Over the past number of years, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of text messages sent between mobile phones via SMS, in many European countries. Some countries experience a daily SMS count equal to or greater than their entire population.

Text messages are used mainly for social purposes, and their appeal is undeniable. They allow discreet conversation in crowded, noisy areas, and generally allow communication at a very different pace to spoken conversation. Much like IRC, except limited to 160 characters per sentence.

Over the past months, I've realised the many striking parallels between the evolving SMS culture and the IRC culture which has been around for some time. Almost as interesting are the differences between them, and why they exist. I'm going to detail the similarities and contrasts as 2 separate lists in the hope of slightly reducing the inevitable boredom of wading through such a lengthy writeup.

First, the similarities in the cultures:

  • The most striking of these is the increasing number of relationships formed via SMS. While this is nothing new to people who've chatted on IRC at any stage in their lives, it becomes something of a media sensation when played out over text messages. Women's magazines seem to have an article about an SMS relationship almost every few weeks. Of course, since text messages are strictly one-on-one, these relationships usually come about as the result of an incorrectly-dialled number or some such mishap. While the meeting of people off IRC has remained relatively rare in society at large, the sheer number of people with mobile phones means that this social trend is likely to continue, with the early stages of a relationship increasingly teased out in 160-character packets.
  • A less obvious, but equally important aspect of SMS is the amount of people who use it as an escape from reality. This was a hallmark of IRC, and became so much of a stereotype that many who used IRC were reluctant to talk about it in public. Strangely, no such taboo exists with SMS, perhaps again because of the number of people who use it. I've seen countless friends and strangers who are shy, about their appearance or personality, and yet can have a lively and intense relationship through the medium of text messaging. Of course, I've also seen the same thing happen on IRC, but in general, most people haven't. Again, this social trend has increasingly important implications for everyone.
  • You may think it's not possible to hold conversations in 160-character snippets, but you'd be wrong. Text conversations are where the phone companies' profits really shine; many people send more than 20 text messages in a 30-minute 'conversation' during a boring lecture or bus journey. Again, such lengthy conversations can lead to the false-but-feeling-strangely-real idea that you're getting to know someone, when really all that you can see is their words. Just like IRC.
  • Which of course leads us to the most obvious parallel, and perhaps the reason hundreds of millions of SMS messages are sent throughout Europe every day. It's anonymous. More or less. With IRC, you know someone's ISP. With SMS, their mobile phone number. It's practically the same level of detail. Their face, their body language, their appearance, and indeed their sex, age, and social status, are all completely hidden. In most of the SMS relationships I described above, the participants are too nervous to actually call their text-partner, and so the phone number really has little meaning at all, at least in the beginning.
Although this was meant to be a node about the similarities between the two media which had struck me over the past weeks, it wouldn't be complete without an accompanying discussion of the differences between them.
  • SMS is a lot more expensive. Even in Europe, where most countries have metered access to the Internet at an average rate of around GBP 0.01/min, IRC remains cheap. In contrast, text messages remain around GBP 0.10 each. The 160 characters of a text could be typed in no more than 10 seconds by the average IRC user, meaning that SMS is around 60 times as expensive as IRC. This is likely to hinder the widespread adoptation of SMS as a means of social interaction for some time at least, although even from personal experience, I know many of my friends who completely disregard the price of text messages, often sending 50 or 60 a day.
  • SMS is far more immediate. In terms of everyday life. To say a quick word to someone on IRC, you have to be at home (usually), sit down, turn on the computer, log on to IRC, and hope that they're there. With SMS, you just whip out your phone, wherever you are, and send them a text message. If they're not at their phone at that moment (a rare occurence), they will be soon, and you're usually guaranteed a fairly quick reply.
  • Conversely, text messages are easy to ignore. If you're chatting to someone on IRC, and they suddenly stop talking to you, it's generally pretty obvious that you're not wanted. On the other hand, a break in SMS conversation can mean many things - the offending participant may have run out of credit, they may have had something else to do, their phone might have run out of batteries, or the message could simply be delayed in getting through. There's a lot of excuses.
  • Obviously, SMS only incorporates the '/msg' part of IRC. There is, as of yet, no 'channels' on which group discussion can take place - although I would be very surprised if it didn't become part of the standard in years to come. Especially with 3G (and even GPRS) offering an 'always-on' service; the prospect of text conferences will become more and more plausible.
  • SMS is slower. Very few people at the moment have keyboards large enough to send text messages at a decent speed (such as the Ericsson 'chatboard' or the Nokia Communicator), and so they're limited in the speed at which they can type on tiny keys. This makes SMS a little more cumbersome than IRC, and makes it easier just to give up and ignore, rather than replying to an inane comment. Again, however, I wouldn't be surprised if, with the continuing trend in SMS, mobile phone manufacturers turned increasingly towards the task of enlarging the keyboards to a reasonable size.
In total we see that, although there's a lot less commitment in sending a text message than on IRC, SMS is also a lot more convenient, meaning that it's likely to become increasingly important in many people's social lives, and perhaps, eventually, we may find it obsoleting IRC altogether.

A long time ago, when I was addicted to IRC, and when mobile phones were briefcases, I speculated on the creation of a wristwatch-sized IRC device, with a tiny keyboard, where one could communicate on IRC without having to sit in front of a keyboard. Yeah, pretty strange, I know. But my idea has happened, and although I haven't even seen an SMS-to-IRC gateway as of yet, I'm sure that, given a few years, we won't even need them. The two are likely to become indistinguishable from one another, their only difference becoming one of public acceptance and mass-appeal.

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