« Color Soft-Grip Binder Clips | Home | Window Drops »

May 10, 2009

Voice Mail, Deleted Forever


Slate and Washington Post columnist Farhad Manjoo's disappreciation of voice mail, which appears on the second page of today's Washington Post Opinion section, makes perfect sense to me.

Long essay short: Only geezers use voice mail. It's how you know you're old.

Here's the piece.


Voice Mail, Deleted Forever

Since March, I've been using Google Voice, the search company's fantastic Web app that gives you a single number to connect all your phones and lets you make rules about who can call which phone when. Voice is packed with many other amazing tricks, but there's one feature that I've come to value above all: The software transcribes voice mail messages into text. Now every time someone leaves me a message, I get it as an e-mail. It's not perfect, of course—Farhad often turns into Bob or Todd. But I'll take it. Voice mail is one of the most inefficient, socially awkward, and least user-friendly means of communication out there, and I'd gladly change my name to Bob, Todd, or Sue if it means never having to sit through a parade of pointless messages ever again.

Google Voice is not the only thing killing phone messages. Every new way we develop of talking to one another—e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, Twitter, etc.—is faster and more useful than leaving an audio message on someone's phone. That's why, according to cell phone companies, lots of people only rare dial in to their message, and some of us have stopped checking entirely. It won't be long till we're all in that camp; the end of voice mail is nigh, and it won't be missed.

The bill of particulars is damning. Unlike your e-mail inbox, voice mail is impossible to skim: If your phone tells you that you've got five new messages, you've got no choice but to listen to at least a bit of each one before you can decide what to do with it. In a user-interface decision that I suspect might violate some subclause of the Geneva Conventions, your voice-mail system insists on making you listen to the same instructional prompts between each message. But wait, is it 9 to archive and 7 to skip, or is that the way the work phone does it? I couldn't tell you, because every voice-mail system seems to have settled on different numbers to activate its main functions. It's an absurdly backward mode of human-computer interaction.

If the voice-mail leavers in your life are anything like those in mine, there's often no great reward for getting through your messages, either. "Guess you're not there. Call me back." That message might have made sense in the days of home answering machines, when the main function of voice mail was to let someone know who you were and that you'd called—both things our phones now tell automatically. On the rare chance that you do get an important voice mail, your first move is to transfer the information to some more permanent medium—say, ink and paper. Unlike just about every other mode of electronic communication today, after all, voice mail can't be searched.

Over the years there have been some valiant efforts to fix voice mail. The most innovative is the iPhone's system, called Visual Voicemail. I remember being thrilled when I saw Steve Jobs show this off: Instead of forcing you to go through a series of audio prompts, the iPhone lists each message on the screen and lets you click on them to listen. That eliminates the torturous interface, but it doesn't do much for the utility of voice mail itself. When I got an iPhone, I found myself shirking off messages even more. Now that I could see who'd left them, there was no point in listening; I could just call back (or not). The iPhone, with its full keyboard, also prompted me to leave fewer voice mails for other people. If called someone who wasn't there, I could click over to e-mail or SMS and send a message that they'd be much likelier to look at.

This gets to what's so magical about voice-mail-to-text apps like Google Voice. They don't try to fix voice mail by improving its interface; instead, they remove it from its interface entirely and let you deal with each message in the same way you go through your e-mail. You can save, skim, and search it, just like you do everything else online.

And don't spin me on how voice mail is somehow inherently warmer and more human than e-mail. Speaking into a dead phone has always seemed unnatural. That's why we stammer, ramble on, leave awkward pauses. I submit that whatever finally makes voice mail obsolete will make us all sound far more human—and a little more polished at that.

May 10, 2009 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Voice Mail, Deleted Forever:


So the main complaint, ultimately, is about time wasted separating wheat from chaff, then?
I can understand that, mostly.

My irrational geezer, however, makes me think of someone rejecting this:

and preferring this instead:

Posted by: Flautist | May 11, 2009 2:32:11 AM

I never listen to voicemail any more, but I know how to give it.

Hi. My Name is XYZ. My phone # is 123-456-1234. My need is this... If you can call me back at your earliest convenience I would appreciate it. Again, my name is XYZ and my phone # is 123-456-1234.

Name and # at the beginning and end ALWAYS.

Google Voice is great...the TTS is not the greatest, but one can figure out what someone is saying. I get an email with the transcription that I can even read at meetings. If it is important, I can text or email back...or even more important, step out.

I'm wishing I could use GV's TTS for EVERYTHING lately...

Posted by: clifyt | May 10, 2009 7:24:47 PM

"diss" or "dis" from "disrespect"

Posted by: oldflaurt | May 10, 2009 6:17:30 PM

Having dealt with tech support companies so much via voice mail, I've become pretty adept at getting all of the pertinent info and doing so without droning on too badly. But many of the voice mails I get are just like the one depicted in the awesome Pearls Before Swine (man, I LOVE that strip!!) cartoon.

I'd rather use email, but you often can't depend on people to read their email in a timely fashion.

Posted by: Rob O. | May 10, 2009 6:05:21 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.