Digital Dialogue

The last few decades have borne witness to the meteoric rise of instant messaging (also known as texting). Texting was initially often derided as a lesser form of writing (what do all those people that don’t type “y” and “o” before “u” do with their extra time?). But a generation of millennials and the firm entrenchment of smartphones in our hands have changed language forever and digital dialogue has emerged as not only a legitimate use of language, but one that can be considered – dare we say it? – literary!

Have you ever heard of Cell phone novels? “Keitai Shousetsu”, as they are called in Japan, are novels whose plots are conveyed entirely through text message conversations, which the reader receives on his phone by SMS. Here are a couple of examples from some of the genre’s flagship titles:

Secondhand memories, Chapter 1.
It was July.
She looked at me with a smile on her face.
I smiled back.
It was summer. School was off. I was in complete bliss.
There was nothing better than this.
With her beside me, nothing could go wrong.
“Let’s go.” I heard myself say.
She nodded.
All’s well that ends well, Chapter 1
Spring, April 2011
Above my head,
sakura blossoms were in full bloom;
a canopy of pinks and whites.
Slowly one by one, drifting,
like lazy snowflakes,
glittering in the golden sunlight,
melting slowly on the path.

As you have probably noticed, the style borrows heavily from the Japanese poetry tradition, with its brevity and reliance on the reader filling in context. This format comes with a bunch of advantages. The restricted size of the chapters (usually between 70 to 150 characters, 200 at most in Japanese), means it can be both penned and read in short daily instalments (in Japan this is officially referred to as Toilet Time). Forcing the reading to imagine all the extraneous environmental details of the narrative allows him to immerse himself more fully into the story, as he can see it unfold almost in first person, but also in real-time, as they are written on a daily basis. Since its appearance in the early 2000´s, this genre has exploded and spilled over into most other countries in East-Asia. In China, in 2012, shŏujī xiǎoshuō (literally “cell phone fiction”) had an estimated reader base of about one hundred and twenty million people, twenty-five million of which read nothing but Cell phone novels.

The main qualm with texting seems to be the accusation that it is a degradation of language because of the prominent use of abbreviations. The thing is, the abbreviations we use in text messages are not a new phenomenon. Abbreviations are as old as writing itself, for purely practical reasons. The Romans ran around bearing “SPQR”, because sowing “Senatus Populus Que Romanus” into every banner, carving it into every monument, moulding it into every pot would be an absolute nightmare. Although they definitely took on much larger fish then spelling out their slogan, there was no point: everyone knew what it meant, so it would simply be a waste of time. You are never too old, or too young to find ways to save time. For a more relatable example, have you seen anyone spell out “As Soon As Possible” recently? Do people, not just in script, but even say it out loud anymore? What about “Unidentified Flying Object”? Or even “Short Message Service”?

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