But there's another side to the ubiquitous technology.
A 14-year-old South Carolina girl used a text message to rescue herself from an earthen dungeon.
And a 16-year-old used the cell phone she'd recently received as a birthday present to send a parting message to her family before a gunman in her Colorado school fatally shot her. "i love u guys," Emily Keyes wrote.
Instant messages, another fingertip medium, help countless parents keep in touch with their kids when they're away. But a disgraced former lawmaker used IMs to flirt with underage congressional pages.
Every day, millions of short messages fly through the ether cell-to-cell or between computers and cell phones. We use them to do our banking, to enter sweepstakes, answer polls, donate to charity. And as recent events have shown us, they can save lives — or do harm.
"To virtually every technology there's a good side and a bad side. And in a really short time span here, we've seen the good side and the bad side of text messaging," says Steven Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and author of the book "Cybersociety."
Americans sent nearly 65 billion SMS messages — 160-character "short message service" notes transmitted across mobile phone networks — in the first six months of 2006, nearly double the number sent during the same period last year, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, voice of the industry.
The first text message was sent Dec. 3, 1992, when British engineer Neil Papworth sent an early "MERRY CHRISTMAS" from his computer to a colleague's mobile phone. It wasn't Samuel Morse's telegraphed "What hath God wrought?" or even Alexander Graham Bell's sublimely mundane telephone request, "Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you." But Papworth's concise, two-word greeting was the harbinger of a communications revolution that has encircled the globe.
The recent text message stories "give you an indication of the power of those devices and how, when used appropriately or inappropriately, they reveal character and true, genuine relationships," says Michael J. Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.
"It's a power we have not earned and don't yet know how to use."
Text started as a message service, a way for companies to efficiently inform customers about things such as problems with the network. But with the proliferation of cell phones and PDAs, texting and IMing have evolved into an indispensable — some would say annoyingly inescapable — form of social interaction.
After talking, texting is the most important function people are looking for in their cell phones, says Miro Kazakoff, head of the handset research practice at Boston-based Compete, Inc. "More important than the camera. More important than Bluetooth."
A recent survey found that 80 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 own cell phones, and 65 percent of those text message on a regular basis. The practice has become so ubiquitous that the NCAA, which has restricted phone communications with sports recruits in the past, recently announced it is considering imposing text-message limits, too.
Abbreviated messages are nothing new. "TTFN," said Tigger in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, meaning "Ta-ta-for now." And many a lover has licked an envelope and scribbled SWAK — "Sealed With a Kiss."
But texters have turned cybershorthand into an art form — g2g ("got to go"), lol ("laughing out loud"), btw ("by the way"), 2g2bt (too good to be true"), bobfoc ("body off Baywatch, face off Crimewatch").
With or without abbreviations, text messages can communicate almost anything from the banal to the beautiful, puerile and even poetic.