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Silicon notebook: The end of voicemail
Voicemail is going the way of the fax, writes April Dembosky in San Francisco. Once the heralded, get-it-anywhere solution to the home answering machine, voicemail is now a clunky, slow technology approaching obsolescence.
Even the politesse reserved for those who insist on calling has been replaced with the urgency of Silicon Valley hyperproductivity in outgoing messages. “Hi this is Helen. I can read your text faster than I can listen to your voicemail,” is the greeting on Helen Phung’s mobile phone. The senior PR manager for a San Francisco start-up, she likens voicemail to junk mail. “You’re never going to look at it,” she says. “It only exists for people who are accustomed to hearing someone’s voice. The immediacy of texting is the default.”
At Vonage, the internet phone company, voicemails left on the network declined by 8 per cent between July 2011 and July 2012. The number of people who actually listened to those messages was even lower – retrieved voicemails fell by 14 per cent.
Voicemail is becoming such a relic, there are actually guides on the internet for the texting generation on how to leave a message. “You might be used to simply relying on [parents and friends] to call you back when they see you’ve called,” one of the tips pages says.
“You can’t count on this with professional and academic contacts, so the first rule of voicemail etiquette is to leave a voice mail the first time you call.”
Several technology companies, from Google to start-ups, now provide transcription services that deliver text versions of voicemails as texts or emails. But these are often full of gibberish and poor mobile phone connections mean computers and humans can only capture 80 per cent of a voicemail anyway.
“I feel burdened when I see there’s a message,” my friend Alicia tells me, after hanging up in the middle of the message I left for her before calling me back. Though she is thorough and prompt in returning work messages, she’s notorious for ignoring or deleting voicemails from friends without listening to them. That got her into trouble when one left a message saying her grandmother had died.
“It was three days and I finally listened to it,” Ali says. “I felt super-guilty. I tell my friends, ‘Don’t leave me important voicemails, text me.’”
April Dembosky is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent