"Dad, Sarah* says she won't fill in for me at work tomorrow after all, so I have to go in. But this is so unfair, and now I can't even get text service." I am not sure that I understand all of the details, so I won't even try to complete the back story here. But my daughter bursts into my bedroom last week in high teen torpor just as I am about to drop off. The formula was simple: altercation with co-worker frenemy, a favor of filling in for my daughter at work extended and then rescinded at 1 a.m., Verizon tower seems to go dead in the middle of a bitter exchange... equals daughter in tears.
But something about my bedroom, which she rarely has cause to enter, has stopped her in her tracks. "Dad, what's with all the 'Little Orphan Annie; and 'Tales from the Crypt' books?" Okay, so I am a little obsessed with the mid-century period in American comics history, and I unwind at night with archives of the old EC comics, Dick Tracy and The Spirit. Doesn't everyone? "You must have 50 books here. Got anything left to pay for my college?"
This is one of those rare instances where I want to get her back on the teen angst track. It's late, though, so I apply the parental template: commiserate and instruct. "It is unfair. Horribly, terribly unfair. But stick up for yourself and don't let her get away with this."
"But my text isn't working. I can't believe this! ...And who is Buck Rogers? What is a Little Nemo in Slumberland? Dad, you're 51. This is just weird that you read this stuff."
"Can we get beyond Dick Tracy, please? It's a hobby. Here, use my phone to text Sarah." We then get a long cellular comedy of my daughter juggling two phones, instant-messaging another friend, a voice call to her college-aged store manager (apparently drunk at a party) and feverish texting on my phone to the detestable Sarah. Meanwhile, she is mumbling that my comic archives collection is "creepier than a hobby, Dad."
The strange product of this night of teen terror (aside from un-closeting my comics-aholism) is a compelling tale of woe left on my cell phone. At some point in the drama, my daughter's Verizon service reawakened in and she swapped back to her own phone, but Sarah was still sending impassioned messages to her via my phone.
Ordinarily, when my daughter uses my phone I deliberately delete the messages she leaves behind to avoid snooping, but this girl Sarah's missives were popping up on the screen, so I got a dose of them before handing them back over to my daughter. I was struck immediately by how effectively SMS communicates character. In just a few short text bursts, I immediately got a sense of this girl's voice and her family drama (for reasons of their own, her parents were commanding her not to work that day). I actually became curious about this girl.
If I weren't already vying for "creepy Dad of the year" I would have asked my daughter for a bit more back story on Sarah, but she is still having trouble getting over my stack of "Two-Fisted Tales" and "Haunt of Fear" archives she happened upon that night. "Really, Dad. Prozac, ya know?"
What struck me was how little else in my SMS inbox even approached these few messages from Sarah to my daughter. No marketer or media company I have covered has leveraged the real conversational and characterization powers of SMS that our own teenagers demonstrate every day. The half-told back stories, the oblique references to offline conversations and events, the one-word expressions of dramatic (nay, melodramatic) angst add up to remarkably effective narrative hooks because they beckon you to fill in the story.
I know that others in Asia and Europe have tried to create "SMS novels" out of a series of short messages over time, but why aren't media companies jumping at the chance to craft daily stories or character sidelines? I know we have seen reality shows put some of their "characters" on separate SMS feeds to work as parallel commentary on a show, and this is promising. But the best example we have of this short-short form personality theater working effectively are the fictional character feeds now popping up on Twitter. Social media marketing specialist Carri Bugbee became the voice of "Mad Men"'s Peggy Olson on Twitter and some colleagues picked up other characters from the show.
The brilliance of this simple move should be clear. Rather than use these conversational media to "subscribe" or "friend" or "follow" a media brand, this project lets us follow a person. The combination of short bursts of commentary and reflection with the high frequency Twitter and SMS allow produces a unique character-telling medium. This medium is less about plot and story than perhaps it is about voice and persona and slowly creating a fleshed-out character over time.
Dare I say (and you could see this one coming, couldn't you?) that as a tale-telling device, the 140-160 character platform most closely resembles the comic strip in its frequency/brevity. The serialized comic strip is a character-driven medium that builds in the tiniest four panel increments day by day, over months and years. Perhaps we don't' need an SMS "novel" so much as an SMS Joe Palooka or Mary Worth.
Don't text me a brand. Text me a character. Don't tell me a story. Tell me a person.
* Not her real name