Texting Isn’t the First New Technology Thought to Impair Social Skills

When Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone, skeptics worried about how it might affect people’s interactions

Texting is blamed for ruining personal discourse and common courtesy. (Kotryna Zukauskaite)
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Is text-messaging driving us apart? These days, we talk to each other a lot with our thumbs—mashing out over six billion text messages a day in the United States, and likely a few billion more on services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

But some worry that so much messaging leads, paradoxically, to less communication. When Sherry Turkle, the MIT clinical psychologist and author, interviewed college students, they said text­ing was causing friction in their face-to-face interactions. While hanging out with friends they’d be texting surreptitiously at the same time, pretending to maintain eye contact but mentally somewhere else. The new form of communication was fun, sure, but it was colliding with—and eroding—the old one.

“Our texts are fine,” as one student said. “It’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem.”

Plenty of people agree. Jenna Birch, a young journalist, recently argued that texting is inferior to talking face to face because it’s too easy to misinterpret—over-overinterpret—tone. Worse, texting makes it more likely for her generation to dodge difficult emotional conversations, the “hard stuff.” If we don’t shape up, she warned, “we’ll all end up on interconnected islands, together in our aloneness.”

New technologies often unsettle the way we relate to one another, of course. But social ruptures caused by texting have a strong echo in the arguments we had a hundred years ago. That’s when a newfangled appliance gave us a strange new way to contact one another en masse: the telephone.

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When Alexander Graham Bell introduced his telephone in March 1876, the invention was riddled with problems. The line was a crackly mess—prone to interference from nearby electrical lines—and it was powered by a battery that leaked acid. Still, it allowed for a remarkable, unmooring experience: For the first time, you could talk in real time to someone blocks or miles away. “It was like a voice from another world,” marveled one early user. Bell quickly improved the quality, and customers thronged. In the first year, over 3,000 telephones sold; by 1900 there were over one million phones nationwide.

At first, the telephone was marketed mainly as a tool for business. Physicians and drugstores bought them to process orders, and business owners installed them at home so they could be quickly reached. The phone, proclaimed early ad copy, gave business leaders an ESP-like “sixth sense” of their far-flung operations.

The idea of using such a powerful tool for everyday conversation? That seemed laughable and obnoxious. One early social critic warned that the phone should not be used for the “exchange of twaddle between foolish women.” Businessmen prohibited their wives from tying up the line, lest they interfere with commerce. “At the beginning, women were forbidden to use the phone—the business was supposed to have the priority,” notes Michéle Martin, a professor emeritus at Canada’s Carleton University and author of Hello, Central?

But it quickly became apparent that people wanted to talk—to socialize. One phone company manager in 1909 did a survey of usage and found that 30 percent of all calls were “idle gossip,” lasting 7.5 minutes on average each. He didn’t like this chitchat, but he was running against the stream. Eventually phone firms realized there was more money in selling lines for banter than for business. “They realized, ‘We can make money off gossip and idle conversation and sociability on the telephone,’” says Claude Fischer, author of America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940.

Within a few years, phone companies were emphasizing how they could reduce isolation and bring friends together. A California firm in 1911 declared that its phone was “a Blessing to the Farmer’s Wife,” adding that “it relieves the monotony of life. She cannot be lonesome with the Bell Service.”

Indeed, women quickly became the dominant users of the telephone. “In some ways it was liberating,” Martin notes, because it gave housebound wives much more social contact—without the enormous work of maintaining visual appearances in face-to-face interactions.

Still, users struggled to figure out the social protocols of this new ethereal realm. How do you start a conversation when you can’t see the person you’re talking to? Thomas Edison advocated beginning each call with “Hello,” but masters of etiquette cringed. “It sounded too much like a ship-to-ship call across to another,” laughs Fischer—far too crude and abrupt, a barbaric yawp devoid of social grace. As one social critic sneered at the time: “Would you rush into an office or up to the door of a residence and blurt out ‘Hello! Hello! Who am I talking to?’” Others argued that the phone might be fine for some things, but not for delicate communications—like inviting an acquaintance to dinner. (“Never excusable, save among very intimate friends,” etiquette author Annie Randall White wrote in 1901.)

Nonetheless, the telephone quickly gave birth to curious new forms of socializing. Callers arranged regular weekly “visiting” calls, dialing remote family to catch up on news. “Distance rolls away and for a few minutes every Thursday night the familiar voices tell the little family gossip that both are so eager to hear,” a Bell ad cooed in 1921.

Phone companies even boasted that the phone was an improvement over that stodgy, low-fi communication, the letter. “Correspondence will help for a time, but friendships do not flourish for long on letters alone,” a 1931 Bell sales manual noted. “When you can’t visit in person, telephone periodically. Telephone calls will keep up the whole intimacy remarkably well.”

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Soon, though, social critics began to wonder: Was all this phone chatter good for us? Was it somehow a lesser form of communication than what had come before? “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?” wondered the Knights of Columbus in a 1926 meeting. “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”

Others worried that the inverse would occur—that it would be so easy to talk that we’d never leave each other alone. “Thanks to the telephone, motor-car and such-like inventions, our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of interruptions,” complained an American professor in 1929. And surely it couldn’t be healthy to talk to each other so much. Wouldn’t it create Too Much Information?

“We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other,” a London writer moaned in 1897. Others fretted that the telephone sped up life, demanding instant reactions. “The use of the telephone gives little room for reflection,” wrote a British newspaper in 1899. “It does not improve the temper, and it engenders a feverishness in the ordinary concerns of life which does not make for domestic happiness and comfort.”

Perhaps the strangest thing was being in the room while a friend talked to someone else—someone outside the room. In 1880, Mark Twain wrote “A Telephonic Conversation,” transcribing the half-a-conversation as he listened to his wife on the phone. To the observer, as the skit pointed out, a telephone call sounded like disjointed nonsense. Even phone companies worried about whether the device created new forms of rude behavior; a 1910 Bell ad warned about “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the Telephone.”

In essence, the telephone was a teleportation device, bringing other people—including, disconcertingly, strangers—suddenly into one’s home. Young ladies, some fretted, were at romantic risk. “The serenading troubadour can now thrum his throbbing guitar before the transmitter undisturbed by apprehensions of shot guns and bull dogs,” a magazine article in Electrical World noted. Scamsters loved the phone.

“It changed people’s ideas of social trust,” notes Carolyn Marvin, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and author of When Old Technologies Were New. We could no longer read someone based on face-to-face social cues.

Indeed, some believed the phone improved our social behavior, because it forced a listener to pay closer attention to a speaker. Devoid of visual signals, we must be “all ears and memory,” a pundit wrote in 1915: “The mind cannot wander.” Plus, by eradicating distance, wouldn’t the phone reduce misunderstanding? War, even? “Someday we will build up a world telephone system making necessary to all peoples the use of a common language, or common understanding of languages, which will join all the people of the earth into one brotherhood,” gushed John J. Carty, AT&T chief engineer, in 1907.

These utopian views, of course, were wildly optimistic. But the gloomy views of pessimists, as Fischer notes, didn’t come true either. Even Emily Post, the etiquette expert, came around to the telephone. By the 1920s, she’d accepted “Hello” as a suitable greeting, and even thought it was acceptable to invite someone to dinner with a call. “Custom which has altered many ways and manners has taken away all opprobrium from the message,” she shrugged.

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Nowadays, the telephone call seems like a quaint throwback to a gentler era. When Jenna Birch, the journalist, started dating a man who insisted on calling her on the phone, she found it warm and delightful—though her friends thought the behavior odd. Phone calls now seem retro.

Academics have observed this shift, too. “My students just do not think of the phone as a mechanism of vocal interaction—they think of that as very rare,” says John Durham Peters, a communication professor at the University of Iowa, and author of Speaking Into the Air. He doesn’t think the shift to texting has degraded our interactions, though. By the middle of the 20th century, studies found that the telephone appeared not to have eroded social contact—indeed, some research found those with phones wrote more old-fashioned letters than those without. Similarly, modern surveys by the Pew Research Center have found that teenagers who text the most are also those who spend the most time face to face with friends. Communication, it seems, begets more communication, and—as Peters argues—just because talk happens in text doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful.

“Media scholars,” he notes, “have this long romance with ‘conversation’ as the cure to the disease of media.”

Still, it’s not hard to be dispirited by the divided attention so many of Turkle’s subjects bemoaned in their lives. Indeed, Michéle Martin, of Carleton, thinks we’re living through a replay of the telephone, where the things that made it valuable—instant communications—are the same that made it annoying. “People believe they are liberated because they can bring the mobile phone everywhere,” Martin says. “But at the same time they are slaves to it.”

The poet Carl Sandburg captured that dissonance in a 1916 poem about the telephone. He imagined a telephone wire being aware of the disparate uses to which it was being put—coursing with conversations both deep and frivolous. “It is love and war and money; it is the fighting and the tears, the work and want / Death and laughter of men and women passing through me, carrier of your speech.”

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