When I moved into my current house, I set up an email group for the street to keep in touch as a whole. Folks used it for a while to ask if anyone could use some spare firewood or a surplus of cherry tomatoes, find out if anyone has seen one of the street cats that has gone missing, report instances of local groundhogs eating crops, and so on.
But usage of this email group has steadily faded. Lately, folks have started up group SMS conversations with people on the street instead. I think I get the appeal. It feels a bit more like being connected, and you usually get responses quickly.
But also in other situations I hear people complain about the noise of group SMS. One of my friends sent a group text to about 20 people inviting them to a birthday party in a week or two and explicitly said in her message not to reply to it because she didn’t want to blow up everyone’s phone. A couple of people used a “thumbs up” reaction anyway, which caused some noise, and my friend complained about this when she told me the story later. I asked why she didn’t email people instead of sending a group text message. She said she had phone numbers but didn’t have people’s email addresses. This seemed like an easy problem to solve (by asking for an email address), but for some reason, she didn’t solve it.
I’m an old millennial, so my sub-generation has seen our methods of communication completely change as we grew up. I had a pen pal at one point. I used to ramble around with friends in the neighborhood, and our parents had no way to get in touch with us aside from pre-set checkin times. I would call landline phone numbers of my classmates in middle school, and when one of their parents picked up, I would ask to speak to their kid. I used an AOL CD and a dial-up modem to connect to the early Internet and heard my computer say “you’ve got mail!” I got my first cell phone in high school when they started to become prevalent.
We’ve simultaneously become more distant, with technology between more of our interpersonal interactions, and instantly reachable. We’re constantly half-paying attention, which hinders productivity, mental health, and creativity. There’s also the disconnection we experience when having a conversation with someone and then they get an alert that seems urgent but usually isn’t.
A lot of people have written about what you can do as a consumer or recipient of information and messages – turning off notifications or even stashing away your devices for periods of time. But I’ve seen less written about the choices around how to send messages. I think we could all help this problem by being thoughtful about what actually justifies an instant notification versus what you could send as an email.
Of course, that requires people to check their email to get the message, but it seems like a good thing to try first before sending a text message.