looking for coffee,” “in a meeting.” Be right back.
As Apple and others have learned since then, however, you can’t brb if you never left.
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