They are used for everything from homework to dating. Find out how SmS messages are changing the old rules in Germany

At first glance

, the scene at the Bremen disco looks familiar. Like the other girls, Maraike, 19, has put on lipstick and makeup. The guys are wearing their favorite hip outfits. The tinted lights are blazing in different directions, and a DJ is behind the mixing table, playing requests. It could be anywhere. A regular high school mixer. Flirting, dancing, maybe a little conversation, right?

Not quite. Take a closer look and you?ll notice that, although the room is full of people, no one is talking. And few are dancing. Instead, under the club?s darkened haze, all are punching wildly at the buttons of their cell phones?without making any calls. What?s going on? In German, it can all be explained by a single word: SMS. Or »sims« as they call it. The absolute Latest Thing in Germany, SMS, or Short Message Service, is a way to send short texts?flirts, blurts, alerts?to your friends. With your cell phone. Without any speaking involved.

Part of the GSM cell-phone network used in Europe (most American phones are on a different network), SMS was first introduced in the mid-1990s. But it is only in the last two years that it has really caught on?and more than anywhere, in Germany.

From dating to homework help to gossip sharing, SMSing, or »simsing,« has become an obsession for young Germans. Every month, they send more than 2 billion of these messages?more than any other country in the world. And since, by high school, almost every student has a »handy« (German for cell phone), SMS has replaced almost all other forms of youth communication, from the traditional hand-written note to e-mail. More than a million Germans spend more on SMS than on actual phone calls.

Why go to the trouble? Take the party at the Bremen disco, the most recent way the technology has taken over high school life. According to the old rules, asking-out situations go something like this: Girl meets Boy or Boy meets Girl. They exchange numbers. One of them phones the other and has to come up with an original way to ask the other out. For most people, this is awkward, not to say embarassing. My voice! What if it sounds nervous? What if his/her parents answer the phone? Total disaster. For Maraike and her friends, however, the old rules are out. Forget talking. Forget the nervous voice. It all happens in a smooth SMS, sent through a cell.

Thats why, at the disco, Maraike has forked over 1 DM (50 cents) to rent a Flirt-Handy, a special SMS phone designed for these parties, and put on a heart-shaped sticker with a three-digit number on it. The sticker says it all: Sims me. I want to meet you. The number is the last three digits of Maraike?s party phone; the rest of the digits are the same on all party phones.

And so it goes, everyone at the party knows the game very well: Take a quick glance at each other?s faces, and a somewhat longer look at the stickers?long enough to read the numbers. Then, go to a remote corner of the disco, take out the flirt-phone, and start »writing.« Using the old-fashioned telephone number-letter system, where 2 = abc, 3 = def, and so on, simsers can get the whole alphabet out of their nine phone buttons, not to mention enough punctuation marks to make sentences leap off the tiny phone screens. Then: Beep Beep. The receiver?s phone sounds?but not a full ring?when the message arrives.

Sure, there are some big limitations. For one thing, simsing requires a lot of work, pressing each button up to 8 or 10 times to get to the desired letter or symbol. It probably wasn?t all that harder for ancient Egyptian scribes to carve hieroglyphs into stone. And the technology limits each message to a maximum of about 25 words?at most, a couple of short sentences, not a long love letter.

But, as many SMS addicts tell you, half the time you don?t have anything to say anyway. With an SMS, as with e-mail, you can make the gesture of saying hello without having to talk. And the receiver can answer back whenever he or she feels like. Or not at all: SMS doesn?t come with any strings (or phone cords) attached.

For Maraike and her friends, there?s also another thing to consider: being able to forget grammar and spelling. Because there?s so little space and it takes so long to get a word out of the phone buttons, simsers make up abbreviations and symbols to replace the old rules of written German. Vowels disappear. Words are taken from e-mail chatrooms and spiced with emoticons?symbols that turn dashes and parantheses into friendly or sad faces. It?s all so much easier than writing a letter to your grandmother.

Maybe that?s the problem. With SMS, you can write things that you might never actually say. »I often get strange messages,« says Maraike. »Most of them, I don?t even bother to answer.«

Despite all its magic, SMS won?t solve everything. And when things do work out, sooner or later, even the most fanatic text-flirter will want to speak with the other party. After all, no one has ever gotten the first kiss over a cell phone. Some of the old rules aren?t going to change. But for Germany?s simsers, that is part of the game. Maraike knows that if it doesn?t happen this time, there will always be another party with another flirt-phone and another flirt number. And maybe then, she?ll meet someone who pushes all the right buttons.

Oliver Link and Jens Neumann

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