Europe's teens lead the `texting' wave

Trend: Youths punch tiny messages on cell phone keypads, taking interaction to a risk-free, less costly level.

January 16, 2003|By Gregory Katz | Gregory Katz,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WITCHFORD, England - In the deep, dark, distant past, teen-age boys would ask teen-age girls to the movies by building up their nerve, steeling themselves for possible defeat and calling on the phone.

In the cool, techno-crazed present, at least in affluent Western Europe, teen-age boys on the same mission build up their nerve, steel themselves for possible defeat and fire off a text message.

They punch a pithy note onto their small cell phone keypads, add a phone number and hit "send." A text-message reply - triumph or disaster - often arrives in 10 minutes or less.

Many girls seem to prefer that. Somehow it's easier to deal with a text message than a surprise phone call that requires an immediate "yes" or "no" to a complex question.

"I prefer text, generally," said Kayleigh Roberts, 15.

"Cause I'll probably end up laughing and saying something really stupid on the phone," she said.

The popularity of "texting" for dating rituals is one important reason for the dynamic growth in the use of Short Message Service, or SMS, throughout Western Europe.

A revenue boom

And, unlikely as it might seem, the teens' embrace of wireless chat has provided a desperately needed revenue boom for European cell phone companies groaning under debt.

"We have to be honest: We didn't foresee this kind of success," said Juha Putkiranta, a senior vice president at the Finnish cell phone giant Nokia. "But we knew we had to target the young people.

"The amount of SMS is growing fast. It's 1 billion messages a day and is forecast to grow faster. Once you get all the networks, including the U.S.A., so you can send from one network to another, this will explode."

American teens are starting to adopt text-messaging. But with voice calls so much cheaper in the United States, young Americans haven't had the same economic incentive to chatter in acronym-heavy flurries.

That puts European teens in the vanguard of a subculture based on the convenience and immediacy of low-cost text communications. They have developed their own language for use on the phones - a shorthand that allows them to save on airtime charges. They use the service for practical matters, such as pinpointing a friend's location on a Friday night, and for ephemeral concerns, such as gossiping about a rival's outfit.

In many Western European countries, more than 80 percent of young people have cell phones.

"The technology is in everybody's pocket," Putkiranta said. "The first steps toward boy-girl relationships come into the picture. It seems to be a safe way to start a discussion with the opposite sex. Somehow it's personal - you know who it comes from, but you don't have to talk directly, so it's less risky to express your feelings. It's hard to say why."

Cell phones' cost

But he's not complaining. What executive wouldn't like to pocket 15 cents - the basic message cost on most plans - every time a boy asks a girl on a date?

In Europe, the popularity of texting has been spurred by the low cost of cell phones. Most British retailers sell "pay-as-you-go" mobile phones for the equivalent of $75, and teen-agers can buy airtime cards for as little as $7.50, enough for 50 messages. They pay no monthly fee or setup charge, and parents like the system because it allows them to keep track of their children.

Studies show that cell phone owners over 45 are at a loss when it comes to texting - more than 80 percent have never sent a text message - while many young people are so adept at using the cell phone keypad that their thumbs have become stronger and more flexible.

The desire to make the $7.50 airtime cards last as long as possible has also led to the evolution of a texting language.

Several brief glossaries have been published - how else would you know that "DdUHrtYaslfWen UFelFrmHvn?" means "Did you hurt yourself when you fell from heaven?" Collins, Britain's largest dictionary publisher, is preparing a text message dictionary.

Linguistics experts say the abbreviated language creates a teen-only zone that adults can't easily enter.

"It's very much the same as when we were kids and we had pig Latin, which was a brilliant way of getting messages across if you didn't want your parents to understand," said Jean Aitchison, a professor of language and communication at Oxford University.

"Some of the phrases will get into real life, like `CID' for `consider it done' and `NP' for `no problem.' Some of these abbreviations will come into the language, and others will fade out. I find it all kind of fun."

The shorthand text language has crept into the advertising world, with copywriters using it to attract a younger audience. A Jeep Cherokee ad running in British newspapers uses the headline "A4X4DABLE" to announce that Jeep has an affordable 4X4 for sale.

The phenomenon has businesses that cater to teenagers scrambling to keep up.

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