Technology for Change: Building a Text Messaging Service for your Organization


It’s two in the morning when the cell phone by your bed beeps you awake with a text message.  You turn over, pick up the phone, and read, “Urgent! Need more pickets @ the site.”  As you toss your clothes on, another text arrives. “W Filbert blockd, use 57th  nstead.  Picket capt’s will have rainbo armbands.”

When you get there half an hour later via 57th St., you are joined by hundreds, maybe thousands, of others who are sitting down on the pavement and peacefully singing “We shall not, we shall not be moved!”  The power of the people wins the day.

The next evening you are so busy feeding the kids that you totally forget about the Executive Committee’s follow-up conference call. At 6:20 p.m. a text message from the chair of your group reminds you and other members of the Peace Commission to call in at 6:30, and provides you with a call-in number and access code for the call. You give the kids their dessert and then dial in just in time.

Why do progressive activists need to learn how to master technology like mass text messaging?  Because that is how 21st century working people communicate. The phenomenon of the so-called “flash mob” has recently been seen across the United States in everything from spontaneous protests to surprise holiday caroling events in shopping malls. The immediacy, simplicity and relative privacy of mass text messaging allows immediate communication with numbers of people who may not have or even want Twitter® or Facebook® accounts, who don’t check their e-mail or Internet 24/7 (or may not even have computers!), and who might not own the latest costly “smart” phones or I-gadgets. 

Large or well-financed groups such as long-established labor unions or major political organizations can usually afford to contract with commercial text-messaging services (the ones with four- or five-digit text message addresses) to communicate with their membership. But for smaller, less affluent, more marginal or ad-hoc activist groups and even for one-time events, almost any activist can now build an at-home text messaging service that will serve every bit as well as paid services. No, there is not “an app for that,” but the techniques involved are entirely legal and above-board, completely bypass profit-driven social networking companies like Twitter®, and are simple enough for nearly anyone to build without special technical expertise.

The keys to do-it-yourself bulk or individual text messaging services are “Internet SMS gateways.” Every major cell phone provider in the U.S. and elsewhere has its public “SMS gateway,” or Internet protocol that can be used to send short e-mail messages to their customers’ cell phones.  However, to utilize this feature one must know what company provides service to the individual cell phone one is trying to reach. This feature somewhat resembles the American telephone network a century or more ago.

Almost every current mobile phone, from the smartest “Smart Phone” to the simplest “throwaway” cell phone without Internet browsing capability, has its very own individual Internet e-mail address and is capable of receiving and responding to short e-mails in the form of normal text messages. This capability allows you as an activist or organizer to use your own or your group’s existing e-mail account (or another dedicated e-mail account, or if security is an issue, even a one-time “blind” account created just for that message) to send brief text messages to all the members of your group to remind them of meetings and events, to get out the vote, to advise participants of emergencies, raids, cancellations and last-minute updates, or to organize mass flash-happenings with willing participants. 

Group messaging is done through any normal Internet e-mail account, not through your own or your group’s cell phone’s text messaging function, potentially saving money and better protecting your own privacy and security, while allowing instantaneous communication whenever desired. In fact, one can as easily text cell phones in Germany, Australia or Japan as on the next block, all without extra charges to you or your group.

How these “SMS gateways” work is that each individual cell phone has its own Internet e-mail address in a specific format determined by the particular service provider. Thus, to reach someone with a Verizon phone, an e-mail message would have to go through the Verizon SMS gateway, and the same for T-Mobile, Cricket, or other providers. This, of course, means that to compile a text-messaging service list one needs to know not only each group member’s cell phone number, but their provider name as well. This information is simple to collect either at face-to-face meetings or online from those who wish to participate in such a service, and provider information can even be obtained from free online services like Fone Finder if one has a phone number but the service provider is unknown. 

Once you have collected a list from comrades, members or activists who wish to receive text messages, it is as simple to set up a text-message list as it is to create a standard e-mail distribution list [“d-list”]. Once your list is completed, you can easily broadcast a text message to an entire group with one click, or text any individual participant from your computer just as easily as the whole group. 

Participants can reply to you by ordinary text message from their phones, and their reply comes into your e-mail account as a normal, short e-mail.  You can test this on your own by sending yourself a text message to your own cell phone from your own e-mail account, using the address format indicated below, and then responding from your cell phone as you would to a regular text message, a response that goes back to your e-mail account.

Since I first implemented this system as a college instructor in August, 2010, I have exchanged nearly a thousand text messages with my students, totally free of charge, and have received universally positive reactions.


As convenient as this system is, it has some important limitations:

1. This system may be used only to message people who wish to receive texts from you.  Sending unsolicited mass text messages by this method to people who did not request them is potentially a serious violation of Federal anti-spam laws. Thus, it is especially important to make sure that all cell phone numbers on your list are correct.

2. All messages must be very short, typically 100-150 characters or less. Messages longer than this are either cut short, or else broken into multiple, annoying, and sometimes unreadable chunks. That means that one must be careful to delete past message lines before responding to a text, and be very concise in one’s writing. Abbreviations like "u" for "you," "ur" for "your" and "C U" for "see you" are customary. For long messages, regular e-mail, individual voice phone calls or other media are essential, though even then I have more than once found it useful to text all members of a group to advise them to immediately check their e-mail for an urgent message. 

3. Some cell phone providers charge their customers by the message. A few prepaid cell phone systems even impose a maximum quota on cell phone users’ text messages, and if that is exceeded the user will simply not receive your message. Out of consideration for group members with these types of plans, the messages you send should be important and few. Too much message traffic or too many unnecessary, repetitious or low-priority messages will quickly “kill” mass text messaging just as surely as “spam” ruined e-mail.

4. Restricted, 911-only “emergency” cell phones configured not to receive incoming text messages or voice calls will not receive your text messages either.  Nor will old-fashioned, hardwired desk or wall phones.  

5. In 2011 this is still a somewhat cutting-edge technology. Occasionally, providers’ Internet SMS gateways go “down” for brief periods for reasons unknown.  Unlike e-mails, text messages that are not deliverable will sometimes not generate a “bounce message” and will simply vanish. Thus, for really crucial messages to individuals it is advisable to simply make a voice-call to those concerned.

6. People normally expect real-time replies to their text messages to you.  Thus if you broadcast a text message, courtesy demands that you stay at the computer for ten or fifteen minutes longer to read and answer any responses.

7. Companies offer other cell phone gateways (MMS) that allow you to send graphics, videos and music to selected cell phone users. But these often cost the phone user real money, and at this point are usually less appropriate for our purposes than simple text messaging (though instant broadcast of shocking or urgent pictures might be the best possible mobilizing tool in special circumstances).

8. The same privacy and confidentiality concerns that apply to e-mail apply to this service, but even more so. Every cell phone is actually a two-way radio, and although the cell phone industry would dearly like you to assume otherwise, there should never be any assumption of privacy on a cell phone call or text message, personal or otherwise. Always take it as a “given” than any phone call or text can be easily monitored and recorded by authorities, sometimes without a warrant. In extreme cases, remember that anything you say or text can be traced back to you, and can and will be used against you in a court of law.

Plus, even though it is quite illegal, experience shows that, particularly in times of crisis or when famous personalities are involved, cell phone calls and texts may also be monitored by peeping-toms, paparazzi or private hobbyists, friendly or hostile. Even worse, nothing sent by text message or Internet ever truly “goes away,” even when deleted. For really sensitive or controversial communication, text messaging or cell phones are never appropriate.

How to set up your own text messaging service:

1. Obtain a name, cell phone number, and cell phone provider for each group or club member, activist, community member or participant who wants to participate. Be very clear about why you are collecting this information.

An alternate approach is to ask each member or participant to enroll by sending a sample text message to your dedicated e-mail address. You can then compile a mailing list from the messages you receive. The drawback to this approach is that many, if not most, ordinary cell phone users do not know how to send a text message to a non-numerical address. There is currently no easily-available application allowing for an automatic “just text ‘socialism’ to 12345” sign-up—if your group is interested in this kind of feature, you will need to contract with a commercial text message service.

2. From your phone and provider list, manually build a mailing list of SMS gateway addresses on the group’s e-mail account just as you would build an ordinary e-mail distribution list. If the option is available, assure that your e-mail program is set to “plain text only” for all recipients, since fancy html text formatting, signatures, graphics or headings can make messages totally unreadable on older or low-end cell phones. 

3. Once your text messaging list is ready, send a very brief group text message as a test to all participants, and check whether all addressees received the message. 

Here are some Internet SMS gateway addresses for popular cell phone providers:  (replace 2025551212 with actual phone number)
ATT Wireless    
CellularOne MMS
Cingular              [note the initial "1" before the phone number.]
Sprint PCS         
T-Mobile             [note the initial "1" before the phone number.]
Metro PCS         
Rogers Wireless
Telus Mobility  
US Cellular       
Virgin Mobile   
This list is adapted from a relatively complete international list of SMS gateways available at , and is subject to change at any time.

This will allow you to use an ordinary e-mail account to make a list of phones to text. An imaginary typical e-mail list might look something like this:

    * De tal, Fulano.
    * Doe, John.
    * Ivanova, Ivana
    * Smith, Jane

A text message from you might appear on your participants’ cell phones like this:

mengano@peace& | Peace demo tomorrow | Pls text if u need a ride!

Depending on the number of people you wish to text, the initial task of building your group’s text messaging service may be more or less labor-intensive, but it is well worth the effort in terms of member commitment and participation-level. If you are texting more than about 50 people at a time it is probably wisest to break your list up into subgroups, both for convenience and to avoid triggering spam-blocker programs, either on your own outgoing e-mail account or at the incoming SMS gateways.

Broadcast text messaging has served important roles in popular movements elsewhere in the world sometimes using social networking sites. Although text broadcast functionality is available free of charge through Twitter®, this is a “pull” technology, where each participant must get online and set up an account to opt-in and participate. In contrast, the method described here is a “push” technology, where participants need do nothing but provide their cell phone numbers.  

Additionally, although Twitter and other social networking sites do offer this service, it is always important for conscientious progressives to keep in mind that “free” does not necessarily mean “public.”  The technology described here is as close to “public” as one can get on today’s Internet, enabling people’s activists to bypass sometimes ideologically-hostile commercial networking “utilities” and communicate directly with comrades and supporters.

Today’s activists urgently need to become familiar with this technology and others like it in order to more easily create, organize, activate and mobilize the new people’s movements that will build tomorrow’s world.

Photo by Martin Cathrae, cc by 2.0

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