Is this the end of the text message or just an evolution?

Girls sitting down texting smallThis week it was announced that there had been a year-on-year drop in the number of text messages (SMS) sent for the first time since texting was invented. Younger generations are now using their smartphones to embrace cheaper, more visual forms of communication offered by instant messaging sites like Snapchat and Whatsapp. For younger smartphone users who have witnessed the more open and permanent nature of communication on sites like Facebook, these instant messaging sites represent a return to more private, SMS style communication, but designed with the smartphone in mind. The text message revolutionised the way we communicate and helped to prepare us for the current culture of immediacy before the smartphone emerged. But now that it has, people want more than just text.

Those of us old enough to remember life before the mobile phone and text messaging will always view its inception as defining moment. If we ignore the use of text speak like LOL, XOXO and the :) , amongst others, the impact has been a hugely positive one. I was about 16 when texting seemed to really take off amongst my friends, which felt like pretty good timing. To text was to be privy to a secret form of communication that only our generation could properly understand. But times have changed. In the early noughties, some parents will have been curious, if not a little concerned at the constant beeping coming from their kids’ phones. It wasn’t long though before they were texting themselves. Now, some of these very same parents can be found using their iPads to change their profile picture on Facebook.

Perhaps there needs to be a digital form of communication in existence where younger generations feel they are trailblazing. This used to be the text message, before MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.  Now it is using smartphones to send selfie photos that disappear a few seconds after they are viewed, and participating in chatroom style group conversations with friends, incorporating imagery and videos. The feeling of doing something new plays a part, if only subconsciously. Mark Zuckerberg has already voiced concerns that Facebook might not be cool anymore. More important though is the fact that sites like Snapchat and Whatsapp are designed for immediacy. The text message is pretty immediate, it’s true, but it is just text. Smartphones now come with high quality cameras built in – something that sites like Instagram and Vine have tapped into successfully. People no longer have to describe what they can see or explain how they are feeling in a text. They can capture it instead. Smartphones have trained us to consume a vast amount of information every day, but maybe images are easier for people on the move to digest. This is a trend that is likely to continue as more people become smartphone owners. Our Ipsos MediaCT Tech Tracker tells us that 6 in 10 of the GB adult population now own a smartphone. It was 4 in 10 just two years ago.

So is this the beginning of the end for the text message? The fact that instant messaging apps allow people to take advantage of the features that smartphones provide, and tap into the concept of immediate communication certainly make the humble text feel a bit dated. However the roots of this increasingly popular form of smartphone communication are clear. Perhaps they should be seen as an evolution of the text message, ready for the smartphone era.

Tom Cross is  Research Manager at Ipsos MediaCT.