A peek inside text message patterns

23 Apr

Is texting ruining your relationships or saving them?

It’s a bit surprising to me when people think technology is inherently good or bad. Even people are rarely good or bad as far as I can tell, though yes they sometimes work wonders and often they do monstrous things. I bet you could really manipulate people with SMS. Or you could be warm and loving.

Texting is a huge and important phenomena–every three months the words sent by SMS equal the number of words ever published in books in the history of humanity (those are the 2013 stats so it’s almost certainly accelerated). But texting is hard to study, so I thought I’d go through my data–the names below are pseudonyms.

In particular, I’m interested in how people stay in touch. When you are meeting with someone face-to-face or even over the phone, context is a lot richer. If you’re together, you can see each other’s faces and body language. You can have joint attention on a stranger passing by or a piece of art on a wall in front of you. Even when you’re on the phone, you hear lots of vocal cues. Emoticons, emoji, animated gifs, shared YouTube videos and the like help add color and context but they aren’t quite the same.

But texting can work asynchronously so even if you aren’t in the same city or can’t pick up the phone you can let someone know that you’re thinking of them. This will be a very basic post, mainly laying out some differences between different individuals and different groups.

About the data

From April 1, 2012 to April 23, 2016 I received 77,271 text messages and sent out 57,186. That represents 924 different people (well, mostly people, I didn’t filter out automated messages but there aren’t very many of these). 226 of these people who have sent me more than 50 messages.

I typically send most of my text messages from 11am to 7pm (the median hour for me is 4pm). This is the same as when people texting me are most active.

My own texts tend to be 7 words/39 characters (top quartile of 14 words, 75 characters; bottom quartile of 3 words, 19 characters). Other people are just slightly less verbose: a median of 6 words/33 characters for people texting me (top quartile of 12 words, 65 characters; bottom quartile of 3 words, 15 characters).

Looking at word lengths, people are at their wordiest during the day til about 4pm, they’re at their least wordy from 10pm on. The time between 4pm and 10pm falls in between these extremes.

Defining contrast sets

Looking over the people I communicate with via text, these groups emerge:

  • The top 10 people I text with are undeniably among the people I’ve been closest with over this time period
  • Among the next 50 people (all have sent over 200 text messages), there are
    • Friends/family who I’m really close to but who don’t text much (they are more phone/in-person people)
    • Romantic interests (a big but fuzzy category since many of these become friends–a bit over half?)
    • Other friends
    • Work folks (we mostly use the Slack chat tool to communicate, not SMS)
  • These categories repeat among the “under 200 text message” senders, though I also start to see people best categorized as “acquaintances”. That’s not an appropriate way to talk about any of the people who have sent me more than 200 messages.

Many of the people I correspond with the most are also in group threads, which means it’s a lot easier to count texts from them to me than from me to them. So for the moment, I’m going to focus on what’s incoming.

In general, these particular numbers don’t do a lot to differentiate people. That is, the prime texting time for everyone is basically in the late afternoon, especially if we consider time zones. The more romantic of relationships do skew a bit to the later side.

Perhaps the main thing to note is that you’ve got some very wordy people like Amber and Jezebel–who are trained therapists for what it’s worth–and some less wordy people like Hannibal who loves emoji and Rusty who is known as laconic in real life, too.

Another note about Rusty, Hannibal, and Sigmund: these are among the people I hang out with the most, so many of these texts are also coordination messages, which don’t usually need to be very long they often use phrases like at <location>on bike, and heading your way.

A few other notes:

  • Apparently romantic relationships require fewer words–they tend to be driving to real-life contact, so perhaps that is what’s going on.
  • The super-close friends who don’t really seem to like texting have fewer texts (by definition) but they are also a bit shorter. The people in this category tend not to be where I live–most of them live out of state and one travels a lot.
  • “Other friends”–a group of people who send a fair number of texts (200+) but who, qualitatively, I just wouldn’t put quite in the same level as a Hannibal or Rusty or Sigmund, seem to be a bit wordier. This may suggest that more catching up is happening in text.
  • Qualitatively, the “other friend” group does not particularly use other means to stay in touch–these folks do not use, say, Facebook likes, to have another point of contact.
  • Sometimes people talk about breadcrumbing as a way of lightly staying in contact. My sense is that most of my Facebook likes come from people who I text with A LOT or people I rarely/never text with. That middle-group of “we text some” doesn’t use pocket dials or Facebook likes or retweets to say, “Hey, I’m paying light attention to you.”

More soon!

Name To Me Median hour sent Time ranges Median word count Word count ranges
Bobo 9,713 3pm 11am to 7pm 7 3 to 13 words
Hannibal 5,858 5pm 1pm to 8pm 5 2 to 11 words
Rusty 4,529 4pm noon to 7pm 5 2 to 10 words
Amber 2,800 3pm 11am to 5pm 12 6 to 25 words
Jezebel 2,043 4pm 10am to 5pm (she lives in CST) 9 5 to 19 words
Swayze 2,042 6pm noon to 9pm 7 3 to 13 words
Sigmund 2,030 4pm noon to 7pm 6 2 to 12 words
Falcon 1,411 2pm 10am to 6pm (she lives in CST) 7 3 to 14 words
Allistar 1,356 3pm 11am to 7pm 6 2 to 12 words
Urs 1,157 3pm 11am to 6pm 7 3 to 13 words
Low-texting super-close people (200+ texts) 1,865 2pm 11am to 6pm 7 3 to 13 words
Other friends (200+ texts) 5,479 3pm 11am to 7pm 8 4 to 15 words
Other romantic (200+ texts) 10,152 4pm noon to 8pm 5 2 to 9 words
Everyone else 50-200 text messages 16,248 3pm 11am to 7pm 6 3 to 12 words




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