October 7, 2011

My Life Without Voicemail

It all started accidentally. I bought my first iPhone in January, and it was a lemon. I had to go back to the Apple Store a couple days after my initial purchase, and my pimpled male Genius was decidedly less interesting than the cute girl from Phoenix who sold me the dud. As a result, I was beyond the “ooo new cool toy!” phase and into the “jeez, this thing better just work” phase of ownership.

I thought I was done. My contacts had switched (the cute girl thought I was popular ;) ). My Google Voice already knew my cell number, and that hadn’t changed. I had to redownload the first ten or so apps, but so be it — I wanted to give a different company the “first downloaded app” data point, anyway (for those who aren’t nerds, this is where bragging rights come from).

It wasn’t til a couple weeks later when a friend called me, didn’t get through, and texted me to say I needed to set up my voicemail did I realize I had cut it from my life. And frankly, the realization felt amazing — it was only by that accident that I realized anyone I wanted to have calling me could: a) text me if it’s urgent, b) email me if it’s not urgent, c) set up a time to Skype if they just wanted to chat, or d) perhaps get a call back from me at my convenience if I recognized their number.

But why is that so liberating? Is voicemail all that bad? My argument is yes — I am no longer beholden to the most awkward form of communication in today’s age. It’s not so much that talking on the phone is bad — it’s more personal and conversational than writing, and convenient for everyone at this point — it’s the interruptive nature combined with the awkwardness of the medium.

David Foster Wallace ridiculed the video phone because it destroyed the happy notion that the person on the other end was paying attention. But the truth is that those people weren’t paying attention, and it made life less efficient and conversation less effective to pretend they were. Luckily the sheer availability of video over the internet and its coupling with text-based chat (a crucial distinction) have dictated social rules whereby it’s frowned upon to call someone without chatting with them first or scheduling the call in advance.

The only problem with the video phone in DFW’s world was that it was tied to the phone paradigm, for lack of instantaneous communication to check if a chat was convenient for the recipient of the call. Voicemail is a vestige of the same problem — it was more convenient than sending a letter to let someone know that you’d like to speak with them.

Now you’ve got Facebook creating a single identity for us all, tying it to our existing email addresses and phone numbers — if you have one, you can find the others. That’s why Facebook Messages is such an incredible concept: the distinctions between email, text, and any other form of communication are blurred when they can happen instantaneously and across any platform.

So, if you have my phone number, you have more methods than just that one to get in touch with me. You can prioritize based on immediacy of the need. It may sound pretentious, but it’s an exercise we almost all go through today. We just leave voicemails out of habit and laziness. Have you listened to yours lately?

My guess is they fall into one of two categories: “hey, call me back when you get a second” or “I have all this important stuff to tell you and I want to know your reaction.” The former is implicit in the call, or could be noted by a text. The latter implies a desire for conversation, and 9 out of 10 times the caller winds up saying the same thing all over again when they get a call back — they want to hear your reaction to you saying what you’re saying, not just to what you’re saying.

I know not everyone thinks they have the luxury of shutting off any form of communication with their friends or networks (my guess is you’re also still on MySpace ;) ), but I encourage everyone to try going without voice mail. At least think twice before leaving one. Methinks we’ll all be a tiny bit happier.


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