One Hundred And Sixty

When I first went to university, in 1999, I got my first mobile phone. Back then, messaging features on mobiles were a bit more simplistic than they are today.

For example, phones were only just starting to appear that could handle multi-SMS messages. For those without this feature there was a new skill to be learned.

With practice, we got to be particularly good at cutting out messages down to the requisite number of characters to fit into a single SMS: just 160 characters.

We even learned how to meaningfully split messages in our heads, with indicators (ellipses, or numbers showing message parts), to carry longer concepts. (4/19)

Even when multi-message capable phones came out (I got one in 2000), these skills were still useful. At 10p or 12p per message, you soon learned to be concise.

Nowadays, this skill has lost its value. With more and more people having “unlimited SMS” plans or enormous quantities of credits, there’s no need to be brief.

If you’ve got an iPhone, you don’t even get told how long your message is, I hear. You just keep typing. And that’s not uncommon on other kinds of handset too.

Your phone’s still splitting your message up, in the background. Putting markers in, so that other phones can understand. And these markers are human-readable.

Just in case your message is going to a phone that’s over about 12 years old, your smartphone makes sure that the markers would be understood by humans. (9/19)

So now we’ve got smartphones talking to each other in a language that humans designed to talk to one another in. Does that feel really strange to anybody else?

I looked at my phone while I wrote a message, today. I noticed that number in the corner, that indicated that my message would span 3 texts. And I didn’t care.

Why would I? It’s a vestige of an older form of communication. Someday, it’ll look as primitive as the paintings on the walls of caves, daubed by early humans.

But for now, I remember. And, somehow, the skill I learned all those years ago – a trick that’s alien to almost anybody younger than me – has a new, fresh use.

Twitter. 140 character messages. A little bit less than a text, which seems strange. Are they really trying to make us even more brief than those early phones?

The skill is still the same. Think ahead. Prune. Plan. Snip. And, if you absolutely must span several messages, make it clear to your reader so that they know.

I see a whole new generation of people learning this skill that I once learned. It’s not the same (it never will be): they don’t pay 10p every time they tweet.

But you know what? It’s just as pointless now as it was the first time around. If you want to say something, say it. If 36p is too much, risk a 10-second call!

And in the case of the Twitter generation: if your message doesn’t fit on Twitter, then it probably doesn’t belong on Twitter. I’m a 160-character-or-more man.

I’m not sure I’m cut out for the Twitterverse with its 140-character limits. But it’s nice to remember how to think in 160, just like I have in this blog post.