Mixed Messages: Basic Text Education

"Answer me, please." If I had some way to automate my text messages to my daughter, I could create a macro that sent my initial message and followed it up with "Answer me, please" about an hour later. SMS used to be the most direct route to my seventeen-year-old. She will never return a call, and email apparently is for old people.

The passive-aggressive stage (I swear she gets this from her mother, and her mother claims she gets it from me) is in full swing. The only difference in recent months is that now she has a car (after all, she didn't get the iPhone) so now Dad goes to Defcon 1 pretty quickly when she doesn't ping back a text missive. Every once in a while she tries to shame me by reciting the litany of frantic messages I sent her. "Where are you?" "Getting nervous here - need an answer?" "Are you alive, or do I change the will?" She reads these aloud to friends for the comic effect.

So much for being the "cool Dad" with all of the gadgets and game machines. My cover is blown. I'm just another helicopter parent -- forever hovering.

But this past weekend we got into some serious issues with text clutter. She and her mother were on a road trip to New York state, and the prospect of the two of them alone on the road filled me with dread. I tried to convince them to pass along their GPS coordinates every fifteen minutes so I could track them. "One of you is in the passenger seat all the time doing nothing anyway, right?" I tried. Apparently my ex-wife has instructed my daughter in a gentle art she learned many years ago. If you just look at Dad as if his brains are leaking from his left ear, he'll stop whatever he is doing. "I will text you when we get there -- promise," my daughter reassured me. The patronization gene? Also, her mother. What did this child get from me?

And of course, she forgot to send me messages. I had to extract a curt "Yup - here," from her on the front end of the trip. Then on their way back last week, nothing. I am ratcheting up the tone message after message -- and on the afternoon they are supposed to be driving back, I hear nothing.

Meanwhile, to make my anxiety worse, all of the text and application alerts I have subscribed to already are confusing me with inbound messages. My CNN alerts, random reminders from retailers, and then wave of trivia from that PGA iPhone app I reviewed last week. The program was sending me push alerts when tee times got posted, when Tiger started his round, etc.

The upshot of all this is that while I am waiting to hear from my daughter that she is still alive, my hip is vibrating every hour or so with false positives, automated SMS messages from everyone but my daughter. Even my fiancée gets sucked into my web of parental worry. "Is that her?" she asks whenever my pocket buzzes. "No. There is a hurricane two thousand miles from us. CNN thought I should know."

By the morning after they were supposed to arrive home, I am leaving voice mail and messages on both of their phones, but my iPhone is more interested in pushing PGA updates and stray SMS alerts from providers I thought I had unsubscribed from eons ago. Finally a text message gets through to me from my daughter insisting that she had been texting me both the previous night and that morning. Yes, they were fine -- "Jeez, Dad. Chill!" I never got their messages. This has happened before. She and her mother are on Verizon, and some of the SMS messages to me have not gotten through in the past.

My point is simple and obvious, but I think it bears more thought than many in the industry give it. No matter how smart phones get and no matter how fat the pipes become, mobile media as a platform will have a more limited personal bandwidth than any other platform. Like voice mail, an SMS in-box is not email. Not only won't we tolerate clutter, but the clash and the dissonance between highly personal messages and media messages in this channel is more striking.

While the personal computer and its email in-box is just that -- personal -- the phone is truly intimate. We are creating a medium on top of a device that is also a lifeline between people. While my response was that of an unreasonable and worrisome Dad, I found the clutter and confusion of media messages in my SMS box genuinely irritating when the one message I most wanted didn't make it through.

To be sure, the media themselves were not to blame. After all, I had subscribed to them, and all media messages everywhere are emotionally disconnected from the individual user. But the reality is that we are trying to build a medium on a foundational technology that fundamentally is person-to-person and seen by most as critical. Didn't many of us rationalize the purchase of cell phones for our teens because we wanted them to have a lifeline back to us -m and us to them?

It is obvious, but not so obvious, that this isn't TV or radio or even the Web. What shape does TV, news, gossip alerts, or Tiger's tee time take on a medium that is really about knowing my kid is safe? What if television actually had started as a one-to-one communications medium and evolved into a mass medium? How would its entertainment and news forms have evolved differently if it had started in our minds and lives as one-to-one rather than one-to-many?

Maybe the question is as moot or irrelevant as my worrying that my daughter and her mother didn't make it back safely. But it is a question that makes me wonder if the forms of media we now see ported to the phone from other formats are anything like what they might evolve into five years from now, when the content and formats align more closely with the core function and social role of the device itself.

"Mom says you were always like this," my daughter says, because while I was frantic they had loads of drive time in which to index my foibles.

"Like what? A worrier? Analytical? Overly protective? Obsessive compulsive?"

"No, just flat-out nuts." Snide come-backs? Well, at least she gets that from me.

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