It's only 15 years old, but it has toppled a president, caused countless breakups and written a new version of the Bible.
Since the first mobile text message was sent 15 years ago this week, it has fomented a cultural revolution in how people communicate.
Today's text messages, also know as SMS (short messaging service), are far more nuanced than the "Merry Christmas" sent by Briton Neil Papworth on Dec. 2, 1992, from a computer to a Vodafone handset. Today, they are used to buy concert tickets, request last-minute groceries and, at least in Malaysia, initiate a legal divorce.
"It's easy, cheap and fun - and it's not very intrusive, either," said Mark Choma, spokesperson for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunication Association on the popularity of text messaging. And at a cost of about 10 cents a message (or less with special plans), it's more affordable than phone calls for brief exchanges.
But while text messaging has been popular in Europe and Asia for almost 10 years, it took off in North America only in the last five.
When it first became available, users could send messages only to people in the same cellular network.
It was only after Canadian telephone companies agreed to allow cross-carrier and cross-border messaging in 2002 that texting really took off. In March 2002,
10 million messages were sent.
This past September, Canadians texted one another 947 million times, according to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunication Association.
That's 31.5 million messages a day. And that's only person-to-person messages. It doesn't include text alerts such as news updates and agenda reminders to cellphones. It also excludes texts to short codes, those five- or six-digit phone numbers used by contests and TV polls.
These are, nonetheless, low figures when compared with those in Europe. Texting there has taken on a life of its own because it is cheaper than making phone calls.
"Every call you make is charged; it's better to text than to speak if you're charged by the minute," said Amit Kaminer, a telecom analyst at the Seaboard Group. But North America is quickly catching up as more carriers offer unlimited text-messaging plans.
Sending a missive in 160 characters or less with a numerical keypad has obvious shortcomings.
Often, the same key must be pressed three times to pick one letter. This economy of effort has spawned a new variant of English, a kind of pidgin of numbers and letters called "leet" - from the word elite, which is how proficient computer hackers and gamers describe themselves. So something like, "Oh my God, I have great news for you," is expressed in leet as "omg i got gr8 news 4 u."
These frugal compositions may send parents and English teachers into seizures, but the form is being recognized more and more as a valid abbreviation of language.
In Australia, an SMS version of the Bible was written to bring the scriptures to young people. "In da Bginnin God cre8d da heavens & da earth," it begins.
Being quick and mobile - and difficult to intercept - SMS has been used for grassroots political movements. Protesters in the Philippines brought down President Joseph Estrada in 2001 by organizing flash demonstrations via SMS.
According to Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, young tech-savvy South Koreans organized a last-minute get-out-and-vote campaign on the day of the 2002 presidential elections. They reached 800,000 people, who, Rheingold said, helped underdog candidate Roh Moo-hyun win by a tiny margin.
However, SMS has been blamed for societal ills, too, notably a deterioration in face-to-face communication.
An Australian study found couples text each other more at the beginning of a relationship and during rough patches.
"People used text messages to show their negative feelings rather than talking face to face," researcher Natalie Robinson of Macquarie University told the Sydney Morning Herald. "This might be because text messages were less confrontational and more distant."
On the Internet, there's no shortage of advice columns and forums for romantics at the receiving end of a Dear John text message.
Whatever the societal impacts of texting, it is sure to be around for a long time.
"Seeing how much it's growing, we don't see it going away any time soon," Choma said.
But new technologies have begun to unseat the popularity of SMS. Chief among them is MMS, which permits images, video and rich-text formatting to be included in messages. However, these are more expensive to send and few handsets support the technology.
Once consumers demand better, cheaper alternatives to SMS, the shift to newer messaging technologies will be inevitable, Kaminer said. He believes mobile instant messaging, which, like its desktop version, allows users to see if the receiving party is online, will eventually replace SMS messaging.
And then delays in getting back to people will be as quaint as rotary telephones.