Save Us: Taking Back Texts

i-phoneI was one of the last people in my group of friends to get a smartphone, and before that, I still had a limited amount of texts on my monthly plan for my flip phone. These factors, combined with small buttons, my persnicketiness with grammar, and clumsy thumbs, meant that each text on that flip phone was sacred, an item unto itself, and not something to be tossed off. It would drive me bonkers when I was involved in a long, multi-person text chain about meeting out somewhere. If I said I’ll be there at 8:30, there would be dozens of messages about running five minutes late, or early, and that’s cool, etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I couldn’t understand how they could be so cavalier about messages.

Of course, as soon as I got a smartphone with cutting-edge texting capabilities, long chains meant nothing. Text is now the dominant medium for full conversations, and not just a way to shoot information back and forth. It’s so instantaneous it is essentially like talking, where you can say a thoughtless word and never have the chance to breathe it back in, unheard. That’s the problem with text. It is changing the way we communicate, but doing so in an unexamined manner. That might not be the case any longer, though, thanks to companies like San Francisco’s On Second Thought, which is trying to let us take back our unwarranted texts.

On Second Thought and Why We Need A Moment

On Second Thought, the mobile app founded by 28-year-old Maci Peterson which just raised $400,000 in funding, has been described as the “ideal late-night companion” and “the college student’s dream.” It’s easy to see why. It gives you 60 seconds to take back a text after you hit send. That is an eternity in mobile time, and long enough to make a conversation linger, but also considerably shorter than the time it would take to deal with the fallout of carelessness.

There are many reasons why someone would need this app, currently available for Android, but in development for iOS (incidentally, On Second Thought has been very innovative with crowdfunding, so if you want it for your iPhone, go to their site and see what you can do). We all know what kinds of texts need to come back.

  • The unfortunate autocorrect in which a simple text about something innocuous turns hideously embarrassing. Granted, this would deprive humorous aggregate sites of 90% of their content, but that’s a small price to pay.  
  • The “how did that sound” text in which a message that sounded fine in your head could be misinterpreted thanks to word choice or the difficulty of understanding tone. Change “I don’t care” to “That’s fine with me” and the rest of the conversation is much less stressful.
  • The untakebackable text in which you say something cruel or cutting out of frustration, and then it’s there, in print on a phone and burned in your correspondent’s brain, forever. It’s in many ways easier to do this with text than in face-to-face conversation, since we have the comforting remove of distance that mobile communication provides.

On Second Thought And Adjusting To The Mobile Reality

That last example is, in many ways, the most important, and not just because of the interpersonal landmines it lays. It’s the reason why I really like the name “On Second Thought.” On the one hand, the name is pretty breezy, and implies another moment of quick decision, the same kind that spurred the unwanted text in the first place. “On second thought” is often a placeholder cliché during a conversation, and so matches the easy tone of our mobile world.

But it also has a weightier and more portentous meaning: not just another thought, but a full rethinking, which is what the app itself promises. It is allowing us to rethink how we’re going to handle mobile communication. While texting, chatting, IMing, and other digital modes of conversating seem like they’ve been around forever, they are incredibly recent, still something remarkable in the lives of anyone over the age of 30, and the amount of time they have been around is still the smallest blip in the history of human communication. It’s a blip that is going to extend into the future, though, and is already probably the most important development in communication since Gutenberg’s mechanical movable type printing. And that’s why we need to think about what it really means.

Being able to communicate like this is a gift, and something that would have blown people’s minds not too long ago. Our smartphones and tablets allow us to do things unimaginable by some of history’s most inventive minds. The problem is that we rushed headlong into mobile communication without really slowing down to think about what it means to be able to talk like this. Always being in instant touch can change interpersonal relationships and erase the idea of alone time.

That might be a good thing, or it might be a bad thing. The important thing is that companies like On Second Thought, as well as features like Gmail’s “undo send” button, are giving us a little bit of breathing room. It’s breathing room on a micro level, letting us consider what we want to say even after a rush of passion and flying fingers typed it out and then hit “send.” Maybe, though, we can take a deeper breath, and think about how we want to handle instant communication, what it all means, and how it can change us. I think it is a more powerful and emotionally transformative development than most people realize.

Of course, on second thought, that might be overstating it.


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