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SMS bandwidth and digital text art at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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Chinese mobile service providers are boosting SMS revenue by sending greetings and aphorisms to their customers in the hopes they will pay to forward them along.

A sample message (via Reuters):

A kettle of old wine is soft and fragrant, mellow and rich;
A verse of old song brims with feeling and longing;
A harvest moon is long in the sky and broad on the ground;
A word of good wishes can travel with you anywhere.
And an SMS message can send you off with a flourish.

A few thoughts this brings up on SMS economics, and on SMS art:
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Here, writing serves as an incitement to consume bandwidth. The carrier wants people to be excited about communicating something. In fact, communicating anything - all communications are 10 yuan (1.2 cents) a piece, no matter what.

What an interesting market for writing! Compare this situation to the greeting card industry, which in some senses gets people excited about giving each personalized scraps of paper, but remains a content industry that makes margins on appealing designs - they certainly doesn’t sell identical squares for 50 cents, whether they be wedding announcements or grocery lists. Compare it to home ISPs, who generally subscription access, not bandwidth - the idea of inciting your subscribers to use as much bandwidth as possible just wouldn’t make sense.

The SMS market, like the telegraph market before it, uses standard atomic units and charges on volume - this creates two reactions:

1. Consumers develop an aesthetics of economy, using abbreviations or leetspeak (although in the case of the telegraph this related to being charged by letter - with SMS it is often conservation of time, as with IM).

2. Companies market an aesthetics of superfluous and excessive communication - i.e. just-because messages, flirting and closeness through note-passing, and generally content-free but bandwidth-consuming “greetings” (singing telegram, anyone?).

Or, to put it another way, in a transaction-cost text market, communicators adopt a posture of minimalist efficiency, while carriers encourage effusive, abundant displays.

Which is the more artistic - extreme minimalism, or effusive abundance of language? I’d say both - anything that tends away from the middle. Of course, SMS exchanges or series can also be both brief and abundant… and most people have a word for the arrangement of a long series of short lines. They call it a poem.

[Chinese text forward via textually]




3 Responses to “SMS bandwidth and digital text art”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

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    Interesting point about the double logic of SMS greetings: txt efficiency and superfluous communication.

    I must admit, I don’t think about SMS costs, I think about phone costs though. And I think sending on an SMS poem is just the same as passing on an email quiz. Everyone who is new to it does it, but learns pretty quickly (some don’t however) that these not very welcome. The reason? I guess we can tell products made for consumption/manipulation as opposed to those with other ideals. Some succeed at doing both, which is great.

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass

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    Looking over this post, I see some real problems with my thinking - the first of which is that I’m no economist, and that at any rate I need to dig up my old notes on the history of telegraph use before I start arguing parallels.

    Still, considering at email quizzes and office forwards and other memes in particular, I’m leaning towards it being a question of developing a personal style more than general experience. it doesn’t seem like these are behaviors that really die out - I know people who’ve been sending corny forwards for 13+ years. Of course, email is free to send….

  3. 3 sms advertising

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    I know this is an old post, but I get all kinds of stuff forwarded to me from friends, mostly x rated, if I got charged, ohh I’d be pissed

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