Do You Want Your Text Messages to Render as You Type Them?

A new app asks how much transparency you actually want in your digital communications.

If you keep track of all the things there should probably be German words for, here's one more to add to the list: the moment someone you're texting or chatting with starts texting or chatting something ... and then changes his mind. Ellipsis, ellipsis, ellipsis ... blank. So-and-so has entered text. Which isn't just frustrating—ahhhhh, what was he going to say?—but also just, basically, existentially wretched. Is a message really a message when it goes un-delivered? Can a communication be communication when it has not actually been communicated? If a tree falls in a forest, and there's no one there to hear it ... does it make a sound?

Seen from that perspective, there's something wonderful about Beam, a new texting app that promises, for the first time, real-time mobile message delivery: The messages transmit as you type them, character by character—typos and deletes and all. (If you've ever typed something in Google Docs, it's quite similar to that, on a mobile device.) "Beam is the closest you will get," the app's Google Play page promises, "to having a verbal conversation in a messaging app. Everything happens in real time—texting, reading, interrupting, and taking back the last thing you wrote."

There are appealing elements to this, the most obvious of which is that real-time texting eliminates the emotional and existential frustrations of the ellipses. (The technical term of this is the "typing awareness indicator," which is misleading because those three little periods, in the end, have very little to do with awareness, and very much to do with the opposite of it.) The arc of communications is long, but it bends toward transparency: The more advanced our systems for chatting become, the thinner the line between "talking" and "writing"—oral culture and written culture, collapsing into each other. As one reviewer said of Beam, "Hard to go back to waiting for texts to arrive after. I'm impatient."

But Beam, in its chirpy sales pitch, also asks a good question: Is radical transparency, beyond the theoretical, really a sell? Do I really want all of my messages—my thought-better-of jokes, my needlessly or purposely ambiguous emoji—displayed as soon as they travel from my brain to my fingers?

The answer, at least for the moment, is "no." Beam is, as BuzzFeed pointed out, "terrifyingly transparent." More than that, though, the app takes the mystery out of messaging. And it takes, to some extent, the intentionality out of it. There's a reason texting has become so much more popular than conducting voice calls: There's an appeal to non-transparency when it comes to our communications. Humans tend to be indecisive and deliberate in pretty much equal measure; messages that don't send until you actually send them suit this tendency. They give us the freedom to be noncommittal, until we no longer want to be. They let us think before we speak. Long live, I guess, the ellipsis.