tech tuesday: MH370 & the SMS

The disappearance of a plane even as recently as ten years ago would have been a much different experience. It shows how far digital communication has come that Twitter, a primary information source, hadn’t even been invented in 2004 and Facebook was just launching in beta as TheFacebook. The smart phone revolution was led by BlackBerry which early in the year reached it’s 1 millionth user while Apple was focused on it’s third anniversary of iPod music player as its ‘flagship’ device. AIM’s desktop client made up more than 50% of the messaging market share while most carriers were still charging SMS by-the-text and the first rollouts of 3G in North America were still in their infancy.

Over the last days and weeks the fate of Malaysia Airlines’s MH370 was covered through the 24 hour news cycle fed by high speed internet, smart phones and social media, giving rise to speculation and theories, intimate family stories and up-to-the second images that would not have been impossible a mere decade ago.

And yet, for many watching the events of the last 24 hours unfold they are dumbfounded the airline would use technology to its advantage in communicating with the families of those on flight MH370. The quaint, traditionalist idyllic image of every family member receiving an in-person condolence visit from the airline and government is the only viable option they can imagine for delivering the news the flight was lost over the South Indian Ocean and all are considered dead.

Is the outrage at this information being delivered via SMS warranted?

Honestly, no. And here’s why:

First, and foremost, the families had agreed to receive the information via text. They were given the option and themselves embraced SMS as their preferred method of communication for timely news. It might be different if this was a randomly sent message sent without context or warning. It was not, everyone who received it, we’re told, opted into the program. It might be different if this were the only form of communication used to disseminate the information. It was not, as family members staying at the hotels were told in-person and others who were not also received phone calls.

That’s not to say Malaysia Airlines handled the situation over the last few weeks well. They were repeatedly accused of leaking information to the press before discussing the findings with families and routinely not the primary source of information in general about the goings on of the search. The reasons could be a whole separate article, but what is noteworthy about this is as a second point is by using technology like SMS with the families the airline was attempting to rectify a situation that had grown increasingly frustrating for them and the families by providing the information quicker and more targeted than it had been. Rather than families discovering a public tweet about the fate of their loved ones they received a private SMS, a huge step up from how many were receiving information.

Third, many of the most vocal critics were from the U.S. and erroneously assume that the North American standard for SMS ‘etiquette’ is the only viable option. It is not, and to apply one’s own standard to other cultures just perpetuates the perception that Americans are rude and ignorant. Usage varies widely throughout the world and although I cannot speak directly to the situation at hand, I can say that Malaysians have a much different relationship with their phones and with SMS than the North American critiques, who themselves are probably guilty of breaking their own cell phone ‘etiquette’ rules at the same time as they are spouting their holier-than-thou proclamations against Malaysia Airlines.

Forth, in general, few of the critics in general say why SMS is so horrible in the first place, while they use 140 character twitter speak to project their general disagreement with the decision. We’re meant to assume it is because of the perception that SMS impersonal. The perceived collective moral judgement against SMS stands in direct contrast to how it is actually used based on data. Even by North American standards SMS and related technologies are used in much more intimate and personal ways on a daily basis than this SMS the family were expecting to receive. Routinely people ask one another out, share pornographic pictures of themselves, break up, announce starting new jobs or becoming unemployed, becoming expectant or giving birth, broadcast their illnesses and yes, even announce deaths to those in their address book, only sometimes with the context of knowing the message was coming in advance. I’ve heard of jobs being offered and accepted over text, of people proposing and accepting over text and there’s even a whole website of people sharing the crazy shit they did last night by text. By these standards, there’s nothing socially incorrect about what Malaysia Airlines decided to do, no matter what we wish our moral compass to point to.

Finally, as this blog post began, it is 2014. Communications have changed drastically in just the last ten years and as the last paragraph alluded to are already being adapted in extraordinary ways to our lives. It is neive to hold communications to the standards of by-gone eras. The advent of cell phones changed how we utilize the telephone as a communication tool, it changed who we called, why we called them and what we would say drastically. The advent of email changed the way we wrote to one another, completely throwing into upheaval the traditional reasons for letter writing, how language was used in a letter and even who we send letters to. Social media sites changed who we consider friends and acquaintances, what we share with each and when we share it. We take all of these for granted and yet are all too willing to hold SMS in this case to a completely different standard by romanticizing some concept of how it was ‘always’ done in the past. SMS is only inappropriate because a handful of people are choosing to interpret it a that right now, not because there’s actual evidence that it is in 2014.

Personally, I have never been in any kind of situation close to what the families or the airline personnel involved in the tragedy are going through. I’m willing to be the vast majority of commenters have not either. What any of us then individually feel is the best way to handle the situation is somewhat irrelevant. The truth of the matter is what was done because that’s what worked best for all the parties involved. Closest I can say I came was 9/11 and wanting to know the status of my friends in that tragedy and there’s a part of me that might have been ok with the instantaneous response of an SMS to have an answer. I don’t know, though, it’s not something I hope I ever have to find out.


About thedoormouse

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