“Oh, you can send SMSes to Americans, no problem!”, the phone help desk person assured me. I was trying to change my phone plan so I wouldn’t have to pay 3 kroner a minute on top of the dollar a minute style prices they’ll be charging me when I’m over there. I’m bound though, can’t change my plan for the next 16 months, oh dear. “Well, at least I can send SMSes back to my friends at home”, I said. SMSes are only a kroner each, even in the States from a Norwegian phone, what’s that, 15 cents, same as at home, see. “Oh, you can send SMSes to Americans, no problem!”, he said. “But Americans don’t do SMS” I replied, sceptically. I’ve read Smart Mobs. I know how weird exotic outlandish they think thumbing is. His comeback was almost instant, though, “Oh but they can, their phones are set up for it, their networks are set up for it, it’s just a cultural thing, that’s all, just cultural, cultural, cultural, cultural….”

I’m going to America tomorrow and I shall SMS people. Their phones will beep. They will have no idea what to do. “Message received: read yes/no” their screens will say. Baffled they’ll three hours later send me an all-caps msg in return, just as our parents did four years ago: HI STOP WHO ARE YOU STOP.

Is it true though? That SMSes are technologically easy but culturally just not happening? Or are SMSes there and the lag is just in our knowing about them being there? I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.

28 thoughts on “i shall sms them

  1. Jean

    Not to be reductionist, but US culture is so overwhelmingly oral in its expression – maybe SMS just doesn’t feel like talking?

  2. Rob Tillotson

    It is true that SMS is technologically easy; the major carriers have “true” SMS and intercarrier gateways so you can reach anyone by texting to their phone number.

    Another factor, besides American culture in general, that may be related to the relative nonpopularity of SMS here is that most Americans’ phone habits are oriented toward the idea that talking is either “free” or cheap. Landlines are almost universally flat-rate for unlimited local calls; long distance is metered but cheap, and you can avoid it entirely by using your mobile. Mobile plans usually come with free nights and weekends and a generous bucket of weekday minutes; to attract customers the carriers keep increasing this and adding on more “free” or discounted things like free calls between family members, free mobile-to-mobile, earlier starting time for free nights, etc.

    Essentially, I think most American phone users don’t think about the incremental cost of making a phone call, because there usually isn’t one, or if there is it’s too small to worry about. It’s easier to punch in a speed dial and talk to someone for a few seconds than it is to thumb in a series of SMSes. (On top of that, there often IS an incremental cost for sending an SMS, unless you’ve planned ahead and bought a bucket of message units as part of your plan.)

    You can also see the same sort of effect in the growing popularity of “push to talk” services over here. Where I live, lots of families are using Nextel just because of their two-way-radio functionality; other national providers are adding similar features to keep up. On the newer PTT systems (like Verizon’s) they are adding some vaguely IM-ish features, like an on-phone buddy list with presence information.

  3. Jamie

    My cousin (a Canadian) seems to always be getting SMSes from his brother-in-law. The messages always say `call me’ (long distance at my cousin’s expense). I’m not sure, but I suspect the brother-in-law in an American, living four time zones away.

  4. dr. b.

    As an American I can say that’s its pretty much true that Americans don’t send SMSes. The biggest barrier to SMS in the States is the cost. For some of our mobile carriers you get the first 10=20 messages a month free and then they charge you up to $1 US per message (sometimes on top of using regular airtime). However, receiving messages is a free service. The cost is absolutely ridiculous! I think that once the mobile companies stop gouging us it may actually take off in the US.

  5. Jill

    Oh! So culture = pricing, huh? We send SMSes because it costs a fortune to make a call from your mobile phone, but it’s pretty cheap to send a text message. You call because that’s cheap. So would I if it cost me nothing. Though there’s something lovely and non-intrusive about SMSes that works well with the whole mobile thing where you want to be kind of accessible but not entirely, you know?

    I wonder why my roaming charges in the States are going to be over a dollar a minute for talk (or receiving a call) and hardly anything for SMS. I suppose my Norwegian providers pricing strategy rules over the Stateside networks I’ll be using.

    I get 100 SMSes free a month, then I pay something like 10 cents a piece – whereas talk is half a dollar a minute. Needless to say I rarely talk, unless someone else calls me. That’s free.

  6. Konrad

    As a student in Japan, there is a great deal of pressure to join the SMS crowd (on my network AU, this is called C-Mail). There is no SMS across networks, although all phones can send regular email for which you are charged bandwidth. As most people know, Japan is all about thumbing. Sit on a train or stand in any public place and at least half of the people around you seem to be thumbing messages into their phones.

    I used to be gung ho about sending SMS when I lived and worked in Stavanger, Norway. Since I came to Japan, though, I suddenly stopped and usually call back people who send me messages. For me, it comes down to time and effort. People here send relatively long messages and there is pressure to respond in turn with a detailed reply. I can’t do it. I have not, and have no desire to acquire the dextrous skill of quickly entering in large quantities of information into a phone. At least until I acquire such a skill, and even then, the amount of time I spend saying something relatively short is not worth it to me. If it is not essential, I can type a reply in an email much faster when I get to my own machine.

    Finally, I noticed that SMS has become the de facto “down-time” activity. When people are idle, they send text messages (or increasingly, play games on their phones). This increases the number of “I’m bored what are you doing” messages. I prefer to spend my time on trains reading than by replying to them.

    It is definitely cheaper though….perhaps I’ll come around some day…

  7. torill

    My NYC connection couldn’t receive SMS-es, or send them. Believe me, I tested it, both directions, to and from his cellphone. That is almost two years ago though, it may have changed and all phone companies support SMS by now.

  8. Ghani

    I’ve never SMS’ed in America, basically for the reasons Rob pointed out. I _did_ Blackberry (Crackberry), which was pretty popular at my University and I hear is very popular in larger cities. The big thing at home right now (or when i left) is actually basically “walkie-talkie” technology, where you can do a short two-way communication from your phone to another. Everyone i know just loved using this to tell people to pick up the Lucky Charms, etc., but to me, it’s going backwards — we’ve had walkie talkies for years, why go back to asynchronous communication? Then again, that’s what SMS is too…

  9. Irina

    Ah… sms 🙂 I live in America but travel i Europe extensively. Ever since I found out about renting mobiles there, I’ve been hooked on SMS (waaaay cheaper and quicker, you don’t hve to spend time on niceties unlike when you call, you can just get to the point and get what you need). Unfortunately MOST of the time I live in the US… So I got curious why SMS wasn’t so popular here. Here is why:

    1. Ability to send SMS between carriers (as in Verizon to AT&T to T-Mobile) has only been implemented about 1.5 years ago. Yep, until then, you couldn’t send messages to anyone who wasn’t with the same provider and how often do you actually ask your friends – hey, which cell phone provider do you use? – since calling doesn’t pose such problems. In fact, Sprint customers still can not send SMS (well they can, but its an extremely difficult and annoying setup) or receive them, at least from Verizon customers (trust me, I’ve tried many times over the last few years).

    2. Some of the older and/or cheaper phones that come for free with calling plans have very limited SMS capability (as in, some people can see SMS but can’t tell who they are from or how to respond to them). I used to hve that problem until I got a new phone a year ago. It was really annoying, especially since I was assured I had SMS ability when I got my old phone. Well yes, I could receive them… but it was sort of useless.

    3. SMS makes using a cell phone simply more expensive. Most providers do not give free SMS and they charge for incoming messages (albeit a nominal about of 2 cents, but still). You can buy a plan now, but the advertisement is only now catching up with availability of the service. To be fair, teen SMS use in the US is on the rise so I suspect adults will follow suit soon. It would take Sprint and Nextel to make SMS use simpler though (most of Manhattan uses Sprint for example).

    4. Cars. When is European downtime? Transit. People send SMS in trains, subways, at bus stops, on the bus, etc. Unless you are in one of the very few metropolitan centers in the US, YOUR transit time is YOU driving. SMS while driving? please don’t… Although, guilty as charged, I have sent SMS while driving… Its very difficult, takes time, the phones are not very well set up for this and it IS dangerous.

    So maybe screaming out – “its culture!” – is a little too nearsighted in this case. Yes much of this is culture, but at a much deeper level than – oh they just don’t know how to use it. Some of it is very much a technology barrier still, and some is rooted in fundamental structural differences both in economic and cultural make up of the two sides of the Atlantic and the two sides of the Pacific. People, whom I have introduced to text messaging though, love it. So who knows, maybe Americans will catch up.

  10. mary

    I live in the US but bought a cell phone just for this past summer in Italy. Was connecting with about 8 friends for plans, meeting in train stations, joint hotel arrangements, etc. I was amazed that in two months, I talked and txt-msged constantly, and spent 32 Euros (I would 404 often to see what things cost, and most often txt-msgs were around .03 Euros and phone calls local and long distance, day times etc were around .12/minute; I would much prefer to prepay here and just reload as needed verses having unused minutes and fiddling around with the plans all the time…). So so so much less expensive that doing same in the US. We are so ripped off by our carriers here.

    That said, it took me a day and a half to get into txt-msgs and I was hooked. It IS less obtrusive, and I prefer it to calling for many reasons: while otherwise engaged, you or others can receive messages that you may need during the engagement, while in an inconvenient location for actually writing down an address/meeting spot for a future meeting a txt-msg allows the written record for knowing where to go, time, etc, and can be checked later while trying to actually find the place, being late means a txt-msg letting others know while not telling the whole world on either end via phone about what’s going on, can send a thanks (like email) while traveling, again without letting everyone around know via voice messages, etc etc etc. The value is endless. As soon as my Treo 600 arrives, I plan to use it often here in the US. I figure the more we use the more our friends will use….
    We’ll see.

  11. Ian

    Irina said “most of Manhattan uses Sprint for example”. Yikes! Where else in the world could you make a statement like that? Surely this is evidence that the SMS problem is just a subset of a wider issue about phone infrastructure in North America remaining fragmented compared to other continents? And that’s generally agreed to be down to regulatory policy rather than direct cultural preference.

  12. Robert

    “$1 US per message”

    You must be joking!

    Here in Australia, I get SMS for 20c each, or 5c to another phone on the same carrier. That’s 10c or 2c US!!

    By contrast, it’s 20c flagfall and 1c/sec for voice calls. My previous carrier had no flagfall, but they jacked it up when people were making short phone calls rather than SMS, which supports the theory that price is the major determinant.

  13. Mihail S. Lari

    Three reasons why texting hasn’t taken off in the US based on my personal experience in SF.

    1. The interface isn’t that intuitive. A friend had to show me how to send and respond. Before that I saw a few messages from friends but they looked like they were coming from their Blackberrys or some place.

    2. I have close to unlimited minutes (since I’m on a large enough plan) on my phone but have to pay separately for my texting. They need to add the texting to their regular plans so I don’t feel like it’s an additional burden.

    3. It takes time to figure out how to text fast enough. I can type so much faster like I am here than I can text…so it consists of short phrases like “I love you” to my significant others. Not very practical for more complicated messages. Email is so much easier!

  14. Anders

    Enjoy your time in the States. Note that when I was in Texas this summer, the only Europe-bound SMSes that arrived were the ones with “delivery confirmation” flag set. If sending multi-part messages with delivery confirmation, only the last part of the message arrived (very annoying for the recipient as well as me 🙂

  15. Jill

    Wow! This thread is FULL of fascinating reasons why SMS is and isn’t popular!

    I particularly like the point about driving vs. public transport – it’s true, I send the most text messages when on trains or buses – and while walking.

    The other thing I use SMSes for most is when meeting someone. Nowadays we never agree a precise time. “Eightish” or “when I’ve got the kids to bed” is enough with a “I’ll SMS you when I leave home” – and we SMS each other again as approaching.

    Still haven’t tried SMSing an American – I need to gather cell phone numbers. Doesn’t sound great that you have to pay for INCOMING SMSes though, good grief!

  16. Jill

    So I sent Elin, who’s in Cambridge MA, an SMS and she got it – but it interruped our voice conversation. Ah well.

  17. Elin

    Aha:-) It broke up our conversation because I got a new phone last Monday when I changed from Sprint (don’t we all HATE sprint) – to T-mobile – and I am still a clutz in handling this Nokia interface. I probably hung up on you to see what the message was:-)
    But… did YOU get my replies? They had images:-)

  18. Jill

    Yes! I got your replies! But, um, I’d actually been ignoring my mobile, so I didn’t actually notice they’d arrived until I read your comment here and checked…

  19. jordan

    I’m rather upset that mobile phones are so expensive in the states. How can we get affordable mobile and wireless?

  20. Jordan

    I can tell you one reason why SMS is so costly and cumbersome in the States:

    Where-ever people are using a lot of SMS, there is the emergence of “smart-mob” behavior. The revolution against Malosovich and the election in S. Korea are both examples of the power of the technology. We used simple p2p networks at the WTO protests in Seattle.

    The internet has been rather effective in helping us stop some of the things that the Bush adminstration has been up to (Not enough as I would like, I must say…) European press picks up on a story ignored by our press and someone puts it up on their blog and it get e-mailed around.

    If SMS were to be easy, cheap, and quick: the unpredictable power of SMS would be unleashed.

  21. forest

    i’ve found that txting is quite nice, even as an american, however i mainly only txt to my european friends (or send txt e-mails to my japanese friends). for me i was able to do this because i sell phones for t-mobile and was given 1000 free sms for $10/mo (though only 400 min), so it’s cheaper for me to send sms than to call with my phone. i find sms mostly convenient for work where i can’t take a personal call, but can easily answer an sms

  22. Anonymous

    salutare la toti

  23. saka


  24. zephoria

    it’s just cultural…
    Jill has a great entry on how Europeans don’t understand why Americans don’t text. The technology is there, so what’s the problem? [The comments on this one are fantastic!]…

  25. zephoria

    it’s just cultural…
    Jill has a great entry on how Europeans don’t understand why Americans don’t text. The technology is there, so what’s the problem? [The comments on this one are fantastic!]…

  26. cacheop

    Do you text in the US?
    It’s surprising how smartphones and camera phones are becoming widely popular here in the US. But I have to agree with Jill Walker that SMS is a feature that most of the Americans still ignore. Some people say it’s the…

  27. Two Cents, at least.

    Americans find “thumbing” outlandish?
    Jill Walker – exuse me – Doctor Jill Walker (congrats!), says that “Americans don’t do SMS.” I found this assertion strange. I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex (Texas), and frequently use text messages to communicate with my friends and

  28. narena

    hi do anyone have yahoo messager

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