why text messages?

As the Christmas decorations have been quickly swept away, Shenzhen has entered Chinese New Year mode. Rabbits are popping up everywhere and every type of text message from year in review to greetings are already circulating. On this blog, I have translated text messages because they provide insight into what my Chinese friends feel is worthwhile (funny, insightful, urgent) commentary on society. Indeed, text message culture (短信文化) has been an important factor in many recent social movements (2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009). Indeed, many speculated that the 2010 crackdown on text-porn was a not-so-subtle attempt to tighten censorship controls.

However, simply describing the effects of texting in Chinese cities overlooks an important question: why is texting so popular? Walk down a Shenzhen street and look into hair salons and dress shops, restaurants and convenience stores, any beautician, salesgirl, waiter, and clerk who is not serving a customer is reading or sending a text. On buses and the subway, in cars and yes, in classrooms and business meetings, movie theaters and restrooms, people are texting. Every Chinese New Year the country sets another world record for texts sent for a holiday.

I don’t understand the allure of texting. In part it’s generational; in high school, our thing were three-hour telephone calls. I still enjoy telephone conversations and really enjoy watching the antics of my nieces and nephews when we skype. In part, it’s skill; I do talk faster then I type in English or Chinese. But that’s not all of it. Chinese friends my age have readily adopted texting and regularly send me all sorts of messages. Indeed, setting up a date may involve a series of texts, rather than a phone call. And although part of the allure may be cost – it’s cheap cheap cheap to text – price doesn’t explain why many Chinese not only text, but also purchase services that allow them to text internationally. In other words, folks in Shenzhen are choosing to text more frequently and regularly than I would; indeed, they text in situations that I would either phone, or, frankly not bother. Indeed, in situations where I find texting intrusive, my friends cheerfully read and respond to a text.

And so here’s some cross-cultural speculation du jour: texting has enabled Chinese people to intensify a cultural preference to be in contact with people they care about and it is that moment of contact that is the true message. This desire to be together explains why it is socially necessary to apologize for not seeing a text message and responding immediately. Moreover, I suspect that text messages can grow into social movements precisely because they carry this underlying desire to be [stand] together. In this sense, text messages function as a constant assurance that a relationship is important. Chinese texters confirm this highly desired and desirable sense of solidarity by responding properly to a message. Sometimes that response is texting a smile, sometimes it is going to the restaurant, sometimes it is taking to the street to protest.

As with all speculation about how technology makes, unmakes, and restructures social relationships, the next question is how much quality time is necessary to keep the emotive message of texts resonant. What happens when relationships dissolve into nothing more than text messages? And how much text message-span really is enough to prompt some kind of counter apps? In the meantime, I’m reviewing lists of possible New Year’s messages to choose my contribution to the deluge.

新春佳节不送礼,发条短信祝福你,健康快乐常伴你,好运和你不分离,财神已经跟随你,财源滚滚进袋里,好处全都送给你!(I’m not sending a gift for Spring Festival, I’m sending a text to bless you. May you be healthy and happy. May luck stay with you. May the God of Wealth already accompany you and wealth roll into your pockets. May all good things be given to you!)

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