This piece is part of my contribution to What Makes Us Tick, organised by Diane Sims and Alan Williams. Any self indulgence is all my own fault.
Why I Still <3 Text Messages :-)
I fell in love with text messages through poetry.
I got my first mobile phone in that strange period between 1999 and 2001 when mobile phones went from being something that only loud mouthed rich people had, to something that nobody could live without . I didn't buy it for the texts though, I bought it because I'd read about something called WAP, which connected mobile phones to the internet, and the idea of having all that information in the palm of your hand felt like something to do with reading and writing. It felt like books. Within a couple of days of buying the phone I knew my guess had been right, but it wasn't the mobile internet that did it, it was texting. As soon as I sent a text I was head over heels. It was like writing poetry. Does that sound odd? It's just texting after all. But how about if I gave you this definition and asked you what I was describing: “It's an intimate kind of writing, with a set of formal limits, that tries to get an emotional response.” Am I talking about poetry, or texting? Because it's not a bad definition of either.
So standing at a bus stop on Kirkstall Road in Leeds, on the first warm day of early summer, I wrote a poem in a text message and sent it to a couple of mates. And they texted back:
“Wot R U on about?!”
But that didn't matter. I'd proved the point to myself, and over the next 18 months I wrote 80 poems that are small enough to fit into text messages, and collected them together in a book called, well, what else, Text Messages. When that was published I ended up on the Today programme being laughed at by John Humphries and shouted at by a famous poet for trying to destroy the English language. I didn't succeed in destroying English, but the book is still available on Amazon, right here, and I highly recommend it, especially for the bargain price of 35 pence, which is what it once sold for!
Of course I wasn't the only person who thought there might be a connection between creative reading, writing and mobile phones, and a few months after the poem on Kirkstall Road I sent an email about poetry to Vic Keegan, the editor of the Technology section of the Guardian, he replied, and in a few more emails we had worked out a way to run a poetry competition by text message.
In May 2001, the Guardian asked people to send them poems by text message. They got 7000 in two weeks, which were whittled down to a short list of seven by two proper poets, Peter Sansom and UA Fanthorpe, and those seven were sent back to everyone who entered, one poem per day, for seven days. Each day at about lunch time the participants got a poem by text, read it, decided if they liked it, gave it a score of between one and ten and sent that score back to the Guardian as a text. At the end of the week the scores were added up and the poem with the highest score was the winner, which was this one by Hetty Hughes, a student in Bradford at the time:
txtin iz messin,
mi headn'me englis,
they all come out txtis.
gran not plsed w/letters shes getn,
swears i wrote better
What was so fantastic about the competition was that the texts came from everyone, everywhere, all the time. Of the seven people on the short list, none thought of themselves as poets, and the 7000 messages were about everything from big news stories of the day (mad cow disease) to personal relationships, to a poem about texting on the toilet. It's this quality of everyone, everywhere, all the time, that is at the heart of why I heart text messages. Because texts have become such a big part of people's everyday lives, they are by far the most welcoming medium - nobody is scared of writing a text, and people will take part by text who wouldn't take part in any other way.
Mobile phones are an intimate technology - we keep our phones within an arms length most of the time, often right next to our bodies, and the texts we get regularly are from our closest friends and family - so people will use text messages to say the things that they need to say, even if they would never say those things out loud. And because we always have our mobile phones with us everywhere, text messages can be used to reach people in the spaces where they live, and where they feel comfortable, rather than in official spaces, for example by using signs at bus stops or beer mats in pubs. If you give people something they are interested in, they always have the means to take part by text if they want to.
The Guardian's competition was very timely, and generated publicity for them round the world. For a few weeks the people who took part had come together and made a community, but once the competition ended, the community vanished. People took part from everywhere, but that meant that the community wasn't from anywhere. It wasn't rooted in a place. At the same time, mobile phones were changing the way that public spaces felt. Private worlds and public places were starting to get mixed up, and a new set of rules for how people behaved in the company of strangers were being worked out. Suddenly, the most intimate private relationships would find people in public places, either by text or by phone call. Public places became a mixed reality, haunted by the presence of people who were somewhere else but could ring you at any time. If you are old enough to remember it, everyone noticed this happening, whether they liked it or not. This was the strange period when comedians could make whole TV programmes out of carrying around a giant mobile phone and shouting “I'm on the train.” And the strange period when academics wrote whole papers about why people say “I'm on the train.” (the reason is very illuminating, but you can work it out yourself, if you think about it.)
So I wondered if we could use the intimacy, inclusiveness and commitment that text messages offered to somehow “build” public places. After all, public space is one of the things we all share, or choose not to share. Lots of different kinds of people can cross paths in a public space without ever needing to know anything about each other apart from that they all care about the quality of that place, and live some of their lives there. In late 2001 I started work on City Poems, and it opened to public participation on Valentine's Day 2003.
City Poems was a text message biography of the city of Leeds, written by the people who live and work there and delivered from a network of Poem Points at key locations around the city.
The Poem Point locations were chosen to tell the story of the city through its places, and City Poems was a book that people read on their mobile phones, finding new chapters as they walked around the city, and reading them in the place they were written about.
Each of the numbered squares on the map is a Poem Point, including a bar (3), Leeds General infirmary (6), a bus stop (17), an internet cafe in Chapeltown (8), Armley Prison (12) and an old people's day centre (13).
A Poem Point sounds quite technical, but actually it is just a sign on the wall with some instructions on and a key number.
Send a text with just the key number in and you'll get a poem back about the place you are in.
For example, Poem Point 3 is a bar, so if you sent '3' as a text you'd get back a poem about being drunk, or hoping to meet someone, or hoping to avoid someone or regretting the night before. 6 is Leeds General Infirmary so there you'd get back a poem about care or grief or something that fits in with the location. If you send the key number again you get another poem.
To get the first poems for City Poems we set up some creative writing workshops at some of the Poem Point locations, run by Peter and Ann Sansom, but after that anyone who wanted to could send in a poem just by texting it to the same mobile phone number and I would guess where it was about and add it to the system.
In 2004 Antwerp in Belgium was the World Book Capital, and Stefan Kolgen and Ann Laenen set up a sister project to City Poems called STADSchromosomen (City Chromosomes), so we twinned Leeds and Antwerp by choosing the same sort of places in Leeds and Antwerp, for example the civic theatre, and in Leeds you could read poems from Antwerp about plays and performance and at the theatre in Antwerp you could read poems from Leeds on the same subject.
City Poems was about people making their own sense of shared public spaces by reading and writing while in those spaces - readers might never find out who wrote the poem they read at the bus stop, but they knew that there was some common ground because they shared at least one of the same places.
I was the “editor” of City Poems, I choose the places to be Poem Points, and these Poem Points made a biography that was chosen, at least in part, by me. But that is just one biography of a city, mine, and there are as many biographies of Leeds or any other city as there are people who live there. It's really not for me to say what the important, meaningful places are that people care about. It's for whoever wants to, to make their own choices.
One of the things I've been doing since is trying to make a web site that lets anyone who wants to set up their own version of City Poems, or set up anything else that they want to try out by sending and receiving texts.
My friends from the Ordsall Writers group in Salford have using the latest version of this web site to run what started out as creative writing but quickly became a lot more than that, in a way that could only have happened through using text messages.
The first step in the process was a creative writing workshop, again run by Peter and Ann Sansom. Peter and Ann are great at engaging with people who aren't confident as writers, and they use creative writing games and exercises that help people to say the thing they need to say. Their approach is perfect for texting, because they give people confidence to talk in their own voice, and Jane Wood, one of the organisers of the Ordsall group, described the workshop as “absolutely brilliant”.
At the workshop, members of the group signed up to a text message mailing list. After that, one of the members of the group, Amber, started logging into the web site each week and using it to send out a question by text message everyone taking part, designed to draw out a fragment of interesting autobiographical writing from each participant, for example “What piece of music always brings back memories?”. The members of the group each text their answers back, and all the responses are collected and published, anonymously, on a web page for the Ordsall Writers, for example:
“Telstar does it for me, the record was made to celebrate the launch of the first telecommunications satellite in 1962 I was on my way to australia as a boy on my first trip to sea I can remember watching the night sky out on the ocean every night for it”
This page has become a very engaging archive, written collaboratively by the people taking part, and browsing through it is a great introduction to the area and the people who live there, in their own words. This is very helpful for Ordsall, because the area has a reputation that isn't always positive. One of the questions the group asked themselves by text was "What is the best thing about living here and why?". And after a few weeks, Jane and the other organiser, Mike, incorporated the creative texting into the radio show they present on the local community radio station Salford City Radio.
As well as developing creative writing skills the group noticed how it had increased their sense of wellbeing. The questions give them reason to think and write about meaningful personal memories, and they enjoy the sense that they are doing this at the same time as other members of the group. As one of the group said “I had had a rough day and the message cheered me up”. Jane feels that this is both therapeutic and good community development.
Everyone taking part thinks that there is something unique and valuable about using text messages. Sylvie, one of the members of the group, said that “a question out of the blue makes you be creative on the spur of the moment” and that being able to reply straight away by text made the answers more personal and honest: “it wouldn't be a true thing if you didn't do it straight away, it would be calculated”. Mike felt that being able to text anonymously meant that “in a group, people are mindful of what they are going to say in public, but when it's just you and a phone you can be a bit more open.” This anonymity is different from “social media” web sites like Facebook and Twitter, in which contributions are linked to a personal profile.
Sending the text “is like a message in a bottle”, a rich, intimate experience for the person writing: “it digs things out of your head that you didn't think about”. Being able to go to the web page and find other people's answers makes it a shared event, even though the members of the group didn't know who has submitted each answer: “you would be on your own without the web site”. Jane says she goes to the website straight after every question, and Sylvie discusses the messages with her partner: “I told him the questions and read the answers out, and said 'can you tell which is mine'?” This combination of anonymity and openness contributed to building trust within the group.
When the Ordsall Writers group began using text messages five months ago, there were seven people signed up to take part, but that has risen to 18 through the members of the group introducing the activity to other people. There seem to me to be two reasons why the Ordsall activity has been a success so far. The first is the talent, good humour and initiative of the Ordsall Writers. The second is text messages, and the qualities that are, if anything, even more true than they were for the Guardian’s poetry competition in 2001 - that text messages are welcoming, intimate and that all of us have our mobile phones with us all the time.
The web site that the Ordsall Writers are using works anywhere in the country, and is open to anyone to use, so if you'd like to try it out please do just email me: wilsonandyb @ gmail . com
 I sometimes get caught out saying “everyone” has got a mobile phone, when there is someone listening who doesn't, and I've thought about whether I should say “most people” instead of everyone.
But in the end I've decided to stick with “everyone”, not because I don't care about who it excludes, but because of everybody it does include. For example, my friend Ann Sansom ran a creative writing workshop in a prison as part of City Poems, and she said that men who would be described as illiterate were able to take part when she told them that they would be writing text messages. If we want to listen to the voices of all the people we share our towns and cities with, text messages are the best way. Those people who don't have a mobile phone (which is a perfectly reasonable choice) are the exception that proves the rule: more than 90% of people in the UK have a mobile, including more than 50% of over 75s.