When Drake’s hit single “Hotline Bling” came out in 2015, it wasn’t the singer’s much-memed dancing that struck me the most. Rather, it was the clever economy of his opening lament: “You used to call me on my cellphone.” That one line tells us everything. Calling someone is unusually intimate, even unique. Drake is 32, solidly millennial; and many millennials report avoiding the phone, even — especially — when it comes to friends and family. They’d much rather text. But it’s not just millennials: most of us are more likely to have our hotlines ping rather than bling these days.
Though we may be united in our embrace of texting, exactly how to text is the subject of often heated debate.
But though we may be united in our embrace of texting, exactly how to text is the subject of often heated debate. It used to be expensive to send or receive a long text. Many people now have data plans that allow unlimited texting or unlimited data for messaging apps. And and even if the texts are costing money, modern phones tend to chain together missives that transcend the 160-character limit of conventional SMS messaging. It’s no longer the norm to receive a long text as a broken up, out-of-order set of oracular fragments. Doing away with the constraints of length and cost has given us a lot more aesthetic freedom. Not surprisingly, people have pretty strong opinions about the right way to text.
Partisans of the first type of texting insist that texts are designed to be brief dispatches, unbeholden to the conventions of standard prose. Adherents of the second type of texting maintain that it’s rude to send five separate messages when you could have sent one, and that actually, useful brevity lies in saying everything you need to at once rather than buzzing the recipient with addenda.
Whichever type of texter you are, you’re right. And also, you’re wrong. Because if you’re only a “raindrop” texter, sending syntactical fragments, or exclusively a “waterfall” texter, pounding out paragraphs, you’re missing out on some of the communicative possibilities of texting. These two general classes of texts serve different purposes and create different effects. Figuring out what those effects are can help make us better, more effective, more considerate communicators.
Waterfall texts, delivered in one continuous sheet, can be challenging to take in on a small screen. They can come off as stern or serious. Perhaps they contain a few extra words. But there are times when it’s good to be able to make a text look more formal or traditional. If you’re writing to a work colleague or to someone you don’t know well, mirroring more traditional paragraphing seems sensibly cautious, conveys respect and gives the recipient a sense that you think things through fully before sending.
Similarly, if you’re apologizing, sending condolences, or otherwise trying to convey something heartfelt via text message, it makes sense to send your message all in one go. When the person you’re texting is upset, a series of fragmented thoughts can ratchet up the emotional valence of your correspondence: a staccato burst of texts sometimes resembles the heated outbursts characteristic of an in-person argument.
Writing, much like the choice of what clothes we wear, is always a push-and-pull between personal style and other people’s expectations.
However, the same sense of emotion and spontaneity that can render the brevity and irregular rhythms of raindrop texts inappropriate for heavy-hitting messages can make them ideal for striking a playful and chatty tone, or for inviting feedback and conversation, like a ball casually tossed back and forth in a short arc. They are perfect for quick observations or reports on everyday life that don’t require a response: unexpected “thinking of you” gifts materializing on a friend’s screen from far away.
Of course, none of these suggestions about text effects are fixed or inviolable; writing, much like the choice of what clothes we wear, is always a push-and-pull between personal style and other people’s expectations. Whether you like it or not, your texts are part of your self-presentation. (Even if you choose never to text, that too is part of your self-presentation.) And in texting, as in all writing, there is no rule or guideline that can ever supersede the value of knowing your audience and knowing yourself.
The fluid, flexible form of the text is a virtue. Kristin Prevallet, one of my colleagues in the Language and Thinking program at Bard College, points out that texting has affinities with zuihitsu, a Japanese literary tradition in which writing responds to the author’s situation or surroundings without having a strictly logical organization, single genre, or analytic argument. Zuihitsu means “to follow the brush”: to be open to going where the calligraphic pen — or the mobile keyboard — takes your thoughts. The artfully controlled freedom of the zuihitsu form “makes the text a dance in which thoughts can drift like clouds,” as the writer Lucia Ortiz Monasterio puts it.
But while zuihitsu is a solo dance, in texting it takes two to tango; and the clouds of thoughts recorded on our phones drift in from both sides. I step forward, you respond; together, we push the limits of the space on the screen. Language is always in motion, and we might as well try to move with it and have fun improvising, even if we aren’t always perfect at it. A dance, Drake might remind us, doesn’t have to be perfect to be captivating.