Texting appears to be the most common things young people do (although I don’t have sources to prove this but seem to recall this in surveys) and it has become more common, at least in frequency, than actual phone calls. But I argued that texting is just an alternative to phone calls, one that is more practical in today’s world, i.e. just a different technology for the same basic human interaction, and therefore, by implication not actually social media. This idea deserves a bit more development especially as such a distinction could be relevant to the issue of emotional development of the young – is texting the major challenge (esp. say as to impeding their development of actual human F2F conversational skills) or is it all types of social media, equally or one in particular?
There are many wired services that fit under the general rubric of “social media”. I certainly don’t know all of them, at least enough to classify into sub-categories, so I’ll just distinguish between three: texting, Twitter, and Facebook. And, while “chat” may exist within various online services I distinguish that as well since it is reachable via general purpose device and does not require specific ownership by the chat partners (unlike SMS texting which is tied to a specific device, phone number, and service subscription). This distinction is somewhat arbitrary but I think most would see “texting” and “chatting” as distinct (the convergence of technology, already available as gateways between the Internet and SMS, may further blur any distinction, but at least as of today texting has a fairly specific technological definition).
First, texting is (usually) one-to-one, although sometimes the user may have multiple texting session in progress at once, typically a particular text message is written to a specific person. Furthermore this is likely to a person already known, probably in real life. In contrast, (most) tweets and (most) postings on Facebook are aimed at many and sometimes not even known set of persons. Therefore I will posit that texting has a personal specificity that is (usually) lacking in Twitter or Facebook.
Second, texting is nominally more private. This is more than it is merely directed to a single person, but also technologically. Texting is almost always done with a mobile device kept in the possession of the writer of the texts, thus for anyone else to see these it is necessary to actually touch the device. In contrast, esp. in Twitter, but also in Facebook, one should always assume the messages are widely available, thus the same as speaking in public. Given the lax security and privacy both assumptions are actually false, but I believe the user considers one private and the other (semi) public.
Third, texts are temporary and can easily be wiped from existence, whereas posts on public servers should be assumed to: a) exist for a long time, literally your lifetime as a plausible assumption, and, b) are easier to pass from any of the recipients to others (yes, texts can be forwarded also, but it’s not as inherent usage pattern as with clients and servers). With teens generating thousands of texts a month it’s a reasonable assumption finding older texts is difficult, if not impossible. And search, for texts, is less likely to be helpful.
Fourth, each individual text is really brief (usually even shorter than tweets) and probably only meaningful in context of the entire texting session. It’s clear reading tweets that sometimes they can only be understood in context as well, but in the case of Facebook much of the context is already present in semi-permanent form as well as postings there allowing as much qualifying context as needed. Certainly blogging goes even further as usually posts are designed to stand alone. So texting is a “conversation” whereas the social media is more described as a publication.
Fifth, at least usually texting is fairly close to real-time and interactive. While one may not expect immediate response to a text, most of the responses are in short enough timeframe for the entire texting session to be viewed as a conversation (I’m getting this flash of some movie of a couple of old guys on a porch in New England with monosyllabic comments with minutes in between, but that is a joke, not the typical conversation). While anyone glued to Twitter may be firing off tweets just as fast as any texting session I think, in general, both Twitter and Facebook are less interactive. [Now for those people that are interacting routinely as quickly and with multiple back-and-forth in Twitter or Facebook, I really think they do need to get a life].
Sixth, texts may require some amount of thought (say in contrast to ordinary real-time conversation) and may undergo some editing, I will still claim (again without proof) that typically they are more spontaneous and less subject to editing than other social media. Combined with the other issues, esp. real-time and one-on-one, texts again more closely approximate back-and-forth in conventional conversation.
Seventh, texting can be more easily multitasking with real-world activities, such as school or jobs. Social media posting takes enough concentration and duration of the writing process that it’s not as amenable for the 10 second attention span of texting, and so is more likely be done in leisure time.
Now, thus far, these distinction are primarily technical rather than indicating anything about state of mind of the user. But all these wired_world/digital_nation technologies are just tools, an alternative method of communication (as opposed to other tasks performed on the Internet and on computers where another person is not directly involved). And the tool matters.
So take for instance, in conventional technology, a letter vs a phone call. The letter, being slower to transmit, but also usually slower to create, is entirely different than a call. The thoughts expressed in letters almost certainly go through more editing. They may either be less candid (not likely to contain strong emotions that a physical encounter may either provoke (anger) or permit(empathy)) than F2F conversation or more candid (for instance, the infamous Dear John letter that is easier to use to breakup than F2F, or the rejection letter for a job, college, or publication). The call is quicker and shorter. Responses can’t be edited as much (a long delay in phrasing an answer is typically not permitted by that medium). It’s typically easier to misspeak than in writing where the visual system and our built-in proofreading ability makes it easier to spot errors. So we’ve already gotten used to communicating differently than different technologies.
But both these are still one-to-one. So let’s compare instead a phonecall to a letter to the editor (or if you’re a journalist or columnist, an article). Since anything in the article goes to an even larger crowd doesn’t the writer usually exercise even more care and phrase things very carefully. (I’m also getting a flash of that Greek athlete that was expelled today for a somewhat insensitive comment in a tweet, either the person was just a bit naive about what to say in public social media or in some ways maybe thought only a few would read it and therefore she could get away with an insensitive comment). And the most extreme of this, certainly for young people, is that it is entirely possible their parents, teachers, or other authority figures could be reading this and who wants to tell your mom about sex in the same words you would with BFF. So you self-censor in social media more than you have to in texting.
So, I come back to texting as merely a technological alternative to the phone (and before the phone the private conversation). It is (again, qualified with ‘typically’), one-to-one (thus you know the listener and what you can acceptably say to them), private (no unexpected person listening in), transient (forgotten almost as soon as the session is over and certainly can’t easily be retrieved), and quick. So you can (and probably do) say in texts just what you’d say in a phone call or in person. But when you’re “on stage” in the social media, at least after a few hard knocks teach you the protocol, you pull your punches (and ego inflate) since you’re not quite sure who is hearing you, you’ve certainly been told your messages can (and do) end up in the wrong hands (how many jokes have been made over this, either in employment or love life situations), and you’ve heard these messages will be around forever to haunt you. So I think a person, at least with some experience, will have a completely different kind of conversation in “public” (social media) vs in “private” (texting).
Now it’s possible that texting is degrading our language skills, but I’d be harder pressed to believe it is having any more effect on emotional development of teens than the phone does (and certainly phone does has some effect but that goes back a long way without any apparent harm occurring to now probably three generations who’ve had phone technology). OTOH, social media (the distinction I’m making) is new and different. We can be on stage, we can fake who we are, we can carefully edit our message, we’re spinmeisters rather than spontaneous and so forth. And with social media we may frequently be communicating with people we don’t know where that is far less likely with texting, so we can present ourselves (as they are also doing) anyway we want. So social media can be a fantasy world whereas texting is fairly well grounded to reality.
So at least by the narrow notion of texting (again, effectively synonymous with SMS) I still postulate that texting does involve a different state of mind than social media and that as purely a technology to enable what otherwise would be a conventional conversation it doesn’t significantly change its users. The only way I see any change is the sheer convenience of it, also low cost (and I mean in a person’s time, not $’s), and omnipresence and this might affect frequency of communication, but to a large degree a simple cellphone has most of these same attributes (although we may not actually know what cellphones do to us, either).
But at the very least, texting is different enough from social media that studies of its impact may require different methodologies and analysis.