My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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gluttonous texting

For peculiar business reasons, Americans and Canadians have historically paid to receive text messages (although much of Canada has shifted away from this). This creates a stilted social dynamic whereby a friend forces you to pay $.10 (or use up a precious token msg in your plan) simply by deciding to send you something. You have no choice. There’s no blocking, no opt-out. Direct to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Needless to say, this alters the culture of texting. From the getgo, Americans have been very cautious about texting. To be on the safe side, many Americans did not add texting to their plan so sending a text message was often futile because it was never clear if a text message would be received by the phone in question or just disappear into the ether. Slowly, mobile users figured out who had SMS and who didn’t, but they were still super cautious about sending messages. It just felt rude, or wrong, or risky.

Teens, of course, never had this filter. They were perfectly happy to text. So much so that their parents refused to get them plans that supported it because, not surprisingly, there were all sorts of horror stories about teens who had texted up $700 phone bills. Sure enough, every family that I spoke with told me their version of the horror story and. In the U.S., we don’t have pay-as-you-go so going over minutes or texts just gets added to your monthly bill. If you’re not careful, that bill can get mighty costly. Unable to declare a max cost upfront, parents have been tremendously wary of teen texting simply for economic costs (although the occasional predator or cheating-in-school scare story does surface). Slowly, things have turned around, primarily with the introduction of cheap all-you-can-eat text messaging plans (and those that are so ridiculously high that it’s hard to go over). Once the barrier to participation is dropped, sending and receiving text messages switches from being potentially traumatic to outright fun. What a difference those plans make in user practice. The brick leash suddenly turns into an extension of the thumb for negotiating full-time intimate communities.

I’m fascinated by how U.S. teens build intricate models of which friends are available via mobile and which aren’t. Teens know who is on what plan, who can be called after 7PM, who can be called after 9PM, who can receive texts, who is over their texting for the month, etc. It’s part of their mental model of their social network and knowing this is a core exchange of friendship.

Psychologically, all-you-can-eat plans change everything. Rather than having to mentally calculate the number of texts sent and received (because the phones rarely do it for you and the carriers like to make that info obscure), a floodgate of opportunities is suddenly opened. The weights are lifted and freedom reigns. The result? Zero to a thousand text messages in under a month! Those on all-you-can-eat plans go hog wild. Every mundane thought is transmitted and the phones go buzz buzz buzz. Those with restrictive plans are treated with caution, left out of the fluid communication flow and brought in for more practical or content-filled purposes (or by sig others who ignore these norms and face the ire of parents).

All-you-can-eat plans are still relatively rare in Europe. For that matter, plans are relatively rare (while pay-as-you-go options were introduced in the U.S. relatively late and are not nearly as common as monthly plans). When a European youth runs out of texts and can’t afford to top up, they simply don’t text. But they can still receive texts without cost so they aren’t actually kept out of the loop; they just have to call to respond if they still have minutes or borrow a friend’s phone. What you see in Europe is a muffled fluidity of communication, comfortable but not excessive. As the U.S. goes from 0 to all-you-can-eat in one foul swoop, American texting culture is beginning to look quite different than what exists in Europe. Whenever I walk into a T-Mobile and ask who goes over their $10/1000 text message plan, the answer is uniform: “every teenager.” Rather than averaging a relatively conservative number of texts per month (like 200), gluttonous teen America is already on route to thousands of texts per month. They text like they IM, a practice mastered in middle school. Rather than sending a few messages a day, I’m seeing 20-50+. College students appear to text just as much as teens. Older users are less inclined to be so prolific, but maybe this is because they are far more accustomed to the onerous plans and never really developed a fluid texting practice while younger.

Whatever the case, it’s clear by comparing European and American practices that the economics of texting play a significant role in how this practice is adopted. It’s more than one’s individual plan too because there’s no point in texting if your friends can’t receive them. As we watch this play out, I can’t help but wonder about the stupidity of data plan implementation. Just last week, I went with my partner to AT&T to activate his Nokia N95. He was primed to add data to his plan because of the potential for the phone, but we both nearly had a heart attack when we learned that 4MB of data would cost $10 and unlimited would cost $70. We walked away without a data plan. More and more phones are data-enabled, but only the techno-elite are going to add such ridiculously costly plans. (And what on earth can you do with only 4MB?) It’s pretty clear that the carriers do not actually want you to use data. The story is even scarier in Europe with no unlimited options. Who actually wants to calculate how many MB a site might be and surf accordingly? And forget about social apps with uncontrollable data counts. There’s a lot to be said about paying to not having to actually worry about it.

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29 comments to gluttonous texting

  • Alison Mac

    Ah, I always wondered why texting seemed less of a thing in the US compared with the UK.

    The mobile data thing is a nightmare. I have a PDA on a limited plan, and the limits are completely meaningless to me – who amongst us knows how many megabytes it takes to look at a website?

    I’m usually OK, but I just read the bill from my 10-day trip to France in the summer. Let’s just say Ouch. If I were a teenager, I’d be grounded for a month.

  • Very few teens are on contracts in the UK. Texts are deducted from the overall balance on Pay-As-You-Go, so when you run out of texts, you also can’t call. T-Mobile also let you mix and match texts and calls on their monthly contracts too. I’m in my mid-twenties and I can actually count the number of people I know on contracts on one hand. The most irritating thing is that I don’t respond to numbers I don’t know – which is usually someone borrowing their friends phone to let me know they’re out of credit.

    There’s also the dynamic that the contract phone users make more phone calls – there’s an assumption that their friend has run out of credit, and they’re usually the ones to get texts saying “Can you call me, I’m low on credit?”

  • I’m not sure what operator in Europe is making text so expensive (budget constrained) people would call instead: it was the case in Indonesia a while ago, I think — but the lame “I got no text so I’m calling” message, never heard of; although it might make sense at the end of the month and a plan without text bundled with voice, though I can’t imagine a teenager taking that plan.
    What I’ve heard is complex social assumption models about availability, noise level, network saturation, SMS-literacy, etc. that make people ask an urgent question by texting: you then socially force your friends to text you, instead of calling, and taking all the cost of the conversation for yourself; not too much money at stake, though: it usually is more how loud are the two different rings. Being abroad if Europe was a big deal (roaming prices were heavily regulated down this summer); potential sentimental situations were peculiar: it is gallant to text and not call at the beginning of a relation, not to impose one-self, but very rude to do so latter one — I have horror stories about putting the switch at the right time.

  • My mobile plan (closest you can get to “unlimited calls” in Switzerland) does not include free texts. But we’re used to texting all the time, and as you say, the burden of paying is on the sender, so there we go.

    My plan includes 2Mb of free data. Each extra Mb costs roughly $2. When I first saw that, I thought “who are they kidding? you can’t do anything with that!” I realise now that I was quite wrong. Using mobile versions of services like GMail, GCal, Twitter… I’m still quite far from using up my 2Mb. 2Mb can actually go really far, if you visit sites that have been bandwidth-optimized.

    Sure, not as fun as having the “real web” at the tip of my fingers, but still mighty useful (having access to GMail and Calendar on the road is just great).

  • I think you make some interesting observations about texting culture in North America, but it’s worth pointing out that Canadians DO receive text messages for free on every plan I could find in a quick search (we do have to pay an arm and a leg for our service, so it’s nice to get SOMETHING free), and you do have pay-as-you-go options in the US–I found Verizon’s pre-paid plans within about 30 seconds of being on their site.

    Data plans are another interesting matter–I pay $40 for 7 MB of Blackberry data, which is more than enough for me, and in my mind, worth $40, but only because I love my BB and there are no other, cheaper options. What annoys me is that friends with ‘normal’ phones are getting their data for about a $1/MB…

  • Canadians don’t have to pay to receive texts, and I know this cuz I am one:) It’s always the sender who pays. I’ve been on Rogers and Fido and never paid, and I’ve never heard of anyone else paying either.

    There are also pay-as-you go plans in the States, I know Verizon has them.

    I think the reason people don’t text very much, or at least the adoption of it took forever, was because in North America we have very good internet and phone infrastructure that is relatively cheap.

    I’m now living in Australia, and my sister is in New Zealand. Both countries are big users of text messaging, people even text while driving! Both countries also have really crap and really expensive phone/internet access. Unlike North America where you can pay a monthly fee and get unlimited local calls, people down under pay a monthly line rental (about 30 bucks) PLUS another 50+ cents a minute, which is higher when calling mobiles. The internet access is equally crap. Some parts of where I live don’t even have high speed. I pay 90 a month for DSL, capped at 7 gigs download a month. As a result, people do not use the internet nearly as much or in such an integrated way as they do in North America. So, it’s not a surprise that people text rather than call or use the internet.

    In North America, its cheaper and easier to call someone, or get them online via Facebook, MSN, etc than text.

    And interestingly, I think the reverse is true. Facebook is only just starting to take off in Australia and New Zealand and I think it’s largely due to the fact that everyone uses their mobiles to communicate.

  • yes, great; at&t finally has a text plan that’s affordable for me; hooray and it’s about time. so NOW i’m just waiting for service packages to adjust so that i’m not required to pay $40/month for basic service with a TON of minutes that i barely use, in addition to my new text package.

    GRR.

  • anu

    The data situation is changing in the UK – and maybe the rest of Europe. My plan includes 1GB of data per month and separately, 5000 minutes of Skype. At price points like this (and the cost will probably decrease over time), mobile internet and data access becomes a practical part of day to day living.

  • M-H

    The Aus situation isn’t quite what Kate reports above (at least not in the big cities where most people live), and the NZ one is quite different. In NZ people pay a line rental and don’t pay for local landline calls at all; in Aus they pay a line rental and then pay 25 cents for a local call, although there are some plans (which I have) were you don’t pay anything for a *very* local call (ie same exchange). More for calls to mobiles – mobile-to-mobile is usually cheaper than landline-to-mobile. I also have a landline plan which allows me cheap calls to landlines in NZ (where my family are). My broadband internet access costs me $50 a month for unlimited download, so I also use Skype for my calls to NZ a lot. I don’t use my mobile much – my $30 plan covers me most months. Texts are 25c each to send and nothing to receive. So I don’t pay nearly as much as Kate does – maybe she needs to check out some different companies.

    I had no idea that US people might pay to receive texts – that would make a huge difference to usage. I now understand why the people I was visiting gave me their landline numbers not their mobiles.

  • @M-H:

    Thanks for clarification on NZ… I remember my sister forbidding me from making calls on her landline when I was there because they were super expensive. This was about 2 years ago in Wellington – I guess they’ve changed?

    I live in Perth (yes yes, I know East Coasters would dispute this being a major city ;), and clearly your mileage may vary a bit across Aus, but I think its still generally true that local calls/internet are more expensive and crappier than North America:) I’m on a “cheap” line rental with Optus just because I need it to get DSL, so local calls cost more per minute but the line rental is cheaper.

    And sadly, I did shop around. Obsessively. They did have some unlimited plans here but they were as slowwww (256kpbs, like an isdn!) How fast is yours, can I get it here? My Sydney friends always seem to be getting shaped for going over their limits, so I assumed bandwidth was commonly capped there too. I also understand from long talks with my professor who studies these things (I’m here studying the internet, so when I arrived and had huge problems getting online because of the suburb I was living at the time) there’s only one pipe coming into Australia which is already at capacity, so that’s why there’s bandwidth limits.

  • Data seems to be exorbitant everywhere – which is a shame because it is inhibiting mobile web development on a wider scale. In the future, mobile web will be huge, but right now it’s pricy and slow.

    Here in Australia I pay $5 per month for 50mb data plan. I bought a Nokia E65 because I knew I wouldn’t get the data value out of a N95 due to the cost. I make very few phone calls and don’t text much, but you can’t get an all-inclusive data+phone+txt plan just yet. For my 50mb I turn off all images in Opera and this allows me to read my feeds and emails through the whole month with some data to spare.

  • Most providers in the Netherlands (T-mobile, Vodafone, KPN and others) have an unlimited data plan for 10 euros based on fair use. That means at least 1GB of traffic every month. This is for high speed (UMTS, HDSPA) of up to 1Mb/s. I believe this is the case for most European countries

  • It seems insane that AT&T is charging that for the Nokia. I have the iphone and have unlimited data (used about 150MB a month), 1500 text messages and 450 regular minutes, 5000 night and weekend and unlimited mobile to mobile within AT&T. I pay about 80 a month.

  • Have you seen this: I-phone bill in a box?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5h-jFzQFMLw

    I guess it tells us how much data about us is being captured if nothing else!

  • I think in Australia what you’re charged really depends on which provider you’re with.

    I think the providers are slowly moving into the right direction with their data plans, the change is just quite slow. Most of the price improvements came about during the recent upgrade of networks to 3G.

    It’ll also depend upon what sort of network coverage you require because I think at this point in time only Telstra’s NextG network covers a fair chunk of this country. The other networks’ 3G mostly cover only the major cities at this point in time.

    I’ve found info regarding mobile data available at the Whirlpool forums (a local site dedicated to local internet related news): http://forums.whirlpool.net.au/forum-threads.cfm?f=124

    With regards to SMS’ing, I tend to use it a fair bit when calling would be inconvenient. I’m on a pre-paid (pay-as-you-go), which is enough for my needs at this point in time. I think the only thing that could get me onto a plan is if data packages were included in a plan at a reasonable price-point here in Australia. Though, I have considered purchasing a 3 Mobile 1GB broadband plan (http://www.three.com.au/threestore/mobilebroadband.xhtml) which is pretty reasonable at $29 (+$10 for the device) per month.

  • In NZ txting is now extremely popular, we got past the $0.20 c to see a txt phase with a pricing war between the two main players vodafone and telecom. For $10.00 on the prepay for either provider there is now generous txting. 1000 a month for vodafone, telecom provide the first 50 for the same cost but the next 450 for free. Prior to this level of cheapness, young people adapted and had it well sussed, a telecom phone for these friends and a vodafone phone for those friends. As the different service providers charged for accessing and sending txt that crossed service providers but were free inside of one service provider. Now txting has become soooooo prevalent: txting has repercussions on other youth behaviour. Our national scholastic exams are now accepting ‘txt speak’ so long as meaning is clear and i am studying a further aspect in my doctorate. The preferred means of communications for young people in nz is now txting, so youth oriented phone counselling services are adapting to accomadate. Visit me if you are interested, my blog is http://amusingspace.blogspot.com

  • I find the most interesting aspects of SMS to be its ‘reinvention’ of the telegram, and its leapfrogging of email as an asynchronous service of choice for the masses.

    Also, I’m still amazed that SMS still had huge success in the U.S. despite the pricing shenanigans, and I guess that’s where those mental models come in.

  • Greg Williams

    Just wanted to back up Martin’s comment that many countries in Europe DO have unlimited texting and unlimited data plans for around �10 each per month.

    I was in Finland for a week last year and it seems everything can be done via mobile. We bought our TRAM TICKETS via SMS! While on the tram! Amazing!

  • Cody Hopkins

    Just wanted to let you people know what it is actually like in the US. For texting it is dirt cheap. I pay 10 extra dollars a month on top of my $50 plan for unlimited text/SMS and picture messaging. I do not have data but my friends that do only pay $20 extra a month for unlimited data. People in the US text constantly. People texted while driving, while at the movies, while in class, and pretty much everywhere. I have even seen guys on harley motorcycles texting when they are sitting at stop lights. People text way too much out here in my opinion. But you kinda get drawn into it because it has become the preferred means of communication. SMS and MySpace.

  • Bertil: “it is gallant to text and not call at the beginning of a relation, not to impose one-self, but very rude to do so latter one — I have horror stories about putting the switch at the right time.” In Europe? I wonder which country because this is not the case in North-West Europe at least.

    Text messaging is often used in trams, busses, subways in order not to harass other people with your call. Although it’s not a taboo to answer the mobile phone in public transport as it is in Japan.

    In Europe we use two financing methods: prepaid and postpaid. These are the official telecom words for paying upfront (typically without contract) and paying afterward (commonly involving a contract). When your prepaid reached zero, no phone calls or text sending, receiving is still free. With postpaid you nowadays tend to have a so-called bundle that’s worth € X and from this you dedicate € Y for N text messages at a cheaper rate than when you go past the Nth message. Depending on your usage, if you have any minutes and/or messages left, you take them to the next month, so you have more messages and/or minutes.

    PS: seems your blogging software is mishandling my euro-sign and creating a .notdef glyph in unicode output. The software is mishandling encoding.

  • Matt

    You are wrong about unlimited data plans in Europe. Here in the UK, I have added T-Mobile’s Web-n-Walk package to my tariff. For 7.50 a month, I get unlimited data over 3G (about 350kbps). Having a good camera phone (SE K850i), I mainly use it to email high res photos straight to my Flickr and Piccasa web albums.

  • some canuk

    You mean the cheaper texting is the more people will do it? Amazing. I also get the impression that there was little to no research done to actually support the claims you make. Gluttonous text is an appropriate name for this article.

  • Ray Taylor

    I live in NZ and get the impression that texting / txting / sms is probably most prevailant here. Basically a teenager can get a prepaid phone, top up $10 / US$7.50 per month and have 2,000 sms messages that they can send. No phone calls needed, no contracts either. Personally I only use my cellphone for calling toll-free numbers and texting.

    I think also the other reason for texting being so cheap here is that calling is so expensive. A cellphone call is about $1.40 / US$1.06 per min on-peak for the prepaid plans that most teens are on – so the idea of 2,000 messages for $10 is pretty good. Thats over 65 messages sent a day!

    To also help clarify, the person above who was forbidden not to make calls when staying at their family’s house in NZ was probably using a home-business landline which requires a $40/month line fee + 4cents per min for local calling. If you have a home-business, up untill recently you didnt qualify for a standard landline and free local calling. With the unbundling of telecom, this is rapidly changing.

    In NZ if you have your landline with the same provider as your cellphone, you generally get a good deal now for unlimited calling between them (home-to-mobile) for about $10 per month. Otherwise its still around $1.40 / min.

    Also to clarify on the schools accepting abbreviated spelling in high school exam essays, it is up to the school.
    During your last 3 years of high school, each year you must get a certain amount of credits / points by passing modules in various topics from each subject you study. Half of these credits are earned during the year by exams or projects run by your school, and the rest are at the end of the year. Internal – run by school, external – run by national qualifications authority at the end of the year.
    For internal exams, it is up to your school to decide if they wish to accept abbreviated spelling WHICH MOST DONT and for external exams, it has to be very, very limited. Also it is not allowed in english exams at all as these test your literacy and grammer. So the idea is to allow it in geography, math etc where grammer is not the most important concept that is being tested.

  • Folken

    In switzerland you get data plans which are called “unlimited” Sunrise offers a 2 gigabyte data plan it calls unlimited, for 50 CHF a month (about 45$ or 30Euros)

    Recieving is generally free, unless you subscribe to some kind of news service. There you pay for recieving sms and these cost up to 0.50 CHF.

    Therefore texting services are included in pretty much all plans.

  • I noticed also that texting seems to cross social norms as well. I was with my friend’s family at Cracker Barrel the other day and there was a group of about 14 girls aged 11-19 or so. Almost all of them were texting, right there, without any regard. I thought for a moment it was rude then realize that perhaps this is just fine for them.

    It was just very strange to see people so young using cell phones. What made it stranger was how quiet they were. They talked to each other, sure, but a few of them were looking at each other’s cell phones and others were quietly texting away.

    I hope to someday get a cell phone with texting capability. It sounds worth it to be honest. The ability to IM without being tied to a computer… it makes me very happy.

    Now to find a phone with IRC support, and I’m sold.

  • Jesper

    In Denmark: _Receiving_ text’s or SMS’es has always been free. Until recently there was a small fee on each _sent_ SMS/text message. But that’s history, now the main carriers launched products like “MaxSMS”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nltzVLpkA5k

  • Okej, you guy’s live in a weird world when it comes to cellphone-plans.

    In Sweden, you’ve got two basic choices. Plan or pre-paid. Pre-paid doesn’t differ very much from elsewhere. But plans do. If you get a monthly plan with Tele2 (currently, the biggest operator) you get free calls and text to everyone else who has Tele2 – no matter if they’ve got plan or pre-paid. No matter if you send 2 or 2000 text-messages, and no matter if you call 2 min or 200 min – still free. Whenever I call outside Tele2, I pay 0.16 USD a minute,no matter if it’s to a landline or another cell. And most teens still think that’s quite expensive!

  • Sorry for double-posting, but regarding dataplans. For $10 / month, I get unlimited (truly unlimited) data to my cellphone AND when using it as a 3G-modem for my laptop.

  • Green

    Um……does it cost anything??