When the pandemic changed the world in 2020, to continue evolving and optimizing the way we interact with each other, we relied even more on technology. There were clear winners; the Zoom app flourished; for two weeks before never being heard from again, another app named Houseparty was all the rage.
However, an unassuming communication method still flourished in the midst of all this craziness – the tiny but mighty “voice note.” The voice memo – a short recorded message – became an instant hit among Millennials, first launched by WhatsApp in 2013 and later embraced by iMessage, Facebook and Instagram.
Its rise was initially called a passing fad, but time has shown that it has indeed become a significant tool for communication.
Voicemail blends perfectly into the modern world in a way that its cousins, the phone call and voicemail, do not, perceived by many to be the ideal conduit for telephone calls, text messages and unsolicited voicemails.
Sometime in the past five years, while attempting to describe something in a thorough and profound way, “let me voice note you” has become one of my most used words. Communication exhaustion has presented itself over the past year like never before. For most, the pandemic proved to be a difficult time, burnout was possible, anxiety was high, and it became a very real thing to be “zoomed out” When you were at home (which was almost all the time for many of us), the need to hear but not actually see people grew; how many of you were reminded that after purposely turning it off, your zoom camera wasn’t on? The Voice Memo proved to be the best companion for a pandemic.
The need for contact that respected boundaries became increasingly necessary as people’s homes became their offices. Voice memos gave people back their technical agency at a time when people were under pressure to have immediate answers; and this was important in a time of lockout, one of the most stressed periods of modern times. Many of us have been there: someone sends us a voice message, and we just don’t have the ability to play it back. Fortunately, you don’t need to reply instantly to the voicemail etiquette; the power is with the receiver, who can play the voicemail and respond in their own time.
And, unlike voicemail, the messages are not received by a repetitive automated process.
And you can have them for as long as you want and quickly get back to them. The pleasures of communicative versatility! There is, of course, a voice memo etiquette that not everybody adheres to, and I confess to leaving a message or two longer than the one-minute mark. Of course, since the lockdown, technical accessibility has improved, but that has not actually made people feel more connected – in fact, the “loneliness epidemic” has increased.
Millions of people in the UK feel deeply lonely during the lockdown, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Of course, no one believes that voice memos are a total remedy for depression, but the value of their uninhibited existence can’t be ignored. The ability to express sound, nuance, feeling, and idiosyncrasy – to hear the scream in the laughter of a friend or the outrage in the voice of a family member – these are things that can not be expressed through any amount of messages, except with emojis and gifs. Voice messaging leaves no room for misinterpretation, unlike written messages; what you hear is what you get. The unedited flow of a voice message makes it possible for all parties to connect more honestly. The pandemic has also changed the dating world; a new feature has been introduced to the Bumble app, and the popularity of “voice note dating” has increased.
Interestingly, this dependency on audio comfort and connectivity has led to the popularity of the current Clubhouse audio app, which is a voice note evolution in many respects. The lack of social interaction is likely to continue for a few more months with much of the country beginning the new year in Stage 3 or 4.
So if you’re already not using voice memos, chances are that in 2021 you won’t be able to stop them. Magdalene Abraha is a Jacaranda Books writer and publisher.
She runs the A Fast Ting On sequence.