I’m using a pen and paper to write about the National Texting Championship in New York City on July 9, 2008, at the Roseland Ballroom, a few doors down from the theater where the musical “Hairspray” is performed. The contestants, mostly teens and young twenty-somethings are standing behind a tape pounding thunder sticks with LG logos. They whoop and holler as a movie camera captures entering contestants on the red carpet. As they are filed and photographed, they hold up their phones, they wave, they mouth something incoherent. LG is busy creating an atmosphere of adulation, doling out the shiny thundersticks and red spongy hands making the hitchhiker/thumbs-up gesture. These giant red hands are meant to applaud extra loudly. They are meant to provide thunderous applause.
A real thunderstorm starts up outside, but no one at the Roseland Ballroom notices.
T-shirts behind a bar at the event: “just txt it”
GET UR QWERTY ON (with thumbs-up hands in the O and N)
“txt if UR : )”
The Ramones “I Want to be Sedated” plays on the sound system, then Dee-Lites “Groove is in the heart”
At check-in, signs read “Minors must have a signed consent form and an LG enV2, Voyager, enV, or V phone in order to participate.”
I think I’ve been in this theater before for a ’90s alt rock music festival, the same music festival where I saw Sonic Youth at CBGB, which no longer exists. Lots of things have gone the way of CBGB*, like pen and paper, which I am using now.
I ask the LG contestants:
How is texting like a sport?
Does it help you do other things well with your thumbs?
How do you train?
Do you ever text so much that your thumbs hurt? What do you do then?
Flat plasma screens loop the footage from last year’s “first annual National Texting Championship”
15,000 participated one way or another to get to this point. A couple hundered are here tonight.
Guns N Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”
The Who “Baba O-Reilly”
Some short, bald stand-up comic rallies the crowd of competitors seated in bleechers. He wants to see which side can make the most noise.
Contestants are given a number to which to send their completed messages. Once they program it into their phones, they must put their phones down and hold their hands behind their backs.
After a countdown from 10, the competitors must send the text message displayed on the flat screens in less than 90 seconds. The first person to send the message 100 percent correctly wins the round.
“I am sooo ready 4 this down n dirt battle on the QWERTY!”
“They gave a monkey a typewriter, and he typed only 2 words: Chuck Norris”
Stage moms and dads hover.
Among the New York finals are Kyle Jacques, 20; and William Less, 14.
Hands behind their backs … 10, 9, 8, 7 …
I sit next (not too close) to a guy on the pleather settee surrounding the stage. He is giggling at his LG enV2. It is a stolen giggle, as if giggling by himself at a handheld electronic device were not completely acceptable in today’s society. It is the same giggle I let slip out when reading greeting cards at the car wash. It is the same giggle that ekes out of me when I’m listening to something funny on my IPod. Someone has connected with me. Someone invisible. Someone that the people around you may not believe exists. Crazy people laugh at things they see, hear, and feel, things that are not really there. We all fear our imaginations. They might trick us. Mirth is not something that should come so easily. We must be crazy. And when we’re crazy, “they”, the men in white suits, remove us even further from a society that is already so difficult to negotiate, to fit into, to belong to, to be in unison with. What a relief to find that we’re just like someone else. Even better, just like lots of someones.
Ehtisham Rabbani, LG Mobile’s vice president of product strategy and marketing:
The two-thumb prevalent use of electronic devices has only been in the last year. When we designed phones, we assumed they’d be keyed by the fingertips. The two-thumb motion has become so ingrained so quickly. The space bar has been on the side of the phone in the past. New keyboards are more like computer keyboards, where the spacing reflects how the thumbs work.
Products coming out within the next year are influenced by the 2-thumb ergonomics. Sixty percent of their customers polled said that texting is very important to them. First QWERTY was a 3-line board, but consumers prefer 4 lines because it’s like their computers. We want to make them as comfortable as possible, with appropriate spacing and keys raised. We’re even working on methods that don’t require thumbs. We’re already seeing a convergence, where everything – phone, email, appointment and address books, photos, music, TV, movies, books – is in one device. Mode of data entry will be absolutely critical.
“No, that’s cool, I’m into it,” says Kyle Jacques, 20, when I ask him for an interview and explain what I’m doing. Jacques is from Massachusetts but lives in New York, was here at the competition last year, winning $2,000 in consolation prizes. He works as a personal assistant, a job he thinks his sonic-speed texting helped him land. At the moment, he’s carrying an orange LG enV model. His thumbs arc in. It may be an advantage. He sends 100 texts a day. He texts out of convenience. He says he’s developed a rhythm for both phones and has memorized interface motions the day before to practice for the contest. Riding his bike is the most athletic things he does. His strategy, he says in a mocking tone, as if my questions are boring him, is to simultaneously check yourself while being in the moment. He texts so he doesn’t have to talk to people. He asks if I’m going to any leather bars while I’m here, wondering if there’s a any sexual thing a leather bar goer might be “into” with thumbs. I tell him I didn’t bring any of my leather, so probably not. I do appreciate the idea.
Megan Rach, 14, from Naperville, Illinois: I entered on a whim. Her mom said, text as much as you want. Leading up to the competition, she said she texted “a decent amount more” than normal, which is still less than Jacques’s norm of 100 a day. She says when her thumbs hurt her, she stops texting for a little, then keeps doing it. When we’re done with the interview, she and her mother, their matching LG phones in hand, stand shoulder to shoulder, neither looking at the other. They don’t realize it, but they stand in the exact same stance, as if mid-stride. They hunch their shoulders forward as they look down at their thumbs flying furiously across the tiny keyboards. The thumbs move as if they have a life separate from their humans, like double-time meth-head caterpillars on a manic aphid binge. They hit the send button almost simultaneously. I wonder to whom they’re sending the messages. I wonder how similar their messages are. I imagine: “we R thru w txt thingy. Meet us @ Hairspray.”
Morgan Pozgar, 14, from Claysburg, Pennsylvania, is last year’s champion. She says she texted a lot before the event to practice. She is captain of her cheerleading squad, plays softball and basketball. When competing at text contests, she feels as nervous as for a sports event, “but there’s nothing athletic about it.”
I ask if her speedy texting helps her do anything else well with her thumbs. “We’ve never given it any thought before,” says Mrs. Pozgar, who looks at me as if I’ve spilled something that might be sticky on her daughter’s hands. I ask Morgan if she ever texts so much her thumbs hurt. “My thumbs don’t hurt yet,” she says. “But sometimes they cramp, so I have to stretch them out.” With each question, they jut their heads forward, as if confirming that they’ve heard me correctly, as if to say, “What else is the kook going to ask me?” and “Why would we ever have spent time thinking about our thumbs?”
“Why, indeed,” I think, as I thank them, put away my notebook and pen, and wander onto Broadway. It’s still light outside, despite overhead thunder clouds, which have dampened the city and lent its hard, gray pavement a sweet, moist scent. I walk past theater after theater with their confetti-bright marquees. As it begins to drizzle again, I step up to a sidewalk cart with a saffron-colored umbrella. “Halal” is written on each of the umbrella’s panels, and the cart has photos of chicken and lamb dishes over rice and served with green salad. But it’s the smell of grilled meat and Middle Eastern spices that sells me. I buy a lamb plate and take it back to my hotel. I’m looking forward to street food in my room with a chick flick on the plasma screen. But first, I want to tell my husband all about the texting championship, how ridiculous it was. With one hand I lift my properly prepared dinner from its plastic bag. With the other, I flip out my cell phone and thumb-punch the speed-dial.
Nathan Schwartz, 20, won $50,000 at the second annual LG National Texting Championship. He wrestles at Cleveland State University in Ohio. Texting is like sports in that “I got a big trophy, and I was really nervous while I was competing.” What did he do to train for this? “I have a book, ‘Good to Great,’ and I’d text whatever I read. Plus, he texts a lot to his girlfriend, who sits next to him on the bleacher seat where we chat. He’s also a good thumb wrestler.
*CBGB & OMFUG stood for country, bluegrass, blues and other music for uplifting gourmandizers.