Go­ing some­where? Quaint mes­sages like ‘brb’ fade in a smart­phone world.

The Washington Post Sunday - - THIS WEEK - CAITLIN DEWEY caitlin.dewey@wash­post.com

The ini­tials “BRB” may re­fer to many things: the Bri­tish Rail­ways Board, the Banco de Brasilia, the Be­laru­san cur­rency. But one thing it in­creas­ingly does not in­di­cate is the prac­tice of leav­ing one’s com­puter and later com­ing “right back.” This is 2015! We keep our com­put­ers in our pock­ets.

Ac­cord­ing to Google Trends — the only re­li­able oracle for this sort of thing — U.S. searches of the phrase “brb” have fallen pretty steadily from their high in 2010. (There was a spike, in May 2011, but that likely re­lated to the ex­ploits of some bas­ket­ball-play­ing Brazil­ians.) Mean­while, global smart­phone sales have more than quadru­pled dur­ing that time, ac­cord­ing to the IT re­search firm Gart­ner — from merely 81 mil­lion phones sold in the third quar­ter of 2010 to a whop­ping 330 mil­lion sold last quar­ter.

I’m not say­ing the smart­phone killed “brb,” per se . . . but it def­i­nitely made that kind of chat short­hand passe.

This is not an orig­i­nal ob­ser­va­tion, mind you: The ru­mored death of brb has re­cently be­come its own sort of meme. Since Jan­uary, it’s ap­peared twice on the front page of Red­dit and zil­lions of times on Whis­per and Twit­ter: asyn­chro­nous so­cial plat­forms that never needed that kind of sign­post to ex­plain a bath­room break or other brief ab­sence from the com­puter.

Where brb has been help­ful, his­tor­i­cally, is on semi-syn­chro­nous chat plat­forms: places like AIM or Gchat or Face­book Mes­sen­ger, where your thoughts are posted al­most as soon as you have them. The In­ter­net en­cy­clo­pe­dia Know Your Meme traces the ear­li­est recorded use of “brb” back to a chat ses­sion in 1989, when users with screen names like “THE GIB­BER” and “Dead­head13” stepped away from their blocky, 8-bit Ap­ple IIs for a lit­tle off­line time.

Even in those early pre-World Wide Web days, though, chat­ters were re­al­iz­ing that semi-syn­chro­nous con­ver­sa­tions could get . . . a lit­tle weird. They had a good model for asyn­chro­nous communications, like let­ters and tele­graphs, and they knew how to con­verse in real time IRL. But on­line, you couldn’t eas­ily tell whose turn it was to type — let alone whether your con­ver­sa­tion part­ner was pay­ing at­ten­tion. An ex­tended si­lence from Dead­head13 could mean he got up to get a drink, or you just of­fended him.

Faced with those kinds of quan­daries — what a team of Cor­nell Univer­sity re­searchers once termed “threats to the co­or­di­na­tion of on­line con­ver­sa­tions” — chat­ters quickly de­vel­oped their own code of sta­tus in­di­ca­tors. An away mes­sage meant you weren’t at your com­puter. “Dis­course mark­ers” like “mmmm” or “…” meant you were there, but pon­der­ing what to say. And brb — along with its lesser cousin, “afk,” or “away from key­board” — be­came short­hand for a brief and fore­see­able step­ping-away.

But where would you have to step now to avoid in­com­ing mes­sages? Thanks to the rise of the smart­phone — and SMS, and the mobile In­ter­net — be­ing away from one’s key­board is no longer an ex­cuse for not an­swer­ing a text. Re­peated stud­ies have shown that we feel pres­sure to carry our phones every­where: into our beds and our bath­rooms, on our cof­fee “breaks” and to our fam­ily din­ners.

Pre­dictably, an en­tire ecosys­tem of apps has cropped up to ex­ploit the trend and fur­ther suck us in: What are What­sApp or Slack or Face­book Mes­sen­ger if not at­tempts to lasso our con­stant, un­in­ter­rupted at­ten­tion? (It’s maybe worth not­ing that peo­ple do still bust out “brb” in ex­actly th­ese sort of desk­top chat en­vi­ron­ments — but be­cause all three come with mobile apps, you can eas­ily con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion by phone af­ter you’ve shut your lap­top.)

Re­cently, of course, re­searchers and or­di­nary phone-ad­dicts alike have got­ten wor­ried about ques­tions like th­ese. There are whis­pers that con­stant con­tact via smart­phone is ad­dic­tive, or that it links to de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. Schol­ars have ac­tu­ally be­gun to study the ridicu­lously named “nomo­pho­bia — a fear of not be­ing able to check one’s phone con­stantly. And yet, when some­one launched an app to ad­dress nomo­pho­bia in 2013, it sput­tered out within mere weeks.

The app, which let users post mobile away mes­sages to their net­works, was ap­pro­pri­ately called BRB.

As BRB’s fate might sug­gest, peo­ple just aren’t all that in­ter­ested in tak­ing breaks from their phones. That might only be­come more true as smart­phone na­tives get older. Ac­cord­ing to Gallup, 11 per­cent of adults say they check their smart­phone ev­ery “few min­utes”; the fig­ure dou­bles when you zoom in on the un­der-30 set.

Iron­i­cally, even smart­phone mak­ers didn’t ini­tially think their de­vices would work this way. In a 2007 pa­tent, filed six months af­ter the launch of its first iPhone, Ap­ple de­scribed a sys­tem that would au­to­mat­i­cally in­di­cate to would-be chat­ters whether the per­son they wanted to text or call was present and avail­able. One mock-up shows a list of Jab­ber con­tacts on an iPhone screen, each marked with his own lit­tle away mes­sage: “at work,” “look­ing for cof­fee,” “in a meet­ing.” Be right back.

As Ap­ple and oth­ers have learned since then, how­ever, you can’t brb if you never left.

More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ blogs/the-in­ter­sect

What are What­sApp or Slack or Face­book Mes­sen­ger if not at­tempts to lasso our con­stant, un­in­ter­rupted at­ten­tion?

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