I got my first mobile phone when I was in high school. It was 2005, and the feeling of “cool” overwhelmed me. Text messaging was something sacred in those days. I was allotted 200 messages per month. I powered off during classes, and charged my phone three times a week.
Today, I use my smartphone so much that I can’t imagine leaving the house without my charger. But it wasn’t until I conducted an experiment to learn calligraphy that I realized how deeply technology affects my life and my relationships.
I decided to blend a newfound interest in calligraphy with my lifelong passion for written correspondence to create a new kind of text messaging. The idea: I wanted to message friends using calligraphic texts for one week. The average 18-to-24-year-old sends and gets something like 4,000 messages a month, which includes sending more than 500 texts a week, according to Experian. The week of my experiment, I only sent 100. (I was 24 at the time.)
Before I started, I established rules for myself: I could create only handwritten text messages for seven days, absolutely no using my phone’s keyboard. I had to write out my messages on paper, photograph them, then hit “send.” I didn’t reveal my plan to my friends unless asked, and I received a variety of responses.
Some thought my project was interesting enough to tweet about:
Some responded—with a degree of anachronism that feels strangely appropriate—by including hashtags in their replies:
Some even replicated "ye" Olde English vibes I was putting out there:
Sometimes I didn't have my pen or paper handy:
My friends asked some good questions:
Some of them even texted back in their own handwriting:
That week, the sense of urgency I normally felt about my phone virtually vanished. It was like back when texts were rationed, and when I lacked anxiety about viewing "read" receipts. I didn’t feel naked without having my phone on me every moment.
So while the experiment began as an exercise to learn calligraphy, it doubled as a useful sort of digital detox that revealed my relationship with technology. Here's what I learned:
Receiving handwritten messages made people feel special. The awesome feeling of receiving personalized mail really can be replicated with a handwritten text.
Handwriting allows for more self-expression. I found I could give words a certain flourish to mimic the intonation of spoken language. Expressing myself via handwriting could also give the illusion of real-time presence. One friend told me, “it’s like you’re here with us!”
We are a youth culture that heavily relies on emojis. I didn’t realize how much I depend on emojis and emoticons to express myself until I didn’t have them. Handdrawn emoticons, though original, just aren’t the same. I wasn't able to convey emoticons as neatly as the cleanliness of a typeface. Sketching emojis is too time consuming. To bridge the gap between time and the need for graphic imagery, I sent out selfies on special occasions when my facial expression spoke louder than words.
Sometimes you don't need to respond. Most conversations aren’t life or death situations, so it was refreshing to feel 100 percent present in all interactions. I didn’t interrupt conversations by checking social media or shooting text messages to friends. I was more in tune with my surroundings. On transit, I took part in people watching—which, yes, meant mostly watching people staring at their phones. I smiled more at passersby while walking since I didn’t feel the need to avoid human interaction by staring at my phone.
A phone isn't only a texting device. As I texted less, I used my phone less frequently—mostly because I didn’t feel the need to look at it to keep me busy, nor did I want to feel guilty for utilizing the keyboard through other applications. I still took photos, streamed music, and logged workouts since I felt okay with pressing buttons for selection purposes, but I tried to avoid social media to resist publishing via keyboard.
People don’t expect to receive phone calls anymore. Texting brings about a less intimidating, more convenient experience. But it wasn't that long ago when real-time voice were the norm. It's clear to me that, these days, people prefer to be warned about an upcoming phone call before it comes in.
Having a pen and paper is handy at all times. Writing out responses is a great reminder to slow down and use your hands. While all keys on a keyboard feel the same, it’s difficult to replicate the tactile activity of tracing a letter’s shape. For me, the connection between the hand and mind allows written language to flow easier.
My sent messages were more thoughtful. While I’ve been guilty of sending text message thoughts from my stream of consciousness in the past, the added time calligraphic texting allowed me to gather complete thoughts and send clear, concise messages.
I was more careful with grammar and spelling. People often ignore the rules of grammar and spelling just to maintain the pace of texting conversation. But because a typical calligraphic text took minutes to craft, I had time to make sure I got things right. The usual texting acronyms and misspellings look absurd when texted with type, but they'd be especially ridiculous written by hand.
After my experiment ended, I returned to keyboard texting like normal. But I haven’t eliminated calligraphic texting altogether. I send calligraphic messages to friends for special occasions—to extend a bit of myself when I cannot be there in person.