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Born Networked Records: A History of the Short Message Service Format


This dissertation is a history of the development of the Short Message Service (SMS) format, also known as the text message. The SMS teleservice that was developed by the Global System for Mobile Communication in the mid-1980s for second-generation mobile networks is made up of standards, protocols and infrastructure that make text messaging the most popular data service on mobile networks. The teleservice has since been used in all subsequent generations of digital cellular mobile telephony. The dissertation shows how SMS standards and infrastructure represent a significant innovation to mobile telephony and how they have figured in the history of wireless data transmission in the late twentieth century.

The standardization of SMS and telecommunication protocols that make the transmission of text messages possible influences the future uses of these digital traces, including their evidential capacity, future access, and curation. As a new mobile communication format, text messages have cultural, political, and economic consequences that span the world. Billions of text messages are sent and received every day: they are used in personal communication, crisis management, elections, mobile banking, business communications, and increasingly through applications that serve as gateways to the Internet. Despite the ubiquity of this mobile communication format, text messages are deleted, lost or overwritten at staggering rates by users and mobile operating systems. Mobile traces such as text messages currently fall outside of institutional digital archives as well as personal digital collections. This dissertation demonstrates how the infrastructure of mobile communication, including transmission protocol and the stabilization of the format, is integral to the curation, future access, and preservation of mobile communication at the personal and institutional levels of collecting.

The dissertation examines the development of SMS by contextualizing the research need for the study of mobile information objects in information science by presenting the importance of layers of infrastructure to the creation and circulation of born-digital records transmitted across wireless networks. It applies a research framework for studying new information communication technologies and emerging electronic records contexts. The framework has three elements: (1) Layers of Infrastructure and Context, (2) Examining Networked Recordkeeping, and (3) Engaging with Information Retrieval. Using techniques from infrastructure studies and media archaeology, it illustrates how the text message as a digital format has been enacted by the mobile operating system on mobile phones. In turn, it shows how the text message format structures mobile communication over time in different contexts of creation and collection. It also highlights how the format is enacted in a mobile operating system: how text messages are stored on device hardware such as flash memory, and in various end-uses such as deletion and in surveillance. The digital materiality of text messages in transmission, storage, and receipt is shown to have social and political consequences for the future of fonds or collections of personal digital records that people create with their mobile phones.

The dissertation also illustrates how the generation, circulation, and collection of mobile telephony metadata represents a new form of collecting for institutions, under the law, and for the theory and practice of archival science. It argues that new contexts of metadata creation and collection have led to a mobile forensic imaginary based on the infrastructure and transmission of born-networked records created with mobile ICTs. The dissertation finds that a more productive way of confronting emerging mobile information objects and their digital preservation over time is to critically engage with their development as formatted digital objects and presents a theory of text messages as born networked records.

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