Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Text clans

This is my column today.

For quite some time now, we Filipinos have taken at face value the assertion by certain quarters that we are the “Texting Capital of the World.” It is alleged that the volume of text messages we exchange on a daily basis is far greater than the annual output of many European countries combined. I really don’t know if the record—or the self-anointed title—is something to gloat about.

It’s a fact that we are a people with a propensity for staking claims on various global records and distinctions, some with dubious value. I know that there’s nothing inherently wrong with such a propensity; I also agree that there’s a lot of good to be had from having grand aspirations. I think that aspiring to be the best in a particular discipline or holding records for being the fastest in a competitive event deserves commendation. Unfortunately, this propensity has reached ridiculous levels such as when towns and cities begin holding all kinds of festivals to create the biggest turon, bibingka, barbecue, salad, etc.

To be fair, we’re not the only people in the world that has become gaga over getting mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records. If it is any consolation, at least we do not have people who have not cut their nails, or hairs, or have not bathed since they were born just to continue being in the list—or at least not yet. But as if these overt efforts to snag world records are not enough, we also happen to have this propensity to make hyperbolic statements—even without the benefit of empirical evidence to back us up. For example, I get dismayed when people make statements such as how we are the “basket case of Asia.” Or about how we are a “nation of cheats.”

Okay, I’m digressing. To go back to my original point, I am concerned that no one it seems has done any analysis on why, how come, and what does it mean being the “texting capital of the world.” I don’t expect the telecom companies who are raking profits from the service to raise a howl, of course. But surely consumer groups should have something to say on the matter; perhaps our legislators?

One obvious factor that has spurned the phenomenon is that the charges for text messaging in this country are smaller than those for voice calls. In other countries, the tariff for sending text messages is the same and in some cases, more expensive than making calls. Thus in countries like India and Thailand, people call each other rather than send text messages. So text messaging is cheaper. That still does not answer the question why we seem to be sending more text messages out there. In fact, economics complicate the issue because if it costs money to send text messages, why are people spending hard-earned money on it instead of buying more essential stuff?

Given how popular it is, and given how texting is so prevalent in this country even among children (my 7-year-old nieces don’t have cell phones, but they sure know how to text), isn’t it about time that we take proactive steps—not to regulate it—but to ensure that the service is being used more effectively and to make sure that there are enough measures to protect consumers and certain sectors of society such as children from unintended consequences?

I want to be clear about this: I am not advocating that we regulate text messaging in this country. I am against any form of censorship or curtailment of freedom of expression. Nor am I advocating draconian measures to address certain emerging trends in the way text messaging is being used today. What we need to put in place are proactive measures such as better education and information campaigns directed at the more vulnerable populations such as children. I want to highlight these because God knows how the minds of certain legislators in this country works—they think that regulation is the key to most problems and that crafting another law and creating yet another regulatory body solve problems in this country.

Before you think I am over-reaching here, let me tell you about my personal experience with texting in the last two weeks. One of my main advocacies is HIV/AIDS prevention and education. As most everyone in this country knows, we are seeing a new wave of infections in the country, particularly among certain vulnerable populations such as younger people. In the last few weeks, I have been immersed in the activities of text messaging-based groups more popularly known as “clans.” I decided to join a “clan” to be able to understand the patterns of interaction among more vulnerable populations.

Thanks to promotion programs of our telecom companies, unlimited texting is a service that is readily available to everyone. I have discovered, by virtue of my joining a “clan,” that the term “unlimited” is not an exaggeration. I have been receiving, on average, 40-75 messages per hour—many of these messages I just delete and don’t read anymore. And the clan I joined is smaller compared to other more established clans out there.

Clans use the unlimited texting service of our telecom companies pretty much as virtual chat rooms, with each member sending messages to the whole clan in “general message” mode. So if a clan has 50 members, that’s the number of people conversing at any given time each one responding to each other, with every other member of the clan as eavesdropping or reacting to the conversations. The discussions cover a whole range of interests and concerns— from the weather to intimate stuff to well, fetishes and perversions.

Clans have regular general eyeballs (that’s cyberspeak for a meet-up). I went to one last weekend at a place that is generally accepted as the venue for clan activities. I couldn’t believe the sheer number of people that were there. There were at least 20 clans having an eyeball in that place on that night. What was more interesting was this: Most of the people were high school students— people aged 14-17. The place was bursting at the seams with people—each one holding a cell phone. And yes, intimacy was very much in the air. It was very clear that for most of the people in that place, the evening would end in bed.

I was told of course that clans are not just avenues to meet people but also serve other purposes, some primarily functioning as some kind of social support system. Like anything, it is a double-edged sword. What is very clear, however, is that text messaging is now a platform for a different kind of interaction. Small wonder we are the texting capital of the world. However, text messaging is just a tool. Like anything else, it can be used positively or negatively.

Let me repeat: I hope our legislators, our regulatory officials, government, and even police authorities do not react to this phenomenon with hasty programs that really do not provide long-term or even effective solutions. I have purposely chosen not to reveal identities and locations because I fear that the police will react by raiding the establishments that play host to these clan parties. I really hope they don’t because doing so will only drive the clans underground, which will make them even more difficult to access for prevention and education programs. What we need to do is reach out to these groups and conduct more information and education awareness programs.

The best response is information and education. The best form of control is self-control. The most effective solutions are those that empower the communities and individuals themselves to act in ways that promote their self-interest.


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