July 29, 2010
Voice Phone Calls Are So 20th Century

Clive Thompson argues voice phone calls are dying and deserve to die.

According to Nielsen, the average number of mobile phone calls we make is dropping every year, after hitting a peak in 2007. And our calls are getting shorter: In 2005 they averaged three minutes in length; now they’re almost half that.

This jibes with my experience. I rarely use the phone for voice calls and then mostly for people who for some bizarre reason have phones that can't handle SMS or email messages.

One obvious problem with voice phone calls is the need for both sides to be available at the same time. As Thompson points out, voice calls are more emotionally demanding. They pull us away from what we have in front of us (whether physically or more abstractly in front of us) to focus on trying to emotionally read what someone else is saying, when to interrupt with our one responses (harder when you can't see the other person's face), and whether we are being understood.

I find that when someone reaches me on the phone and I answer in case it is important then the result is often awkward. Sometimes I find out the purpose of the call is not important, that the person calling is just trying to kill time, and the call is not worth interrupting a conversation I'm having with someone I'm with. The caller then feels slighted when I beg off and ask them to call later.

Then there is the inefficient caller. They talk slowly, pause, provide too much set-up for their key message. The same person could provide the same information much more compactly in an email or SMS message. Same happens with voice mails. I want a way to tell the voice mail program to speed up playback and cut out pauses.

Parenthetically, I'd like the same capability to speed up Google Tech Talks and other lectures on YouTube (e.g. the rate of delivery in this video lecture is too slow. I've come across occasional political video sites that let you speed up playback. So this is technically possible.

Will video phone calls with phones like the HTC Evo 4G reverse the trend away from phone calls? You going to be more inclined to call people once you can watch their faces during the phone call? Or will Android's messaging features such as GMail integration make you even less inclined to do voice calling?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 July 29 11:33 PM  Comm Tech Society

razib said at July 30, 2010 12:03 AM:

totally agree.

fortaleza84 said at July 30, 2010 1:04 AM:

FWIW, I am an attorney and I use voice quite a lot. When interviewing potential clients, I need to be able to interrupt them to focus them on giving me the information I need to evaluate and discuss their situation. I also need to be able to ask a lot of immediate follow up questions.

When speaking with opposing attorneys, voice lets me gauge the person's reaction and adjust what I am saying. Also, sometimes it's preferable not to put certain things in writing. For example, if you concede a weak point in your case for purposes of discussing settlement, you don't want your adversary to be able to waive it in front of the judge. Even though it's theoretically inadmissible, it still has much more of an impact if it's in writing.

Jim said at July 30, 2010 11:31 AM:

My wife would differ...
Woman more than men I find actually enjoy speaking to one another, sometimes for hours, talking about their feelings and such.

But yea, most guys. Grunt - grunt back... Seriously, who needs voice anyway when you can just punch the other guy to say hello and get on with business.


Fat Man said at July 30, 2010 11:54 AM:

My theory is that the poor audio quality of cell phones is the thing that is killing voice calls. Unfortunately the phone companies and phone makers have focused on every feature they can think of other than audio quality in designing and marketing cell phones. There are many manifestations of this problem. One is driver distraction. Why is it more distracting to talk on a cell phone than it is to carry on a conversation with someone in the right hand seat? My argument is that the poor audio of cell phones forces us to concentrate harder which leaves less mental bandwidth available for the task of driving.

Lono said at July 30, 2010 12:06 PM:


I'd really like to think that you and Clive are right...

Unfortunately, if I know Densan's, they LOVE to talk to each other endlessly about nothing in particular.

I personally don't think "virtual" face to face communication will ever really catch on either - as I have found that it seems very difficult for non techie types to ever really get comfortable with this form of communication.

Plus people are genetically programmed to be superficial and - like in the Jetsons - are distracted about having to worry about their appearences in such visual communication.

I never text because I find the interfaces amazingly annoying and inefficient - but I'm sure I'll get on board when they become more intuitive. Heck I was a actually a huge ICQ user/advocate back in the day - when you mostly only had other technologically sophisticated people on the other end to speak to anyways.

(once the tweens got hold of it - of course - it was all downhill from there)

Sione said at July 30, 2010 12:29 PM:

There is something to this observation.

I tend to avoid accepting land line and cell phone calls more often than not, since they are intrusive and interrupt activities I am focussing on at the time. Lately I don't even listen to the voice messages, merely look up who was calling and decide whether I want to call them back or not. As for text messages, too fiddly to bother with. I read some but generally find them a nuisance more than an assistance. I've been seriously considering getting rid of the cell phone altogether. Who needs the imposition of people demanding contact wherever you are, whenever they feel like it.

Now that the novelty of communication immersion is wearing off, are people beginning to manage it more agressively than before? Perhaps the expense of the electronic gossip habit is a nuisance and people are starting to save their money for more important matters. Is that it?


Mark Atwood said at July 30, 2010 2:27 PM:

There is still a place for synchronous voice communication. I use it to talk to communicate who's web presence is not yet rich and trustworthy enough to deal with online. I use it for "high touch" communication, where the content is entirely emotional communication, like my weekly call with my parents, or when a friend is having a horrible day and needs someone to listen. And I use it when I need a hard realtime response right now (SMS text messages can be delayed, lost, and more easily ignored). But yes, for the most part, there are better and less invasive ways to communicate with people.

The comms technology that is really decaying is voicemail. More and more of my friends are setting their voicemail messages to "Hi! I never ever check my voicemail. Send me an email". And I would guess that 99% of all voicemail messages are of the form "Hi John, this is Bill. Call me back!", and I can get all of that information by just looking at my missed call note on my phone, without bothering to listen to the message.

Mthson said at July 30, 2010 5:07 PM:

95% of my human communication is via email and Skype instant messaging. It's excellent.

kenh said at July 30, 2010 7:48 PM:

Saturday morning and land lines; an enduring tradition. You will happily accept all calls on Saturday mornings at
home, knowing they are from your friends and neighbors who just want to catch up. Calling on the land line ensures that it's from a home, to a home. The call sounds good - it means local and reliable (usually).

vraggio said at July 31, 2010 9:04 AM:

agree 100%

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