Berlin startup White Rabbit is the latest in SMS’ 23-year evolution. And, despite the invention of younger, sleeker messaging services, evidence suggests the format has plenty of life left in it.
When Alice followed the White Rabbit into Wonderland, she probably wasn’t looking for crack or a three-way. But they’re just two of the many things visitors have asked Berlin’s own White Rabbit – an SMS-based guide service – to find.
Hard drugs and group sex are not the White Rabbit’s forte. But the platform is giving travellers and locals the chance to discover places off the city’s beaten track. For its founding duo, that’s important.
White Rabbit is Luke Atcheson, an Irish journalist living in Berlin for ten years, and Jan Tewes Thede, a Hamburg-born Berliner. Atcheson formed a deep knowledge of the city through years writing for city guides such as Unlike and Time Out, while Thede, a mathematics graduate, has his own computational research firm.
Most tour guides of Berlin are outdated, says Atcheson, and picking from the top locations on TripAdvisor or Yelp are certainly not the best way to understand a city whose culture is so fluid and its hotspots changeable.
“Berlin is a gloriously f**ed-up city – a sprawling mess of historical anomalies that has made it so brilliantly different to other big cities,” he adds. “It doesn’t have the uniform beauty of Paris and Rome, or the buzzing street life of New York and London, or thankfully the homogenous commercial centers of pretty much every other city.
“In Berlin, the real fun is found between the cracks of society, the semi-legal squat raves, the free classical concerts, the wacky art projects, the hyped new pop-up restaurants, the things that have too often been squeezed out of other places. Berlin’s best spots are hidden and transient. And it’s these places that only an in-the-know local can tell you about. And that’s where the White Rabbit comes in.”
The pair gained around two hundred users immediately upon foundation, with no marketing, and have had a few tourists who spent an entire weekend “chasing the White Rabbit,” says Atcheson. “One couple wanted tips on good places to pick up a threesome,” he adds. “Others have asked where to find the best crack in the city.”
Most requests focus on good restaurants, cool bars and live music. The aim, says Atcheson, “is that we are your friend in the city, a trusted person you can turn to when you’re not sure where to go next…We answer every question as if it were a friend writing to us. And for this reason, the more information users can give us about their request, their taste, budget, location and so on, the better our answer will be.”
White Rabbit is another evolution of the short messaging service – SMS – that has become a staple of telecommunications since its 1992 invention. Then, Neil Papworth, a British engineer, sent a Christmas message to a friend in the town of Newbury.
Today over 350 billion messages are sent each month, a number that continues to rise thanks to the increase in mobile penetration in developing countries. In the developed world the format has seen its status fall due to the rise of smartphone instant messaging (IM), and apps such as WhatsApp, Facbook Messenger and Snapchat: in the U.K., SMS peaked in 2011 at 39.7 billion messages per year – a figure that has since fallen to 21 billion, less than half the 50 billion IMs sent.
15% of all SMS messages are now classified as commercial or marketing. 76% of respondents to an SAP poll said they were more likely to read a message sooner if it were an SMS or text message than email. 70% told the firm that SMS is a good way for an organization to get their attention. And 64% thought businesses should converse with customers more often via SMS. According to Tatango, a marketer, the average SMS marketing click-through rate is 36%, compared to around 25% for push notifications across all industries, and roughly 15% for email.
As the format has developed in a changing market, so have its uses. Sweden now uses SMS to drive blood donations, while millions have been spent mining for potential voters in next year’s US Presidential Elections. In last year’s poll in India, the largest democratic vote in history, the country’s electoral commission cracked down on bulk message sending, such was its prevalence.
White Rabbit is currently free, but its founders are working on an app and service for messenger apps with a micropayment system, whereby users pay for questions after an initial free pair. “Actually, people seem happy to pay for our super-personalized tips,” adds Atcheson. “Even though our service is free, we’ve already had several donations from enthusiastic users.” Crack will, however, remain off-limits.