Tilman Baumgaertel on Tue, 23 Nov 2004 17:58:21 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Txting culture in the Philippines, pt 1

Txt-ing in the Philippines

By Tilman Baumgaertel

The Philippines call themselves proudly "the SMS capital of the world". 
According to studies, more than 150 Million text messages are exchanged 
daily, which makes it the country with the highest per-capita number of 
text messages in the world. Even if you do not believe in statistics, a 
walk through any busy streets or shopping mall will prove the passion that 
Philippinos have developed for what is here known as "txt-ing". People 
continuously punch away with ardour on the keyboards of their cell phones, 
and the sound of in-coming messages has become part of the soundtrack of 
everyday life. Voice calls on mobile phones are much less frequent. Text 
messages have become one of the most important means of communications, 
and if you do not participate in it, you exclude yourself from social 

When president Estrada was ousted by mass demonstration on EDSA road in 
Manila in 2002, the media held the wide-spread use of text messages as one 
important factor in the coordination of the protest actions. Estrada 
himself spoke about a "coup d B4 text" in an interview after he was forced 
to resign.

One reason for the popularity of txt-ing is the high number of "Overseas 
Foreign Workers", whose income makes up for a hefty part of the national 
GNP. The "OFW", as they are called here, who work as maids in Singapore or 
as drivers in the Middle East, use text messages to communicate with their 
families at home. A recent ad from a mobile service provider shows a 
Filipino with a helmet on his head and a derrick in the back ground as he 
smiles cheerfully after receiving a message from his son, who thanked him 
for a new set of clothes.

Since I am currently living in the Philippines, I wanted to find out more 
about the reasons for the popularity of txt-ing and interviewed three 
people who have tackled the issue on different levels: the sociologist 
Raul Pertierra, who has studied the txt-ing habits of his compatriots in a 
thorough study, Milagros Carreon-Laurel, who did research on the lingo 
that has evolved in text messages, and Niel de Mesa, a writer, whose has 
made txt-ing the subject of his comic play "Subtext". Since they are 
rather long, I will send them in two separate Emails.


Interview with Raul Pertierra

Raul Pertierra, PhD, was a professor for anthropology at the University of 
New South Wales, and is now teaching in the graduate programs at the 
University of the Philippines, De La Salle University and Ateneo de 
Manila. The book "Txt-ing selves: Cellphones and Philippine modernity" 
(Manila: De La Salle University Press, 2002), that he published with a 
team of other researchers, is available online: 

?: The Philippines call themselves "the capital of texting" and in fact 
the practise is omnipresent everywhere. Yet, most people do not use their 
cell phones for voice calls, but for SMS messages - or the texting as it 
is called here. What is your explanation for this?

Raul Pertierra: Well, it is cheaper than making voice calls. There are 
other practical reasons, like you do not need to have an uninterrupted 
signal, but the main reason in the Philippines is obviously the cost. 
Initially, when cell phones were introduced here in the early 90ies, it 
was a free service, because the phone companies thought nobody was going 
to use it. When they found out that everybody was using it, they obviously 
wanted to make money out of it.

What is very important is the nature of the message. What characterized 
text messages as well as voice calls on the mobile was the banality of the 
message. It is things like "Where are you?", "I am here", "What are you 
doing now". But somehow this banality has its own importance. We would ask 
our informants, which were mostly students: "Why and who do you text?".

First and foremost they would text family and friends. It is not the case 
that they are using Txt-ing to expand their networks. The network is 
there, and they are using texting to consolidate it.

When we looked at the text messages that people send, there were three 
characteristics. One is the prevalence of religious messages: "Good is 
always with you" and stuff like that. Then there is another variation, 
which are stock phrases with an inspirational character. There are 

books or websites from which you can copy them. And then the third 
characteristics were sex jokes, from mildly sexual to explicitly sexual. 
That amounted to roughly a third of the messages we looked at. 
Interestingly, these sex jokes were passed on to parents, people you would 
never to tell jokes like that personally. That was when we realized that 
texting was a different mode of communication, that you could say things 
in texting that you could not say face to face. That really intrigued us.

?: Texting is also more discreet than voice calls. Do you think that this 
plays a part in the Filipino passion for texting?

Pertierra: Texting is more discreet. But one thing that is very important 
is that we have not evolved rules for the public use of mobile phones. 
People are using mobile phones in churches, in the cinema, everywhere in 
public space, unlike in United States, where people are getting very 
aggressive, if people are using their mobile phones on the bus. In a 
country like the Philippines, the rules haven't been established yet, 
because public life isn't that evolved.

The Philippines are still very much a village society. Even Manila is like 
a huge village, despite the fact that it has 13 million inhabitants. 
People behave in public like they would in small groups of known people. 
Here people can appear to be quite rude when they do not know you. Then 
again, they might offer you food on the bus.

?: What does it say about the Filipino national character that texting has 
become so prevalent?

Pertierra: What is interesting in texting and mobile phones between 
Filipino behaviour and, say, Finnish behavior. These two cultures are so 
different cultures, yet when it comes to mobile phones, they behave very 
similarly. So clearly the technology encourages behaviour along certain 

?: That is a different point of view from that of Sadie Plant, who argues 
in her study "On the Mobile" 
ot/doc/0/234_MotDoc.pdf), that there are localized ways of interacting 
with mobile technologies that actually differ very much between Japan and 
Saudi Arabia, Finland and Malaysia 85

Pertierra: Well, there is the issue of texting and class. Economic 
resources determine certain uses of mobile phones. Obviously people with 
more money are more likely to make voice calls than poor people. One 
things that is very interesting for me is the extent to which it can be 
used to broaden ones networks and contact. What I found so far, is that 
upper class people are not interested in broaden their contacts, because 
you never know who these people are. They don B4t use technologies as the 
internet or mobile phones to make new friends, whereas member of the loser 
classes are much more interested in make new contacts. That might just be 
for instrumental reasons, because they might be looking for work. That B4s 
something I am exploring now.

?: How would making new friends work with mobile phones?

Pertierra: One thing you could do is just punch a number, send a text, and 
see who you get in touch with.  Then there are advertisements in the 
papers, like the old pen pals, but it is much more extensive now. Then you 
have these channels on television, that have messages from mobile phones. 
Or you could pass the number of friends on to other friends.

?: Cell phones seem to play an important part in globalisation. That 
should be a factor in the success for txt-ing in a country like the 
Philippines where so many people went abroad to find work.

Pertierra: Philippinos now have the largest number of seamen. Not 
surprisingly, ten years ago they were also the largest owners of satellite 
phones, which they used mainly to stay in touch with their families at 
home. Since then the number of domestic workers in places like Hong Kong 
has risen to 180.000. We are seeing how the mobile phone is used to 
maintain not just relationships in the village, but what we call the 
"absent present". That means that people who are absent still play a 
crucial role in their village. So you have mothers who work in Saudi 
Arabia, but still make everyday decisions like should the family buy a new 
pair of shoes for the oldest son or a shirt for the second child.

?: How can they make sure that people at home actually follow their 

Pertierra: We are doing ethnographic work in the village, so we know the 
messages that come in and if they are put into practise. Very often the 
wife in Hong Kong sends the money not to her husband, but to her mother. 
And then the mother gives the husband an allowance, and spends the rest on 
the kids. The women have a good deal of control over the funds. And now, 
just very recently, you can actually send money through texting. We 
haven't really observed that in the field, but that would give the wife 
even more control over how the money is being spend. So they can actually 
send 100 pesos today, 100 tomorrow, and so on. It wasn't so controllable 
in the past. The absent present can actually check whether the money has 
been spent in the way they indicated. They can also check on the 
whereabouts of the husband and the children etcetera. Most of these 
families wouldn't have checking accounts. Rural Filipinos are 
uncomfortable using banks. More commonly money is send by Western Union. 
And what is even more common and much more preferred is to send money 
through friends. Every time a Phillipina from Hong Kong goes back to 
Ilocos, she carries 50.000 or 100.00 in little envelopes. It is very 
informal and it works perfectly well. I would imagine that half of the 
remittances are transferred in this underground economy. That does not 
appear in the official figures, but I assume that texting will facilitate 
the exchange.

?: There has been a lot of discussions about how texting and the strange 
argot of acronyms and short cuts that has developed is influencing 
everyday language. Many educators see it as a corruption of proper 
English. How do you feel about that?

Pertierra: There have been a number of studies on how texting is affecting 
the way people speak, but I am not at all interested. I think, Language is 
essentially usage, especially for Filipinos, because they often are 
working in two or three languages. So they are not very concerned with 
grammatical formalities. It is common for Filipinos, who speak in Tagalog, 
to add two or three English words in a sentence. So the language that is 
spoken is already a hybrid language anyway. Therefore to worry about 
spelling or a grammar seems like a silly idea to me. The medium encourages 
intimacy and informality, and that includes certain grammatical 
structures. Filipino culture is a very oral culture. Oral means face to 
face. And what is interesting about texting is that it is a face-to-face 
exchange that is happening over long distances. In its shift from oral to 
literal, the west has developed an obsession with grammar, but that really 
operates only in the written form of language. In the Philippines the 
written word does not have this status. That makes it very difficult for 
foreigners to try to correspond with Filipinos, and I mean officially, 
even in the university. Filipinos do not answer letters. They see no need 
to, whereas in the West you feel compelled to reply. It is an illiterate 
culture in that sense. So, interestingly now, you have an oral culture, 
that can technically take place only in writing. So people are using what 
is an oral form in a non-oral context.

?: In the last couple of weeks there has been a public debate on a tax on 
texting. There has even been a huge demonstration against that in Manila. 
How do feel about that?

Pertierra: Here you do have the capacities for political mobilization with 
texting. The country is in a fiscal crisis, and as a reasonable socialist, 
I believe in taxation. On the other hand, since Filipino taxpayers get so 
little out of their tax, it is hard to convince them to pay tax for 
something they are so passionately involved with. But for once Filipinos 
can actually mobilize against the government, which was much more 
difficult in the past because of the lack of means of communication. I am 
fairly doubtful, if you can mobilize crowds for any old reason with 
txt-ing, but for some things, yes. And for a tax on texting, they might 
respond. But I doubt that the government is willing to take that risk, 
especially since there are so many other gaps in the tax system.

?: Do you see any new economic consequences of texting?

Pertierra: Well, the service providers Smart and Globe are just printing 
money. That is the only area where the economy is really moving. But I 
doubt that texting will in any other way help the economy. I am not an 
economist to start with, but as far as I know there is no evidence to 
support that claim, which in part has to do with the banality of the 
communication. Having said that, we know that in the villages, people are 
texting each other things like the prices of pork and chicken. But it is 
one thing to send each other prizes, but yet another thing to act on it 
for effective gain.

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