The Drunk-Text Decade

Americans with cellphones went into a recession and came out the other side with a new communication style.

An iMessage screen replacing the label on a beer bottle
RG-vc / Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

The first spike in Google searches for the term drunk text came in May 2009, three months after the launch of a website called Texts From Last Night.

Lauren Leto and Ben Bator were recent college graduates living in Detroit and thinking about law school. The city’s mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was at the center of one of politics’ first big sexting scandals (unrelated to the corruption charges that later put him in prison), and the pair were inspired. They made a Blogspot site and started posting screenshots of the weirdest texts they got from their friends, anonymized but tagged with one clue: an area code.

“Three months after it launched was finals week everywhere,” Bator says. “I think people were condensed in libraries at different colleges around the country. It was also Cinco de Mayo week. People started reposting the texts with a link to the website, and it blew up. By that point, everybody had something up there from their area code. That made it relatable. You felt like you knew the people who submitted, or you wished you did, or you were glad you didn’t.” At its peak, Texts From Last Night regularly had up to 20 million unique viewers a month, Bator says. But most of the company’s revenue came from selling a 99-cent app—mobile websites were so bad in 2010 that people actually paid for it. It was a million-dollar idea at a time when the country was flailing.

The drunk text is familiar now. It needs no more explanation than a butt-dial or an autocorrect typo or cellphones in general. (Drake’s entire career arguably hinges on his audience’s shared understanding of the universality and import of drunk dialing and drunk texting as social behaviors.) But there was a time when we needed examples, thousands of them, to understand what a drunk text was and what purpose it served.

The texts posted on Texts From Last Night did not specifically have to be drunk texts, but they almost always were. The homepage was a constantly refreshing stream of misspellings and bad decisions and crude serendipity, happening in tandem, staggered across time zones: In Los Angeles, someone is carving a shot glass out of a “potatoe”; in Atlanta, someone is getting kicked out of a bar for trying to make spaghetti in the kitchen; in Seattle, someone is chasing tequila shots with bites of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream while their friend does the same with spoonfuls of plain cream cheese.

Many of the submissions were abhorrent, even by 2009 standards—transphobia, racism, misogyny, date-rape jokes, flip comments about “hookers,” you name it. “Our thought on the site is that it’s a reflection,” Bator says now. Now, these kinds of jokes appear less frequently, because they get told less frequently.

The site was bleak in other ways, studded with the nouns of life as a 20-something in 2009—Taco Bell, Denny’s, recession, Twilight. The young and tipsy and economically hopeless wrote about blacking out and getting sick. They woke up next to lawn flamingos or fish sticks, or at the mall with a bottle of orange juice. With the words fun police written on their boobs. With their hands in their cousin’s pants. One popular 2009 post: “Let’s make love on the newspapers that declare financial doomsday” (submitted from Scranton, Pennsylvania).

As gross as much of the content was, Bator says, there was something comforting about the naïveté. Everyone was submitting their mistakes in fun, confident that they wouldn’t follow them around. And the texts were always pulled from conversations, even if they were presented in isolation.

“I like to imagine the text coming back to most of these was, ‘Are you okay?’” Bator says. “Someone else was out there and cared that you were maybe in a state where you might need some assistance. There was someone who had to help, or had to laugh, cry, cringe along with you.”

Drunk text was first defined on Urban Dictionary in 2006, a year after The New York Times published an op-ed titled “The New Social Etiquette: Friends Don’t Let Friends Dial Drunk.” (“It is in those dark hours of late night and wee hours of early morn, when most people have retired their cellphones for overnight charging, that intoxicated revelers flip open their cellphones and dial into regret,” the reporter Carol E. Lee explained.)

The first iPhone arrived in 2007. The device changed hundreds of thousands of things about the way we live, but most crucially made it possible to text nonstop—a revelation, after years of bickering about the cost of going over a text limit. (In high school, my parents paid for me to have 200 texts a month. I had to ration them: 10 per friend and 100 for my crush.) By 2009, the average texter was sending 534 messages a month, and by 2010, 72 percent of cellphone users were texting.

The second search spike for drunk text was in February 2012, when the music video for an unreleased Paris Hilton song titled “Drunk Text” was leaked and widely discussed, due to its lyrics, which included such helpful elucidations as “To take the word sex, and mix it with texting / It’s called sexting” and “It’s a hot mess of misspelled obscenities / Body parts, questions.”

In December 2012, BuzzFeed ran a guide on how to avoid drunk texting on New Year’s Eve. (“METHOD 3: Write down all your contacts and their numbers. Then delete them.”) Over the next several years, every lifestyle website—from Cosmopolitan to Bustle to Total Frat Move—published a guide on how to prevent or “recover from” a drunk text.

Some offered translations for drunk texts, presented as authoritatively as a Rosetta Stone infomercial. According to Cosmo, “I lvgve you” with a kissy-face emoji translates to “I DON’T LOVE YOU YET BUT I DO THINK YOU’RE NICE AND OCCASIONALLY YOU CAN BE QUITE FUNNY. YOU’RE A BIT ON THE SHORT SIDE BUT AFTER THE WAY I’VE BEEN TREATED BY MY LAST THREE BOYFRIENDS I’M DETERMINED NOT TO BE SO SHALLOW. I DON’T KNOW WHY I’VE SENT YOU THIS BLATANT LIE OF A TEXT.” That perfect three-act drama was presumably published in response to the search demand for Do drunk texts mean anything?, which is Google’s first suggestion after you go looking for information about drunk texting.

Like all texting, drunk texting is a form of non-intimate intimacy. Like all drunk communication, it’s susceptible to poor translation, missed meanings, embarrassment, and horniness. But it’s much easier to execute than a drunk phone call or a drunk voicemail; it leaves a permanent record; and to the receiver, it’s not always immediately clear that a drunk text is a drunk text, because there’s no physical context. To the sender, it’s not always obvious what’s been sent. It didn’t exist until our phones started sitting in our pockets or under our pillows 24 hours a day. It’s hard to remember a time before it.

The drunk text has a reputation for seediness, and a strong affiliation with unwanted contact. But it has also been stilted and sweet. In 2014, the Philadelphia indie band Cyberbully Mom Club released the low-fi bedtime song “Drunk Text Romance” on Bandcamp. “I wanna be the one you drunk text first when you’re out of beer at 3 a.m. at some shitty house party,” the singer Shari Heck mumbles, sounding as if she’s sharing this feeling with a pillow in her mouth. “I wanna be your drunk-text romance,” she elaborates, even more muffled.

“One type of drunk dial was quite prevalent in our data—the flippant expression of love,” a pair of researchers from Ohio wrote in 2011. (Swoonier than your average academic writing!) In a 2015 study on drunk texting, dialing, and social-media posting, University of Florida psychologists interviewed 112 college students, 89 percent of whom had sent a drunk text message. Of respondents, 43.6 percent said they had felt “regret” about the text later, and 51.7 percent said they had ever felt that way about a text, phone call, or Facebook post sent or made while drunk.

The discussion section of the paper argues that drunk texting is “understudied,” and also suggests that college students be deterred from drinking by “eliciting personal memories of previous regrettable social behaviors”—reminding them of their horrifying drunk texts, in other words.

Around the middle of the decade, the App Store was filling up with software solutions to the problem of drunk texting. There was Drunk Text Savior, a text analyzer that warned users “You may be drunk!” if they attempted to send a note riddled with typos or come-ons, and On Second Thought, a replacement messaging system that let users take back a text within the first 60 seconds of sending it. There was Drunk Mode and TUI Stopper, apps that let users lock sensitive contacts whenever they knew they’d be out drinking. But Drunk Dial NO!, the $1.99 version of the idea, arguably works best of all—reviews say that the app is so buggy, it will continue to block a contact even after the desired time frame ends, no matter what you do, even if you factory-reset your phone.

In 2016, the New York–based artist Hanny Ahern came to the aid of lovelorn texters—drunk or sober—who were finding themselves sending messages they later regretted. Her project, When I Think About You I Text Myself, was inspired by her own self-disciplining habit of sending risky texts to her own phone number, instead of to their imagined recipient. Anybody could send texts to a “hotline for surrogate texting,” instead of “reaching out to an unrequited love, angrily venting at a co-worker, or any other hot-headed emotional release, or poetic reverie.” The texts were supposed to be sent back to the senders at intervals of three, six, nine, and 12 months, but Ahern had a falling out with the project’s developer and the messages have stayed in limbo for the past three years. Thousands of people from 17 countries sent their texts into the time capsule, and they never came back.

“It’s not a cute viral project about anonymity or a secrets board or anything,” Ahern explained in a phone call. “The point was just to express ourselves and then let it sit there. Instead of the rush to make it productive or make it known, can we sit with it? Without instant feedback, without instant validation, without being drunk? Can we make art instead?”

She didn’t set out to make When I Think About You I Text Myself into a black hole for typed-out feelings, but now that it most likely is one, it feels appropriate. “If you’re drunk or emotionally triggered, you can press that button, you can send that message, but it’s still in a void,” she said. “You don’t know if that person’s going to write you back; the unknown is still there. In [my project], it’s kind of the opposite. It’s just you.”

Once one of the most successful contribution-based destination sites on the web, with adaptation rights picked up by Adam Sandler’s production company, Texts From Last Night now has about 150,000 visitors a month (less than 1 percent of what it had at its peak). The posts on the homepage are worse than ever. The promised television show never came to fruition. The merch store redirects to an empty domain. The site’s crown-jewel advertiser in 2010—American Apparel—no longer exists, sunk in part by a texting scandal.

Texts From Last Night is in the process of being archived by the Library of Congress, according to Bator, who says that the property is still popular on Instagram (kind of), and that drunk-text submissions keep coming in: “A lot of people have had a horrific experience or a very funny experience with the medium.”

Yet, going into a new decade, the drunk text is starting to look like a relic from a goofier and less savvy technological epoch. Texts are no longer special—unlimited-data plans make the idea of rationing messages feel absurd. Today, Americans send about 2 trillion texts a year.

This isn’t anyone of drinking age’s first year with a phone. Like so many of the novelties of the hyper-connected age, drunk texts, once mysterious, are now transparent. Roundups of the “worst drunk texts ever,” on sites such as BroBible and Daily Mail, are obviously fake, and more embarrassing because of it. The worst website I have ever seen, Drunk Post Translator, gives sober people the option of typing in a message, selecting a language—“Tipsy,” “Drunk,” “Very Drunk,” or “Smashed”—and watching a perfectly garbled, believable drunk text pop out.

The drunk text feels over, the chosen medium of corny guys who imagine life to be a Will Ferrell movie or a Nelly video or a frat house. If you Google drunk texts and tab over to the image results, you’ll see a parade of screenshots from early iPhones, typically running iOS 4 or 5 . The joke format is unimaginative, as pointless as an image macro on a Facebook News Feed—easy and rude and “haha!” It’s falsely self-deprecating, like Instagram, but in all the wrong ways, taking its humor from things that are genuinely disgusting or feelings that are actually too convoluted for the format. It’s proudly stupid.

Submitting a drunk text for praise or circulation is juvenile, yet doing so anonymously doesn’t even make sense in the current economy of the internet, which values personality and face and the promise of following an unchallenging narrative, created for a consumption style that is hospitable to ads. A drunk text is an uncareful outburst—it’s nothing like a post. In the r/DrunkText subreddit, created in 2012, a thread titled “I need help deciphering a drunk text” has languished for more than a year with zero responses. The text was, “They have stop people but none of them like you,” and I assume it means exactly what the poster wanted it to mean. Something romantic. Or sexy? None of my business! I reached out to them in Reddit’s direct-messaging feature and, unfortunately, they did not respond, probably because, as their profile shows, they never posted anything on Reddit ever again after that incident.

When I have something to say that I know will be risky, I premeditate it as a drunk text, sometimes going so far as to draft it in my Notes app, then wait for the third glass of wine to hit. If that doesn’t do it, I’ll try to get myself all worked up with a Lorde song or put my body on an above-river train. Because I always want to drunk text, I usually do. But I doubt I’m fooling anybody anymore.

Oddly, the anonymous sex columnist for my college newspaper wrote the only sincere defense of drunk texting that I can find on the internet. “If going after what you actually want is like riding a bike, then drunk texts are the training wheels,” they wrote, and I agree. “There will be a time in your life when you are no longer able to respectably drunk text,” they cautioned, and I wish they were wrong.