4 Sme, Txtng is Lyf
By Anne Torres, Wed Apr 18 00:00:00 GMT 2001

The Philippines could be the world?s text messaging capital, with reportedly 50 million text messages sent out every day.

The first television commercial for SMS appeared in the Philippines in 1995. It was meant to introduce a neat new service offered by the cellular phone company - a trinket, an innocent little feature.

Little did anyone know that five years later, texting would become as commonplace on Philippine streets as the jeepney, the flamboyantly decorated army jeeps used for cheap public transport. Nowadays, for everyone from the street peddler who earns about $80 USD a month to the professional who earns many times more, texting has become a part of the urban Filipino's daily routine.

The Philippines could be the world's text messaging capital, with reportedly 50 million text messages sent out every day. Even the crippled Philippine economy got a boost from text messaging. According to the Ibon Foundation, an economic think tank, last year's meager economic growth was mostly from the telecommunications sector, specifically cellular phone sales and owing to text messaging in particular.

Shayne Sarte-Clemente, a freelance cinematographer, was part of the team who shot the 1995 text messaging TV spot. At that time, she had no idea the service would catch on. "It was just a perk for Globe (the cellular phone company) subscribers," Shayne says, who herself now sends out an average of 2,000 text messages a month. "They were only ranked third among the cell phone companies and they thought the added free feature would help differentiate them in the market. Texting turns out to be a cheaper way of getting in touch."

Text messaging is most popular among teens and those in their early twenties. Because of its popularity in this age group, it has spawned a new term the "GenTxt" or text generation.

Texting is used by this group to send jokes and riddles, to pass out invitations to parties, or merely to say "good morning" to friends with accompanying graphics of, say, a teddy bear. It is used much like a greeting card sent out to friends morning, noon and night. Compilations of text messages are even available in bookstores and on the Web for those who are not up to creating their own messages.

"Sometimes, I go without lunch just so I could use my allowance to buy a pre-paid call card for my cell phone," says Tammy Reyes, a 17-year old college student. "If I donít receive a text when I wake up or I receive only a few messages during the day, I feel as though nobody loves me enough to remember me during the day."

This text frenzy has prompted an ironic text message to go around: "Der is lyf Byond txtng. Get 1." (There is life beyond texting. Get one.)

Texting has become so popular among students that school officials have raised an alarm. Some schools have banned cellular phones in classrooms not only because they disrupt class but also for fear that texting is used to cheat during exams.

But texting has already become a way of life. Now it has its own language, too. Since a standard phone can usually fit in only 160 characters per text message, this has taught avid texters to create a new text dialect.

Broken English or Filipino is used much like telegrams. They usually delete the vowels, substitute letters for numbers or symbols or deliberately misspell words using the phonetic spelling instead. A text lingo was born. Could you guess that "L w8 4 u nr d LF8or" means "I'll wait for you near the elevator"?

The abbreviated spellings and creative grammar, like most forms of slang, cause some apprehension to language purists.

"It worsens an already bad situation," complains Prof. Lorenzo Paran III who teaches Communicating in English at the University of the Philippines. "Language is taken for granted. You can communicate however way you want. Rules can be disregarded."

Which is perhaps exactly what youth is all about, and why texting is such an ideal medium for them. But Lorenzo adds that as the philosophy of teaching language shifts from the traditional-structuralist mode -- which focuses on grammar, spelling and syntax - to a more dynamic approach - like teaching language through literature, the effects of text messaging on language may be a boon.

"It's part of the evolution of language," says Prof. Gerry Los Banos, who teaches with Lorenzo. "There's nothing you can do. It's how people communciate." He says the text language is like a slang, a language of a sub-culture.

"Text should be taken in a bigger context, together with chat and e-mail," says Lorenzo. All these, he says, are a reflection of the times. The movement is towards a faster and more efficient transfer of information. There is no stemming the tide.

But, sometimes, text messaging has taken on a more annoying role. The "GenTxt" has also used text messaging to forward spam, like in e-mails.

Messages like: "Hereís a good luck charm sent to you by your guardian angel. Make a wish and pass this on to nine of your friends. Your wish will come true in four days. Ignore this message and you will have bad luck for a year." Messages like this has prompted cellular phone service providers to appeal to subscribers for more prudent use of texting because they clog the networks.

Last year, a few banks were objects of malicious text messages which nearly sparked a bank run. Fortunately, the rumors were quickly dispelled before much damage was done. On April Fools' Day last year, pranksters spread rumors that Malacanang, the Presidential Palace, was burning. Another anti-President Joseph Estrada message went: "The Abu Sayyaf has kidnapped Erap [nickname of Estrada]. (They are) demanding big ransom. If ransom is not paid, they threaten to release the hostage."

But the most malicious message that day was the rumor that the Pope has died - which caused alarm among the predominantly Catholic Filipino population. The rumor was allegedly started by a religious sect from the southern city of Cebu. Such April Fools' Day jokes prompted a futile attempt by the government to regulate text messaging.

Although Filipinos prefer face-to-face communication, texting provides another dimension to communication, according to Prof. Bot Jocano of the Anthropology Department of University of the Philippines. "Texting helps us open up," says Prof. Jocano, which might help explain its wild popularity in the Philippines. Filipinos are known to be non-confrontational and opt for indirect communication.

However, he does not completely discount the role of the cell phone companies. "A lot of it is a product of marketing and economics," Prof. Jocano says.

Be it an off-shoot of brilliant marketing or the Filipinos' communication behavior Shayne concludes texting is beneficial to Filipinos. "We have a strong inclination towards the oral tradition," Shayne says, "but if texting means we will be trained to put our thoughts into words, write these words down, and get people to read however short the messages are, it's a good start."

Anne Torres reports to TheFeature.com from the texting capital of Philippines, Manila.