‘mobile text’


How to Cite

Goggin, G. (2004). ‘mobile text’: Mobile. M/C Journal, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2312
Vol. 7 No. 1 (2004): Text
Published 2004-01-01


In many countries, more people have mobile phones than they do fixed-line phones. Mobile phones are one of the fastest growing technologies ever, outstripping even the internet in many respects. With the advent and widespread deployment of digital systems, mobile phones were used by an estimated 1, 158, 254, 300 people worldwide in 2002 (up from approximately 91 million in 1995), 51. 4% of total telephone subscribers (ITU). One of the reasons for this is mobility itself: the ability for people to talk on the phone wherever they are. The communicative possibilities opened up by mobile phones have produced new uses and new discourses (see Katz and Aakhus; Brown, Green, and Harper; and Plant).

Contemporary soundscapes now feature not only voice calls in previously quiet public spaces such as buses or restaurants but also the aural irruptions of customised polyphonic ringtones identifying whose phone is ringing by the tune downloaded. The mobile phone plays an important role in contemporary visual and material culture as fashion item and status symbol. Most tragically one might point to the tableau of people in the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, or aboard a plane about to crash, calling their loved ones to say good-bye (Galvin). By contrast, one can look on at the bathos of Australian cricketer Shane Warne’s predilection for pressing his mobile phone into service to arrange wanted and unwanted assignations while on tour.

In this article, I wish to consider another important and so far also under-theorised aspect of mobile phones: text. Of contemporary textual and semiotic systems, mobile text is only a recent addition. Yet it is already produces millions of inscriptions each day, and promises to be of far-reaching significance.


Txt msg ws an acidnt. no 1 expcted it. Whn the 1st txt msg ws sent, in 1993 by Nokia eng stdnt Riku Pihkonen, the telcom cpnies thought it ws nt important. SMS – Short Message Service – ws nt considrd a majr pt of GSM. Like mny teks, the *pwr* of txt — indeed, the *pwr* of the fon — wz discvrd by users. In the case of txt mssng, the usrs were the yng or poor in the W and E. (Agar 105)

As Jon Agar suggests in Constant Touch, textual communication through mobile phone was an after-thought. Mobile phones use radio waves, operating on a cellular system. The first such mobile service went live in Chicago in December 1978, in Sweden in 1981, in January 1985 in the United Kingdom (Agar), and in the mid-1980s in Australia. Mobile cellular systems allowed efficient sharing of scarce spectrum, improvements in handsets and quality, drawing on advances in science and engineering.

In the first instance, technology designers, manufacturers, and mobile phone companies had been preoccupied with transferring telephone capabilities and culture to the mobile phone platform. With the growth in data communications from the 1960s onwards, consideration had been given to data capabilities of mobile phone. One difficulty, however, had been the poor quality and slow transfer rates of data communications over mobile networks, especially with first-generation analogue and early second-generation digital mobile phones. As the internet was widely and wildly adopted in the early to mid-1990s, mobile phone proponents looked at mimicking internet and online data services possibilities on their hand-held devices. What could work on a computer screen, it was thought, could be reinvented in miniature for the mobile phone — and hence much money was invested into the wireless access protocol (or WAP), which spectacularly flopped.

The future of mobiles as a material support for text culture was not to lie, at first at least, in aping the world-wide web for the phone. It came from an unexpected direction: cheap, simple letters, spelling out short messages with strange new ellipses.

SMS was built into the European Global System for Mobile (GSM) standard as an insignificant, additional capability. A number of telecommunications manufacturers thought so little of the SMS as not to not design or even offer the equipment needed (the servers, for instance) for the distribution of the messages. The character sets were limited, the keyboards small, the typeface displays rudimentary, and there was no acknowledgement that messages were actually received by the recipient. Yet SMS was cheap, and it offered one-to-one, or one-to-many, text communications that could be read at leisure, or more often, immediately.

SMS was avidly taken up by young people, forming a new culture of media use. Sending a text message offered a relatively cheap and affordable alternative to the still expensive timed calls of voice mobile. In its early beginnings, mobile text can be seen as a subcultural activity. The text culture featured compressed, cryptic messages, with users devising their own abbreviations and grammar. One of the reasons young people took to texting was a tactic of consolidating and shaping their own shared culture, in distinction from the general culture dominated by their parents and other adults. Mobile texting become involved in a wider reworking of youth culture, involving other new media forms and technologies, and cultural developments (Butcher and Thomas).

Another subculture that also was in the vanguard of SMS was the Deaf ‘community’. Though the Alexander Graham Bell, celebrated as the inventor of the telephone, very much had his hearing-impaired wife in mind in devising a new form of communication, Deaf people have been systematically left off the telecommunications network since this time. Deaf people pioneered an earlier form of text communications based on the Baudot standard, used for telex communications. Known as teletypewriter (TTY), or telecommunications device for the Deaf (TDD) in the US, this technology allowed Deaf people to communicate with each other by connecting such devices to the phone network. The addition of a relay service (established in Australia in the mid-1990s after much government resistance) allows Deaf people to communicate with hearing people without TTYs (Goggin & Newell). Connecting TTYs to mobile phones have been a vexed issue, however, because the digital phone network in Australia does not allow compatibility. For this reason, and because of other features, Deaf people have become avid users of SMS (Harper). An especially favoured device in Europe has been the Nokia Communicator, with its hinged keyboard.

The move from a ‘restricted’, ‘subcultural’ economy to a ‘general’ economy sees mobile texting become incorporated in the semiotic texture and prosaic practices of everyday life. Many users were already familiar with the new conventions already developed around electronic mail, with shorter, crisper messages sent and received — more conversation-like than other correspondence. Unlike phone calls, email is asynchronous. The sender can respond immediately, and the reply will be received with seconds. However, they can also choose to reply at their leisure. Similarly, for the adept user, SMS offers considerable advantages over voice communications, because it makes textual production mobile. Writing and reading can take place wherever a mobile phone can be turned on: in the street, on the train, in the club, in the lecture theatre, in bed. The body writes differently too. Writing with a pen takes a finger and thumb. Typing on a keyboard requires between two and ten fingers. The mobile phone uses the ‘fifth finger’ — the thumb.

Always too early, and too late, to speculate on contemporary culture (Morris), it is worth analyzing the textuality of mobile text. Theorists of media, especially television, have insisted on understanding the specific textual modes of different cultural forms. We are familiar with this imperative, and other methods of making visible and decentring structures of text, and the institutions which animate and frame them (whether author or producer; reader or audience; the cultural expectations encoded in genre; the inscriptions in technology).

In formal terms, mobile text can be described as involving elision, great compression, and open-endedness. Its channels of communication physically constrain the composition of a very long single text message. Imagine sending James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in one text message. How long would it take to key in this exemplar of the disintegration of the cultural form of the novel? How long would it take to read? How would one navigate the text? Imagine sending the Courier-Mail or Financial Review newspaper over a series of text messages? The concept of the ‘news’, with all its cultural baggage, is being reconfigured by mobile text — more along the lines of the older technology of the telegraph, perhaps: a few words suffices to signify what is important.

Mobile textuality, then, involves a radical fragmentation and unpredictable seriality of text lexia (Barthes). Sometimes a mobile text looks singular: saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or sending your name and ID number to obtain your high school or university results. Yet, like a telephone conversation, or any text perhaps, its structure is always predicated upon, and haunted by, the other. Its imagined reader always has a mobile phone too, little time, no fixed address (except that hailed by the network’s radio transmitter), and a finger poised to respond. Mobile text has structure and channels. Yet, like all text, our reading and writing of it reworks those fixities and makes destabilizes our ‘clear’ communication. After all, mobile textuality has a set of new pre-conditions and fragilities. It introduces new sorts of ‘noise’ to signal problems to annoy those theorists cleaving to the Shannon and Weaver linear model of communication; signals often drop out; there is a network confirmation (and message displayed) that text messages have been sent, but no system guarantee that they have been received. Our friend or service provider might text us back, but how do we know that they got our text message?


We are familiar now with the pleasures of mobile text, the smile of alerting a friend to our arrival, celebrating good news, jilting a lover, making a threat, firing a worker, flirting and picking-up. Text culture has a new vector of mobility, invented by its users, but now coveted and commodified by businesses who did not see it coming in the first place. Nimble in its keystrokes, rich in expressivity and cultural invention, but relatively rudimentary in its technical characteristics, mobile text culture has finally registered in the boardrooms of communications companies.

Not only is SMS the preferred medium of mobile phone users to keep in touch with each other, SMS has insinuated itself into previously separate communication industries arenas. In 2002-2003 SMS became firmly established in television broadcasting. Finally, interactive television had arrived after many years of prototyping and being heralded. The keenly awaited back-channel for television arrives courtesy not of cable or satellite television, nor an extra fixed-phone line. It’s the mobile phone, stupid!

Big Brother was not only a watershed in reality television, but also in convergent media. Less obvious perhaps than supplementary viewing, or biographies, or chat on Big Brother websites around the world was the use of SMS for voting. SMS is now routinely used by mainstream television channels for viewer feedback, contest entry, and program information. As well as its widespread deployment in broadcasting, mobile text culture has been the language of prosaic, everyday transactions. Slipping into a café at Bronte Beach in Sydney, why not pay your parking meter via SMS? You’ll even receive a warning when your time is up. The mobile is becoming the ‘electronic purse’, with SMS providing its syntax and sentences.

The belated ingenuity of those fascinated by the economics of mobile text has also coincided with a technological reworking of its possibilities, with new implications for its semiotic possibilities. Multimedia messaging (MMS) has now been deployed, on capable digital phones (an instance of what has been called 2.5 generation [G] digital phones) and third-generation networks. MMS allows images, video, and audio to be communicated. At one level, this sort of capability can be user-generated, as in the popularity of mobiles that take pictures and send these to other users. Television broadcasters are also interested in the capability to send video clips of favourite programs to viewers.

Not content with the revenues raised from millions of standard-priced SMS, and now MMS transactions, commercial participants along the value chain are keenly awaiting the deployment of what is called ‘premium rate’ SMS and MMS services. These services will involve the delivery of desirable content via SMS and MMS, and be priced at a premium. Products and services are likely to include: one-to-one textchat; subscription services (content delivered on handset); multi-party text chat (such as chat rooms); adult entertainment services; multi-part messages (such as text communications plus downloads); download of video or ringtones. In August 2003, one text-chat service charged $4.40 for a pair of SMS.


At the end of 2003, we have scarcely registered the textual practices and systems in mobile text, a culture that sprang up in the interstices of telecommunications. It may be urgent that we do think about the stakes here, as SMS is being extended and commodified.

There are obvious and serious policy issues in premium rate SMS and MMS services, and questions concerning the political economy in which these are embedded. Yet there are cultural questions too, with intricate ramifications. How do we understand the effects of mobile textuality, rewriting the telephone book for this new cultural form (Ronell). What are the new genres emerging? And what are the implications for cultural practice and policy? Does it matter, for instance, that new MMS and 3rd generation mobile platforms are not being designed or offered with any-to-any capabilities in mind: allowing any user to upload and send multimedia communications to other any.

True, as the example of SMS shows, the inventiveness of users is difficult to foresee and predict, and so new forms of mobile text may have all sorts of relationships with content and communication. However, there are worrying signs of these developing mobile circuits being programmed for narrow channels of retail purchase of cultural products rather than open-source, open-architecture, publicly usable nodes of connection.

Author Biography

Gerard Goggin