Once upon a time, it was as stylish to hate voicemail as it is to hate Facebook. In the eyes of digital-savvy critics, spoken audio messages were an inconvenient ’80s relic with embarrassing conventions that dated baby boomers and repulsed millennials. The smartphone was a ubiquitous life accessory that gave society the gift of texting, a far more efficient form of communication. “Think of how long it takes to access your voicemail and listen to one of those long-winded messages,” read a 2013 “digital etiquette” column in The New York Times. “‘Hi, this is so-and-so …’ In text messages, you don’t have to declare who you are, or even say hello.” Gawker (rest its soul) followed up with a far more radical guide titled “Don’t Leave Me a Voicemail Unless You’re Dying.” The next year, an NPR segment featured a 31-year-old whose phone once contained 103 unheard messages. Pew reports, trend analysts, and tech columnists concurred: At the rate teenagers were texting, the voicemail was not long for this world.
But around the same time, major tech companies were working hard to keep a pared-down version of the concept alive. In 2011, a Chinese app called WeChat debuted with the ability to send and receive voice clips. (The country soon wholeheartedly embraced the feature; using it there is now reportedly a power move.) At the start of 2013, Facebook introduced the ability to send audio in its stand-alone Messenger app. Like many Facebook additions, it was met with lukewarm acknowledgement. “Most voicemail is just a long-winded way of saying ‘call me back,’” TechCrunch wrote at the time. “Facebook sees a new opportunity in making voice messaging a seamless part of a conversation, not a replacement or a bridge to it.” WhatsApp, then a budding startup, followed the lead of its soon-to-be parent corporation that summer. In 2016, Apple finally integrated the feature into its Messages app, making it available on the 1 billion active iPhones in use at the time. (Or, at least, the ones that could run iOS 10.) With these updates came the dawn of the voicemail’s younger, cooler, more lightweight sibling: the voice text.
In an ideal world, the voice text—also referred to as a voice note, voice message, or voice memo, and not to be confused with text dictation—is far less rambling than its despised predecessor. It typically arrives amid a written exchange and functions as a kind of conversational speed bump. If you’re lucky, it’s somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds. Anything longer than that, and it creeps into the territory of what a close WhatsAppian friend of mine calls “sneaky voicemail.” Reggaeton singer J Balvin is even more conservative in this department. Over the summer he suggested that anyone who could not keep their “notas de voz” between five and 10 seconds should just call, adding an aside that, roughly translated, read: “TEN MINUTES IS ONLY ALLOWED FOR MOMS.”
The reasoning behind these guidelines is simple. Listening to a voice text requires having your earbuds handy, or being in a relatively quiet, private space. It also means offering up something rare in the era of multitasking: your undivided attention. “Text messages are a much shorter read and you can get the bulk of the message without much effort,” said Graham Gerhart, a 25-year-old digital marketing specialist and one of the 28 texters I surveyed via Twitter for this story. “Voice notes require actually listening to the full communication.”
It’s hard to know just how popular the voice text feature has become since it was unleashed on the masses. These days, companies like Apple stake their reputation on protecting customers’ privacy, so they don’t offer many user statistics. Though a company like Facebook does track text behavior, communications rep Anne Yeh told me that it does “not share data on the use of voice messages.”
Nevertheless, the sheer numbers of people using these platforms hint at why, in the past few years, the voice text has infiltrated the world’s private communications. Last year, WeChat revealed that its users sent 6.1 billion voice texts each day. As of last year, Facebook Messenger is home to 1.3 billion monthly active users. WhatsApp has more than 1.5 billion users and hosts about 60 billion messages per day. And according to Yeh, voice texts are the second-most-popular type of file shared on the messaging platform, after photos and before videos, GIFs, and documents. The 28 texters I surveyed told me they’ve seen the feature used everywhere from Snapchat to Verizon’s Message+ app. Almost everyone I spoke to first encountered voice texts in the same year the feature debuted on their preferred messaging app. Many also credited the uptick in voice text usage to our increasingly globalized world. Platforms like WhatsApp, Messenger, and WeChat have become common spaces for international communication. And in countries with less internet and cell-service access, people are accustomed to walkie-talkie-esque call formats that were popularized by companies like Nextel. Gerhart, who first began using the feature on WhatsApp in 2013 while he was going to school in South Africa, says voice texting is also a necessity when people speak multiple regional dialects. Toggling between keyboards to find the right characters can get exhausting.
“We spoke a lot of languages over there that were not English,” he said. “Eleven official languages. So voice notes were easier than having your phone autocorrect every phrase you were trying to type.”
Against all odds, voicemail has made a slow but miraculous comeback in a more digestible form. But many of the same millennials who were taught to unconditionally hate the medium are now incensed at its return. The voice text is now one of our most divisive forms of digital communication. “The original culprit was people on WhatsApp, but it’s spread like a disease to ‘regular’ texting,” Chris Norris, a 32-year-old entrepreneur, told me. “Everyone in my world has been warned that if you send them I will not listen to them, and yet there are a few that still do.” Joseph Rivas, a 39-year-old music producer, calls them “the worst version of communication there is.” Michael Reynaga, a 37-year-old systems engineer at SpaceX, is so incensed by voice texts that he doesn’t acknowledge them. “Just because you engage in a disgusting, horribly offensive behavior doesn’t mean I need to reciprocate,” he said. Sean Dhesi, a 24-year-old high school teacher in Canada, has a similar reaction when he receives a voice text. “I mostly just look at my phone with disdain and ponder the possible inconvenience of excommunicating that person from my life.”
The most common complaints lodged against the voice text mirror those made against the voicemail years ago. In the eyes of text purists they are an awkward, inefficient way to communicate. Most irksome, however, is that they signify an unconcern for the context in which someone might be receiving a message. “I have a regular day job in an office,” Norris said. “If someone sends me a text, I can read and quickly reply, but if someone sends me a voice snippet thing I have to put in my headphones to listen to it. That means pausing Spotify on my laptop, unplugging my headphones, and then plugging them into my phone, and then reversing that process after listening to a seven-second voice memo that was likely useless.” He is especially infuriated by his in-laws’ tendency to send short, simple responses via recording. “If I ask you a question in text and you say back, ‘Yep,’ instead of just typing it, it makes me want to fight the person. One-word voice memos should be a felony.” Most of the anti-voice-texters I spoke to explained that they preferred a quick and quiet way to exchange information. “I don’t like surprise parties, and these voice snippets feel like micro-surprise parties that I’m not going to enjoy,” said Matthew DeSantis, a 38-year-old higher education administrator.
For all those enraged by voice texts, there appears to be a growing contingent of people who are equally ardent senders of them. “Voice snippets are dank and anyone who says otherwise either sounds like Gilbert Gottfried on the phone or likes the idea of carpal tunnel,” said Sebastian Moya, a 23-year-old writer. Erin Yarnall, a 25-year-old editor who was first introduced to voice texts while teaching abroad in Colombia, said she is nonplussed by her friends’ hatred of them. “My friends in the United States have told me they hate getting voice messages from me, but I love them and I will never stop.” Ditto Valerie Demicheva, a 31-year-old marketing director at an auto startup. “I use voice notes when I communicate with friends, my mom, and people I know will tolerate me unconditionally,” she said. “My best friend sometimes writes back in all caps: STOP SENDING VOICE NOTES! But I won’t.”
Ironically, voice messagers value the medium for the same reason their annoyed recipients prefer text: convenience. The voice text can be sent on the go, while walking, driving, or cooking. And because it automatically slows down an exchange, senders feel less obligation to keep a back-and-forth going. “You don’t have the pressure to answer right away,” said Lani Harrison, a 43-year-old child passenger safety technician. “If I’m working or running after small children, we just pause the conversation and continue when either person can come back.” Voice texts also give people a physical break from the tyranny of their digital devices. “I absolutely hate typing with my thumbs; I feel the arthritis coming on,” said Hadi Kaakour, a 28-year-old ophthalmology resident, adding that it was a “hella waste of time to sit and type even this out when I coulda just said it over voice.” My WhatsAppian freelance journalist friend Lorraine—who was one of three people who would communicate with me only via voice messages for this story—concurred. “I look at screens a lot during my job, so it means I don’t have to look at my phone all the time. I get thumb fatigue from so much texting.”
But most important to this controversial cohort is the ability to be better understood in their audio messages. “There is SO MUCH nuance of human language lost in texting,” Kaakour said. Abby Levi, a 22-year-old communications student at NYU, said that she is frequently frustrated by the work that goes into interpreting texts. She cites a Key and Peele skit called “Text Message Confusion” that illustrates just how hard it is to decipher the tone of a person’s written message. “People read into things too much when it comes to texting,” she said. “We sort of dissect every single piece of the message, from the word choice to something like putting a period or a question mark at the end, versus just leaving it open. Everyone has had a conversation with a friend, whether that’s screen-shotting a text, or having them look at it in person, where it’s like: ‘Can you help me decipher this text message?’” Voice conversations can be a better way for users to connect with their heritage. “I get a lot of voice messages from my family in Cantonese,” Lorraine said. “I can’t read Cantonese, so it helps to actually hear it said.”
Convenience may be an added benefit for voice texters, but the users I spoke to insisted that, more than anything, it was a way to forge better human connections. Some people use them as a way to stay in touch with long-distance partners. Others exclusively send them to repeat running inside jokes to their friends. “It’s nice to hear a friend’s voice or laugh reacting to something you said. Even just a funny way one says ‘heyyuh!’ could be hilarious,” Kaakour said. “I think some people feel buffered by a screen. They take time composing their texts and they feel safer with time lapse between communication,” Demicheva said. “Those people may thrive on ambiguity, so texting allows them to keep their cards close to their chest. With voice note, it’s all out there, your tone, your mood, your words.” Though Levi frequently encounters resistance to the format, she’s convinced that one day her preference will land on the right side of history. “If voice notes are so annoying to people, then why don’t we make more time for those phone calls or in-person interactions?” she said. “If we’re going to be critical of these alternative ways to create that intimacy, then we have to be willing to interact face-to-face.”
We happened to be speaking on the phone as she said this, and there was no mistaking her tone: that of a person who felt, deep down in her soul, that she was right.