Is the explosive and evolving use of instant messaging apps a wrecking ball destroying language or a new means to expressing human thought and emotions?
Mobile messaging, which sprung from Short Message Service (SMS) texting, has evolved rapidly thanks to apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp and even Skype and FaceTime. Whichever app we use, texting impacts the way we communicate because it allows us to express thoughts and emotions immediately and often in a language that twists spoken and written words.
Think instant messaging isn’t a big deal? Look at the numbers.
According to Business Insider, almost two-fifths of 18 year olds, mostly young women, in the United States use Snapchat, which pioneered ephemeral expression in the form of a self-erasing photos. Snapchat Stories, which are collections of photos or videos that last 24 hours, are now getting 1 billion views daily, while 760 million disappearing photos and videos are sent every day.
WhatsApp, on the other hand, which was purchased earlier this year by Facebook for $16 billion, allows nearly half a billion users across different devices and network types to immediately text each other from anywhere in the world.
Messaging took a turn toward animation when Intel released Pocket Avatars earlier this year. The app allows people to share their voice and facial movements superimposed on 3D-animated characters from pop culture, including characters from the recent Lego movie, YouTube sensation “The Annoying Orange,” Gumby, Mr. Bill and your favorite NCAA sports mascots.
The millennial generation seems to take naturally to these new modes of communication, while those unfamiliar with these apps see them as fingernails on a chalkboard of proper language use, especially when they hear things like, “My BFF is the bomb!”
While that might be the case, there’s no doubt that these apps are aiding and abetting new modes of communication, unlocking intellectual and emotional expression with the natural spontaneity of spoken conversation. Even experts of industry and academia are saying so.
Just as there are many languages in the world, there are also many messaging apps that are big in particular parts of the world. For example, a new app called FireChat recently allowed Hong Kong protesters to communicate even if cellular or Internet service wasn’t available by allowing phones to use radio and Bluetooth technology to send messages.
Benedict Evans, a partner at the Venture Capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, has interesting insights about the growth of the mobile messaging category. He points out that mobile devices can access a person’s contacts and photo library — which in many cases store much more than photos — making mobile messaging a wholly new social experience. One substantially different than the desktop.
And while critics complain of people being buried in their phones, such as in this Facebook photo essay or this opinion piece, there is evidence that texting language — especially acronyms like LOL, OMG, IRL — is moving into our day-to-day spoken and written communication. The depth and breadth of new messaging options suggest that not only are we not limiting ourselves, we’re actually expanding our skillset as communicators.
In a TED talk from February 2013, linguist John McWhorter broke down what is going on at a cultural level.
“Once you have things in your pocket that can receive that message, then you have the conditions that allow that we can write like we speak,” he said. “That’s what texting is. Now we can write the way we talk. And it’s a very interesting thing, but nevertheless easy to think that still it represents some sort of decline.”
He sees texting as a whole new way of writing that young people are developing alongside their ordinary writing skills.
“That means that they’re able to do two things. Increasing evidence is that being bilingual is cognitively beneficial,” he said. “That’s also true of being bidialectal. And so texting actually is evidence of a balancing act that young people are using today, not consciously, of course, but it’s an expansion of their linguistic repertoire.”
Beyond texting we enter the land of the emoji. Margaret Morris, a clinical psychologist and senior researcher at Intel, observes emoji have pervaded personal and professional communication. These characters or icons can convey emotional nuances that would be socially awkward to write out.
“A great example is the blushy smiley face,” said Morris. “Rarely would it be natural to text ‘Oh that’s so sweet, I’m blushing,’ but the emoji gets that sentiment across while leaving the right amount up to interpretation.
One entrepreneur also traces a line through the evolution of personal privacy from more of a broadcast model to one of greater intimacy and ephemerality.
“Two years ago there was sharing on Facebook, then there was sharing on Instagram, which was more private, then came Snapchat and its impermanence which was one of the major reasons for its rise to prominence,” says Kenny Miller, founder of Kamio, a sticker search and creation tool.
Miller has found that by giving people the ability to search for stickers, edit and create new ones, he is giving people a new and powerful tool to communicate with each other.
“Ideas can travel. And anything that connects a person to another is a good thing.”
“Universal Invite,” a recent study published by the Cassandra report, looks at how this shift is mapped to the generation most utilizing it, Generation Y (also called millennials).
The report sees worldwide interest in image-dominant tools and mediums only grow stronger, as nearly 40 percent of GYs in their study say they prefer to communicate with pictures rather than words.
Music messaging company Rithm allows users to send customized music clips to friends. Other apps in this space, including PingTune, La-La and Soundwave, combine the magic of musical discovery with the social glue of friendship to create a new form of media-rich communication.
Morris sees media-rich messaging emerging in terms of the available content as well as creative tools.
“I’m fascinated by how people use the ever-growing collections of stickers, for example, to express affection, diffuse tension and play around. But I suspect the more personal the media, the most promise it has for enriching communication,” she said.
“I love drawing pictures in the body of text messages, and I think personally edited GIFs can be a powerful way of conveying precise physical movement, from a subtle facial expression to a bold dance move.”
The next step in our messaging evolution is unchartered, but the pervasiveness of emoticons, avatars and stickers tells us that we like to share media — be it GIFs, pictures or songs — as a means of communication.
Or maybe we’ll carve our own emoticons from wood.
Todd Krieger contributed this story.