Getting Creative with Cell Phone Text Messages xxx

Getting Creative with Cell Phone Text Messages

Finland has long been noted for its love affair with text messaging on mobile phones. The first commercial text message was sent in Finland in 1993. Now Finns can buy tram tickets, pay for parking, and even get a loan by sending a message from their cell phones.

Emily Harris spoke with two Finnish artists who say that cell phone messaging has affected society and creative expression.

Hannu Luntiala wrote, Last Messages, the world's first "sms novel," and was astonished by the attention it generated around the world. The entire book consists of text messages sent between the main character and his friends and family.

Mika Lumi Tuomola is the artistic director of the Crucible Lab at the University of Art and Design Helsinki. He was director and co-author of Accidental Lovers, a half-hour TV show that unfolds along different plot lines in response to viewers' sms messages.

Hannu Luntiala

Why, in your opinion, was there so much interest in your book, Last Messages?

I don't know. It was a surprise for me. My son sent me a text message a few days after the book was published. And he told me, 'Hey, Dad, just try to guess when you put in the Internet your name and the words "Last Messages" how many hits there are going to be.' And I guessed some hundreds. There were 66,000 hits. It was amazing.

I know it builds on a tradition of telling a story through correspondence. Do you think it's also a bit gimmicky?

Yeah, I think so. It's a new experience to read that kind of book. And I think that literature globally is quite conservative. You write books the same way all over the world and you have done it for decades. And if somebody does something new, people are interested in that.

What made you write a novel in this format?

The length of one text message is not enough to tell why I did it. There are two reasons. One reason was that something happened to me about 25 years ago. I was traveling in Sri Lanka and I was sitting in a bus, and the bus was standing in front of railway station. And I noticed a young man. He was a blind man. He was walking around in front of the railway station, and he was begging money. He had a tin in his hand, and he was shaking it. There was one coin in the can. And he tried to get money. And then a tourist came. I think he was American tourist. He came and he put one banknote in the can, and after that the young blind man went into the railway station and came back. And he had a newspaper in his hands. He opened the newspapers, and when he sat down it was full of boiled rice. And he ate it. And that event changed my life. I realized that it's very easy for us who come from civilized Western countries to live everyday life. But that young man, he would have died if he had not received the money otherwise. I decided at that time, I will tell this story to as many people as possible.

And five years ago, I realized how to put this story in my novel. The novel tells about man who leaves his job, he travels around Europe. And it's very typical for Finnish people when we travel around, we won't make phone calls, we send text messages. In the first pages of my novel there were some text message scenes, which the main character sends to his friends. And he gets some text messages back. Then I thought, why not write the whole book using text messages.

I suppose there are a lot of reasons why not. What made you think it would be an especially good way to tell the story?

Well, it's a not very easy way, it's a quite demanding way, because you have to explain everything very short. And it limits, of course, how to describe some events. But at the same time I think it's a new way to write. And it's a new way to read a book. It's some kind of sudoku, a word sudoku or literary sudoku to read this kind of book.

Would you compare it to poetry?

Actually a famous Finnish poet sent me - of course, a text message – and he told me (the sms messages in the book) are like poems and, in a way, like windows. You can see when you look out of the window part of the landscape but not the whole entity, not the horizon. And you don't know what's happening around the frames of the windows. And you have to imagine what's happening there. He said they are some kind of poetry in his mind.

I have written poems, as a matter of fact I am a multiple prize winner in poems and short stories. And I want to use beautiful language. And I have tried to use in these text messages also beautiful language. But it's not very easy because you have to use only these 160 characters.

A lot has been made of Finland using text messaging in so many different ways. Do you think that form of communication has affected society in any particular ways?

I think that society has changed a lot during the last 20 years. But I think that the change when we talk about text messages is not so huge when we compare it with the personal computer and Internet. It's quite difficult for Finnish people and Finnish males especially if we have some difficult affairs to be explained, it's easier to send a text message than to make a phone call. We are, in a way, cowards. But you cannot take care of all your affairs by sending text messages. It's very important to meet people face to face.

Mika Lumi Tuomola

Tuomola directed a television show called Accidental Lovers. The plot is a romance between 60-something cabaret singer, Juulia, and a 30-something pop star, Roope. Nearly 100 different video clips are shot and 10 times that many voice-overs are recorded. As the show airs, viewers send in messages that affect the outcome. The show was an experiment that aired several times in Finland, including six half-hour programs in a row, which all turned out differently.

How does it work?

The system recognizes key words. So the character voice-over, the thinking, matches the key words. Here a message says, 'Be tender toward human beings because they need tenderness.' There are about 1,000 voice-overs in our database. So it says, 'OK, Juulia is in the scene, so some line for Juulia.' This is a warm thought, the moderator has decided this is a nice thing. Then the system looks if there is anything where Juulia talks about tenderness. So she says in the voice-over, if one falls in love, one has to fall in love full-hearted, be tender towards another one's heart. So there is an illusion by association for the viewer that the character's thought is actually inspired by the text message, you see.

It unites this kind of Groundhog Day cyclical structure or the German film Run Lola Run, which repeats the story, but at the same time it uses associative dramaturgy. So the image, voice-over and text message always edit differently. All together, there are nine various plot lines. Juulia can fall in love one-sidedly, they can fall in love mutually, or Roope can fall in love one-sidedly. Then Juulia kills Roope, Roope kills Juulia, or they actually die together in the year 2046 when they are 170 years old and then the 30-years age difference isn't that big any longer.

So when you had the six shows in a row, how many of the same video scenes did viewers see, and how many of the same spoken lines did they hear?

In four rounds, you don't get any repetition. The system has about 89 video clips, which are about a half a minute, two minutes. And the system optimizes the 28-minute show so it unites these clips in different order. There is of course a lot of kind of metadata, which says in the first act you have to introduce Juulia, show something that shows what Juulia is doing, then you have to introduce Roope, and there must be at least one flirt scene between them. Then it optimizes its choices. The system knows if you show Juulia as a photographer, you will prefer such scenes in the future that show her photography develops, or if Roope is introduced with one young lady in first act, we prefer to make her the competition in the second act.

I think that in the interactive drama and interactive storytelling there's always these basic elements which have been in all storytelling since the beginning of ages. There is this aspect of destiny. We don't really care about characters unless they are destined to something, you know. This is the situation they have to deal with, they couldn't help it. But there is an element of choice. How does an individual choice influence how I deal with my destiny, what I'm destined to do? And then there is the element of randomness — that some things are moveable. The storyteller suddenly changes his mind. Their destiny is to fall in love, to be in a relationship. But then there is this random element, by the algorithmic machine, you know, how does the relationship this time go.

What did you think of the results?

I was really surprised, I must say, how much people cared — that they do want to get their voice heard in this situation. Out of the over 3,000 text messages we got during the broadcast, we could of course broadcast only a couple hundred of them. But people who didn't get to the broadcast, they would get an automated SMS [text message] response from one of the main characters. They would say that, 'Sorry you didn't make it to the show, but your message warmed my heart, and I hope Roope's heart will warm up, too.'

What were you trying to study?

This series is also a doctoral dissertation work of my fellow script writer, Leena Saarinen. We wrote it together. She is doing her doctoral thesis on computational narrative. Leena has been developing now for some 10 years... these artificial characters for online communities which respond to keywords and create an illusion of dialogue.

Since the end of the '90s, I've been studying editing rules for non-linear narrative. How do you make a scene that actually edits well in almost any possible order? Of course, not all these scenes are like — of course everything can't cut with everything. But how can you maximize that?

Do you think this developed differently in Finland than elsewhere?

Absolutely. The whole production was done as a part of the New Millennium New Media, an EU commission project. It had seven experimental productions, among which was Accidental Lovers. The whole idea of the NM2 project was to develop software for nonlinear interactive audio-visual productions. They wanted to take artists and designers to actually specify the software needs. We were the only production that worked with analog TV and SMS. All the other productions are done on broadband Internet, you know. And the reason was because of the Finnish cultural background.

Was this a new experience for Finns?

Absolutely it was a new type of performance on this level. It's very typical now in Finland on interview shows of politicians or celebrities, you have this text message service constantly. And almost all the interview shows in Finland nowadays you have this little box, and people can send their comments in while the interview is going on. So that kind of interaction people already were accustomed to. What we attempted in Accidental Lovers was really that you would get actual narrative. And also we wanted to have this individual response... We wanted to make this so everybody gets individual feedback. Whether it's an SMS response from the character or voice-over on the screen, in response to a text message. And that then there is one community response, which is the cumulation of the messages.

Why was that important to you, to have this response?

Because I don't believe that an interactive experience is satisfactory unless I can feel that the piece actually responds to my action. So it's kind of action and counteraction. Kind of basic interactive rule thing. I think if your message just goes to the information space, and you get nothing personal, you are just told, well, thank you for your message, let's see how the voting goes, it doesn't feel as satisfactory as if the system actually tells you, thank you for your message, this is how we actually respond to it.

Has the abundance of text messaging changed Finnish society at all?

Sometimes I say it is a bit shameful that after 2 million years of development we learned to communicate only with our thumbs again. It's very funny, but I find it also very natural, and most Finnish people do. One of my favorite things in SMS culture that I do constantly, and my colleagues and friends do – you know – you're traveling somewhere, you see something beautiful, there's just a beautiful ocean thing and you get a little poetic moment. So you take that picture, and then you write something like, 'Ah, serenity in my heart. What a beautiful sight.' Then you put it to 20 colleagues or something — just to share that moment, cherish that image. And I really love to get those things, you know. I feel they're like postcards. And of course when you think of the usual postcard culture earlier, you can't possibly send it to 50 people. It takes just too much time. So I do think personally that it actually has made people closer to each other.