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2005 In Review: Text Messaging Takes World By Storm

(epa) SMS, or short message service via mobile telephones, has become a major communication tool for many people around the world. Many say they use text messaging because it is direct and fast, it’s usually cheaper than phone calls, and it can be done discreetly. Also known as text messaging, the service is particularly popular among young people. They use it to make friends, stay in touch, or even for political purposes. And text messaging has become widespread not only in Europe and Australia, but also in Central Asia and countries such as Iran and Armenia.

Prague, 14 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Since its introduction in the 1990s, text messaging has taken the world by storm, becoming an everyday part of many people’s lives. It’s particularly popular in Europe, Australia, and Asia -- but the phenomenon is clearly not limited to those places.

In recent years, SMS culture has gradually penetrated Central Asian countries.

Central Asia

In Kyrgyzstan, where it is estimated that more than 60 percent of the young people own a mobile telephone, text messages have become for many an essential communication tool.

Among them is this young girl, who says that she cannot imagine her life without SMS.

“My name is Jazgul. I can send in 1 minute about 160 symbols. It's my record, but I'm going to break it, and my new record will be 160 symbols in 30 [seconds],” she boasts.

In neighboring Uzbekistan, text messaging is also popular among the younger generation.

One young Uzbek told RFE/RL in Tashkent that young people use text messages for “love and dating” purposes: "Nowadays, many young [guys] use SMS to find a date. It’s the same for girls; they want to find boyfriends. I also use SMS for this purpose. For example, I've sent some love poems."

...And Elsewhere

The use of SMS has also spread to countries such as Armenia, where many young people express their feelings through text messages.

In Iran, text messaging was introduced in 2003 and immediately became a big hit.

Ebrahim Soleimani, a Tehran-based journalist, told RFE/RL that SMS messages are widely used by young Iranians, especially university students, to exchange ideas, feelings, and stories that are usually considered taboo.

“They try to use it for staying in touch with each other, specially because SMS gives them the possibility to express issues that cannot be easily discussed: love related talks and issues that are [considered taboo in Iran] -- even jokes about things that Iranian society doesn’t allow itself to talk openly, like sexual relations,” he said.

During the September presidential vote in Iran, text messages were used to call a boycott and as a tool against some candidates.

One SMS poked fun at candidate Mehdi Karrubi, who promised to dole out about $70 each month to every Iranian over the age of 18 by tapping Iran’s oil earnings. The SMS said: “Lend me 70 dollars and I’ll pay you back when Karrubi becomes president.”

During the second round of the elections, text messagers warned against the election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. “The Taliban is coming," one said of the former hard-line Tehran mayor who eventually won the race.

Why SMS?

Young people use SMS to maintain and extend their social network. Some use it to flirt, some to end relationships and others to coordinate everyday events.

Text messages are only limited to 160 characters, so young people have developed their own SMS language using abbreviations.

Some say casual text messaging is damaging young people’s ability to express themselves clearly and to communicate.

Dr. Fraser Reid is a psychologist at Britain’s University of Plymouth. He has carried out research on the social and psychological effects of text messaging. Reid told RFE/RL that text messaging is facilitating communication and friendship formation among youth.

“Its popularity has largely -- we think -- to do as an extension of friendship, networks, and sociable contact. And we think that text messaging is a fun way for people to stay in touch with each other, without necessarily communicating anything important," Reid said. "As it happens, text messaging is beginning to become increasingly popular with other age groups as well.”

In many countries, SMS messages are used for commercial purposes -- for example, recruitment agencies inform their clients about new vacancies through SMS.

Text messaging has also been used in several countries around the world, including the Philippines and Lebanon, for political purposes such as organizing protests.

It is also being increasingly used by charities for fund-raising purposes.

Reid said that text messaging is positively affecting today’s society.

“Having a mobile phone in your pocket or in your bag, makes you continually available to other people and makes them continually available to you," Reid said. "And that continuous access -- this perpetual contact, as it’s been called by other researchers -- changes the nature of society in quite profound ways. And certainly in the short-term, the balance of evidence is that its beneficial and healthy change in the way people contact and stay in touch with each other.”

SMS messaging may have just taken root in some countries, but its future looks promising, according to Reid.

“Technology convergence is taking place with mobile phones: you’ll be able to receive television transmissions; you’d be able to read whole books reading your mobile phones," Reid said. "So it’s possible that using the mobile phone to contact other people becomes only part of the reason for having a mobile phone in the future. But there is every reason to expect that SMS or multimedia messaging to continue in the future. Industry analysts are confident that SMS in its current simple form is going to continue to dominate the messaging market well up till the end of this decade.”

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Armenian services contributed to this report.)
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.