RE: [UD-PIG] Cellphone literature

From: Carol Macdonald (
Date: Wed Feb 04 2004 - 07:35:24 PST

English doesn’t do such radical abbreviations—as you know Russian has the
longest words in a European language, so perhaps this provided the motive
for these radical abbreviations.

BTW (by the way) my cell phone provides about 12 standard messages which you
just slot your own information into e.g.” Please wait. I will be […]
minutes late.”

In a situation like South Africa, SMS (text messages) would be playing a
very large part, firstly for young people (which seems to be the trend
elsewhere), but also for people who can’t get a landline, and speaking is a
very expensive mode compared to SMS.

Yesterday I said there were 10million cell phones in SA, but a newspaper
report said yesterday that there are actually 20 million (which I find hard
to credit).(The initial market penetration was estimated at 100,000, only
for business people!!) Because we don’t have a fully-fledged landline
service reaching deep rural areas, cell phones have simply taken up that
niche, and South Africa has the biggest “success story” for the introduction
of cell phones anywhere in the world. Only the “wealthy” like myself get
“contracts” for 2 years, and then 80% of users use “pay as you go”, where
they own the cell phone and keep buying (expensive) cell phone time. Hence
the popularity of SMS (text). Somebody might like to do a piece of research

I SMS people that I haven’t got the time to talk to (or who are longwinded),
or to say things like “Thinking of you”. It has much in common with e-mail,
but it is more expensive, and takes longer to write the message.


-----Original Message-----
From: Eugene Matusov []
Sent: Tuesday, February 03, 2004 5:05 PM
Subject: RE: [UD-PIG] Cellphone literature

Dear Martin—

Thanks A LOT for your message because you help to break my inarticulateness.
It is difficult to explain for me because I only observed this phenomenon
peripherally. I remember seating in café in Pretoria with a South African
friend when I got a sms from another SA friend. I wanted to reply but I
couldn’t. My mind did not work with sms. So I ended up giving my cellular
phone to my friend and dictated her a message that she translated into sms.
By translation, I mean changing my messages to make it very-very short (in
terms of number of words), playful, and abbreviated. It was a different
genre or writing (and reading) that I couldn’t handle. It has certain
conventions and even certain syntax. It has its own dialogicity that is not
present in email exchanges. Again, I wish I could give examples but I can’t
because my memory is not structured that way.

Martin, if you write sms in English, can you provide an example of a
“typical sms conversation” please? Without examples of the sms discourse, it
is difficult to grasp the phenomenon. The closest discourse to sms I found
on Russian warez forum. For those of you who reads Russian, read this
“G-chik, PLZ sleite etu 100 m sabzh mne na mylo” which means in conventional
Russian “Gospodin, pozhaluysta soobzite mne cherez moy email kak I mogy
dostat’ etu 100MB programu”. It took months for me to begin understanding
this discourse (I still can’t write like that!).




From: Martin B. Sars []
Sent: Tuesday, February 03, 2004 2:30 AM
Subject: SV: [UD-PIG] Cellphone literature

Dear Eugene and everybody else,

Arriving to the US from Denmark three weeks ago I was actually faced with
the opposite of your problem, Eugene: I was all of a sudden “deprived” of an
integral tool of everyday fast communication. This has actually extended to
a degree where I have had to “relearn” a whole new set of procedures for
receiving and giving short messages over the phone (besides that of entering
a new country using another langue). This needs some explanation.

In Denmark as in most of North-Western Europe the rate of text massages or
sms (short message service) have increased dramatically over the last five
years to a degree where the cell-phone as mentioned earlier in this thread
is used more for telegraphing that actual phoning.
This itself is interesting in the sense of a reframing/renegotiation of an
artefact, but more so in this context it is the “evolution” of the sms in
the interplay with its users and the users change in the interplay with the
sms that holds my fascination. In the design itself sms sets up constraints
for its use. First of all it is only possible to write that many words a
massage and no matter how much you write the cost is the same. Second, at
least in the beginning, the typing of messages is a long process where a lot
of buttons has to be hit to form words (eg. to spell the simple word “love”
you need to punch: 555 [L], 666 [O], 888 [V], 33 [E]). Both these
constraints have been, as I see it, what the development of the use of sms
has evolved around. Here are the “steps” as I have experienced them.
The combination of the high cost/small space and the time-consuming process
of punching letters brought about the use of abbreviations and all kinds of
ingenious ways to get as much down in one massage as possible. To the
extreme you would receive messages without any spaces at all and numbers and
signs replacing letters. The restrains of the phone affected the way of
The next step, again this is my experience of the process, was the sms being
used as a way of quick chat much like we know it from the Internet. Suddenly
there was prestige in being able to type messages fast which brought about a
whole new term “smsfinger” or translated “sms-thumb”: a semi-strained thumb
caused by sending huge amounts of sms.
In the end this need for speed (and more money directed to the phone
companies) led to a change in the cell-phones’ software as a “smart”
dictionary was introduced. Instead of pressing the same button several times
the dictionary would try to guess the word and thus extremely reducing
typing time (to use the reprevious example love would be spelled as probably
being the most common word using those four letters: 5683. Reducing it
almost to a third).

It is now more common to sms than talk over a cell-phone and not uncommon
that young people use several hours of smsing to flirt or simply chat. Also
the sms is used as a way to easily give short messages to people without
having to go over meaningless formalities, awkward silences or simply if you
know that you don’t have time for a long conversation (One of my good
friends and I deliberate use sms because we know that phoning would take us
1½ hour).
The sms has become a tool of communication and as such has developed a new
form of interaction creating new ways of expressions, practices and ethics.
Along the way this has also brought huge problems especially in schools
where is has become a symbol of status, interference in class and a tool for
bullies to pick and tease by sending sms to their victims. Most school has
this way been forced to come up with a cell-phone policy and research
programmes has been dedicated to this bulling by phone.

Going back to my starting point this has had cultural impacts on my way of
everyday communication, practices and formalia. Coming to the US laid them
open as sms and the “smart” dictionary is near to nonexistent here.
No one really seemed to respond to my sms and the way to communicate a short
message over the phone gave me troubles. Several times I was only in the
middle of the beginning formalities when the conversation was ended even
without the normal taking leave I’m accustom to. Afterwards I feel as if
something as “gone above my head” and am plain confused as to what just
happened. On the other hand receiving messages from back home just became a
pain as I really aren’t capable of answering them the “right” way.

Then what is cellular literacy, the ability to use the phone as a technical
device only or as communicative means or both?
If so then mastery of literacy is hugely dependant on appropriation of
cultural practices and ethics, but then again that counts for all literacy,
I guess.

Thank you for listing to my ramblings, but once the ball starts rolling…..


Concerning the literature I can remember reading a reference to a Japanese
study that had found alterations in the cortical representation of the
thumbs in young people that had been sending large amounts of messages over
an extended period of time. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track down
the reference, only that the English researcher Sadie Plant, studying
culture and technology, was commissioned by Motorola to conduct a study of
cell-phone use in Japan.
Here is a link to the paper “on the mobile – the effects of mobile
telephones on social and individual life”:

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