By Michael Fisher | April 12, 2012 2:21 PM
“There’s no way I’m gonna talk more than 350 minutes in a month. Sign me up for that plan!” If your first mobile phone purchase went like mine, that statement -or one like it- probably came out of your mouth. Then, if your first few months of ownership were like mine, you spent a great deal of time wondering why you were paying so much in overage charges.
In my case, It’s because I was blowing that ish right up. Phone calls were king when I picked up my first mobile device in 2001. Sure, even my monochrome flip phone had “wireless web” and “shortmail,” the internet and SMS analogs of the day- a steal at $5 per month. But its principal use was still voice. That early in the wireless revolution, most of my friends had bare-bones voice plans, and some didn’t even own cellphones yet. So I was talking on the phone constantly, and I loved it. But then something happened: the world changed.
One of the things people who dismiss new technology love to say is “I use my cellphone as a phone. That’s it.” Usually it’s with a self-satisfied air of old-school superiority. Generally speaking, these are people who don’t like change. I get it, guys; the world is scary. But not all change is bad.
As mobile communication has evolved and grown since my first phone purchase in 2001, it’s developed an ever-more-diverse array of options. Nextel Direct Connect rose to prominence for a few years in America as a kind of verbal SMS: the push-to-talk service was meant for situations where quick exchanges were preferable to long, drawn-out conversations. But I found myself using it as often as I could, even for hours-long talks, and not just because it saved on voice minutes. The appeal, I soon realized, was that I didn’t have to constantly give my conversation partner audible reminders that I was still participating.
I have a friend I jokingly refer to as “Mr. Confirmation.” You know the type. I adore him, but he’s one of those people who always ends sentences with a request for affirmation. “Cool couch, right bro?” “Good times last night, yeah man?” “Awesome phone, right?” Every assertion requires a reply. It’s hilarious, but it’s also exhausting.
“Yes, Leonardo. How many times do I have to say it? The pizza was radical. Yes, I know. Yes.”
For me, on a phone call, Mr. Confirmation is everyone on the other side of the phone. Because with no visual input, and after almost two decades of sometimes-spotty cellular connections, we’ve all been conditioned to expect a dropped call when we hear silence. Callers are always subconsciously listening for signs that you’re still on the line. So you find yourself ridiculously filling your end of the call with “uh-huhs” and “yups” and “rights.” It sounds trivial, but it’s not; constantly reaffirming your presence and your attention can be a draining exercise.
That’s why Nextel Direct Connect was such a pleasure to use: because of the half-duplex nature of push-to-talk, the speaking party holds the floor and can’t hear anything you’re doing. While they’re speaking, you can shuffle papers, slam doors, type noisily, belch – whatever you want. That doesn’t mean you’re not listening; it means you’re listening without needing to prove it. They can only hear you when you hold down the button. That level of control seems excessive, but it’s wonderful in practice, and it’s one of the things that made push-to-talk such a powerful differentiator in Nextel’s early days. It gave customers more power to communicate on their own terms.
Of course, widespread use of push-to-talk didn’t last in America – but not just because of competing voice offerings like mobile-to-mobile. PTT was also killed off by the explosive rise in SMS adoption. A Direct Connect call was still a voice call: even though it offered enhanced control, you were still communicating at a time and at a pace partially dictated by someone else. Suddenly, with text messaging, a huge swath of the population could take voice out of the equation entirely.
Get out of my ear, with your stupid face!
This is what happens when you receive a text: the message arrives. You read it. You type a response (or don’t) and return to what you were doing. Ten seconds to one minute of your time. Communication is happening.
By contrast, think about the implied social contract in the case of an incoming phone call. The phone rings. Someone wants your time right now, and if you’re polite, you’ll be giving them your undivided attention (or at least putting energy into making them believe they have it) for at least a few minutes. You have perhaps twenty seconds of ringing to decide whether to answer the call. If you do, anyone else in the room with you gets to hear your entire side of the conversation. Just ask anyone who’s been stuck on a bus, in an elevator, or at a table with a phone-talker: it’s annoying for everyone concerned.
Say you decide not to take the call, and you press Ignore. This actually doesn’t save you time: they’ll probably leave a voicemail. So you then have to spend more time dialing in to your inbox, entering a password, and letting the voicemail lady do her thing. Okay, maybe if you have a modern smartphone or a Google Voice account that works properly, you can do visual voicemail but then you’re still bound to listen to your caller deliver the message at his or her own pace. And you still can’t pay attention to what’s going on around you while you’re listening. Finally, the caller probably wants you to call him or her back. Every part of the whole exercise involves your time being at someone else’s disposal.
… where it is slowly crushed over the course of 15 minutes of inanities before he tells you he just called to ask you to get some milk for the house.
Proponents of phone calls frequently make the point that a call is often more efficient than a text exchange, because it takes less time. Sometimes, that’s true. One two-minute phone call can indeed replace twelve text messages in some cases. Taking less time doesn’t always make something superior, though. If I spend twenty minutes on a text exchange that would have taken two minutes over the phone, sure, it seems ridiculous. But check it out: I’m reading every one of those texts at my leisure, and I’m also replying at my leisure. I’m dealing with every message on my own terms. As a society, that’s what we’ve collectively decided is acceptable behavior within an SMS conversation. So I’m spending twenty minutes having an enjoyable interaction, instead of two minutes being inconvenienced. How is that worse?
To be fair, text- or instant-message conversations, just like any other form of communication, can be incredibly annoying if they go on too long. But the answer to that is to just stop replying. Problem solved.
Is that rude? It depends on the person: some people plain won’t notice, but some people will be mildly affronted. Know what, though? It’s not nearly as rude as hanging up on someone’s phone call, which is the universally-recognized substitute for “F you.”
“Come down here and say that to my face, Spock.”
Okay, balance and reason time.
One of the irritating things about having these opinions and writing a piece based on them (aside from the inevitable “#firstworldproblems” gems in the comments) is that everyone who ever calls you immediately thinks you hate talking to them on the phone. That’s not true. As I mentioned in a previous piece, I’ll always make exceptions for family, bosses, girlfriends, and agents. Half the time, I consider myself lucky anyone wants to talk to me at all. So I’m not saying this is a hard-and-fast rule. Nor am I saying voice calls are completely useless; there are times when a phone conversation is the only logical way to communicate. I am saying, though, that those occasions are far fewer than some people think. And text-based communication isn’t a fad; it’s the future.
Of course, your mileage may vary based on cultural values where you live, work, and play. But where I’m from, people have been trying to get around the necessity of voice calls for years. Remember the direct-line phone numbers for different carriers’ voicemail systems? They were hosted on pages across the internet so you could dial in and leave someone a voicemail without their phone ringing. Even back in the days of 2G networks, before most Americans knew what text messaging was, we were trying to do an end-run around the phone call. And now we finally have the tools to do it.
Look at your phone. Seriously, take it out and look at it. If you’re reading Pocketnow, it’s probably a smartphone. Does it look like it was designed to be held up to your ear for an extended period, like the clamshell phones of yore? No. It looks like a little handheld tablet, optimized for messaging, media, and content consumption, not for voice. It’s becoming passé -or at least inaccurate- to even call them “phones” anymore. Because they’re not. They’re portable computers that happen to support voice calls.
The carriers saw this coming years ago. They hiked SMS rates and dropped the price of voice minutes into the basement. They saw which way the wind was blowing, and it’s only picked up since. Phone calls had their day in the sun. While they won’t be kicked off the road trip anytime soon, they’ve certainly moved over to the passenger side, and it won’t be long before they’re in the back seat. Customers have a choice: they can either adapt to that new reality, or keep fighting the good fight against the future.
They just need to get used to hearing my voicemail greeting a lot more often, if it’s the latter.