A Brief Visual History of On-Screen Text Messages in Movies and TV

In college, one of my professors made an casual observation that struck an eerie chord, and has stayed close to mind since. “In a way, we’ve all become cyborgs,” she said, matter-of-factly. “How often is your phone not within a couple inches of your hand?” Of course, our technological dependence isn’t news anymore. And with the onslaught of wearable tech and Google Glass finally being made available to purchase (for a cool $1,500), we’re becoming more cyborg-ish than ever.

Despite remarkable advances in tech, film and TV generally haven’t strayed too far from the Ghost Writer approach to depicting technology on-screen — i.e., zooming in on the device, or voyeuristically peeking at a character’s phone over their shoulder. Some shows, however, like House of Cards and Sherlock, expertly integrate text messages into their stories by sticking them directly onto the screen in ways that complement and further the storyline naturally.

By 2014, it’s become second nature for us to live our lives half on-screen, half off. So it’s almost more shocking that shows and movies still force brief, unrealistic meetings between characters that last only a couple minutes, when in reality we know the interaction would be carried out over text. This on-screen display method also provides a unique opportunity for actors to tweak facial expressions and reactions to a conversation that unfolds slower than a face-to-face chat would. Last year, The Wall Street Journal explored the way Hollywood is responding to the “storytelling challenges of a world filled with unglamorous smartphones.”

It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the industry catches on and this seamless integration of text and screen becomes commonplace — so for now, let’s salute the early adopters.


Hollyoaks (2010)

The long-running British teen soap Hollyoaks has employed onscreen text bubbles since at least 2010, according to fan message boards. It makes sense that a show about teenagers would be one of the first to understand the importance of giving the virtual world prominence in the real one.