How the First Text Made the World a Better Place
December 3rd, 1992. An engineer named Neil Papworth sits down at his computer and composes a simple message. A few buildings over, a Vodaphone executive named Richard Jarvis relaxes at his office Christmas party. He glances down at the glowing green screen of his Orbitel 901 handset.
“Merry Christmas,” he reads.
He can’t text back — his clumsy, walkie-talkie-esque phone with its soft rubber keypad won’t be ready for that for another year — so he sends word back to Neil at the office the old-fashioned way. We don’t know if he sends an email or a messenger between buildings, but the message is clear:
And with that, a communication revolution is born.
Have you ever thought about where you would be without that first text? Without the example and popularity of texting, we probably wouldn’t have social media as we experience it today. It’s astonishing how quickly the communication devices that we take for granted today — forums, blogs, and social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat — developed after the invention of SMS texts in 1992.
And it all started with a simple statement: Merry Christmas.
In the spirit of the season, let’s look at the ways chat has changed the world — the gifts of SMS, if you will. And in 25 years, there have been a few noteworthy ones.
It’s All About Connection
Some people have argued that texting, IM, and game chat has driven us apart, but evidence suggests that it’s just the opposite. Have you noticed that, when there’s a screen separating us, we tend to share our deepest feelings, connect faster, and show greater kindness and empathy? In short, we’re vulnerable.
We talk about toxic inhibition a lot — people are more comfortable saying cruel, abusive things in chat that they would likely never say to someone in the real world. Psychology professor John Suler identified toxic inhibition when he discovered the online disinhibition effect, which explains why people say and do things online that they would never do in real life. But the flipside of toxic inhibition is benign disinhibition, which we tend to forget about. And it’s a wonderful thing: users who experience benign disinhibition are more open, more giving, and more likely to share.
The beauty of benign disinhibition? Online chat has opened up communication channels for people who would previously find it nearly impossible to connect with others. The shy or introverted, people with speech impediments, the hard of hearing, the socially stigmatized — before the emergence of widespread online chat, marginalized people had very few places to turn.
And there are so many places to turn. Take a look at these numbers:
- Every month, over 560 billion texts are sent worldwide.
- Every 60 seconds on Facebook 293,000 statuses are updated.
- 6000 Tweets are sent every second.
Is everyone online connected in positive, harmonious ways? Of course not. But enough of us have found common ground through the written (texted?) word that it hardly matters.
One Encyclopedia to Rule Them All!
The internet is the biggest, most comprehensive knowledge base in the world. And it’s all due to the great connection and sharing co-op that began with that first SMS text.
There are approximately 4.54 billion pages on the web and well over a billion websites. To put that in perspective: In 1994, there were about 3000 websites. Consider that the famously well-stocked Library of Alexandria (we like to refer to it as “the internet of classical antiquity”) only held between 200,000-700,000 books. Wikipedia comprises only a tiny fraction of cyberspace and it’s made up of nearly 35 million articles in 288 different languages.
Would the internet be this big without chat rooms, forums, and comments sections? Probably not. Imagine all of the new ideas that have sprung forth, fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, when users across continents, cultures, and even languages chat! That is the fundamental difference between physical spaces like the great library of ancient Egypt and virtual spaces like the global internet of 2017. Sometimes, size does matter.
Ever had a question that you had to answer right that second? Think of all the questions you’ve just had to research over the years. Questions like who’s written the most Tweets? What’s the fastest speed that a cheetah can run? What was the first message ever sent through AOL Messenger? And just what is Scotland’s national animal?
The answers to all of these questions are literally at your fingertips, thanks to the collaborative work of millions of people from different cultures and languages chatting, learning, and creating. And chat — the legacy of SMS — is at the heart of that cross-continent teamwork.
The Power of Empathy
There’s a secondary benefit to all of this information being shared across cultures — the more we read and the more we learn about other cultures, the more we cultivate empathy. Brene Brown says that “Empathy moves us to a place of courage and compassion. Through it, we come to realize that our perspective is not the perspective.”
When we gain perspective and learn greater empathy, we understand that the people who share the world with us are indeed just that — people. Not political foes, not rivals, not “them.” Just people, like us. We’re a lot less inclined to go to war with nations when we recognize that they’re made up of people with the same hopes and dreams.
We may be a few blogs and international forums away from world peace, but hey — the more you know, right? A little knowledge is a powerful thing.
The Gifts of Chat
Twenty-four years ago, an engineer sat down at his computer, typed fourteen letters, and sent a text to a colleague that changed the world. That simple holiday message drastically changed the way we communicate. The internet was in its infancy in 1992, and it learned a lot from that first SMS text.
Forums, message boards, social media — they’re all the offspring of Neil Papworth’s first text to Richard Jarvis. Chat has deepened our connection to the global community and broadened our knowledge with its vast collections of information. What does the future of chat look like to you? Will virtual reality finally make the written language obsolete? Will the chatrooms of the future abandon words altogether? How much smarter can smartphones get? Who knows what the next big innovation in communication will look like.
It’s the holiday season, when we look back and honor the past, savor the present, and look forward to the future. Today, when you text your spouse or chat with a friend over Google Hangouts, take a minute to think about the history of chat and how it’s affected your life — and changed the world.
And before we forget — Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Still wondering about the answers to those questions? Flip your screen over:
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