Are Folks Hanging up - for Good - on the Telephone?

Ann All

It's been nearly two years since I wrote about the so-called death of voice mail, sharing my own thoughts as well as those of TechCrunch's Michael Arrington and others. Now it looks as if the telephone, the instrument one uses to leave voice mails, is itself in danger of extinction.


In a New York Times piece, Pamela Paul opines that "full-fledged adults" have followed teenagers in largely giving up the telephone. Well, not giving it up, exactly, but using it more for texting than for talking. As Paul notes, Nielsen Media expects text spending to outpace voice spending on cell phones within three years.


Paul speaks to a number of folks to back up her hunch, based on her own habits, that no one uses the phone anymore. She quotes Judith Martin, a k a Miss Manners, as saying "the telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people." (Maybe. But it's pretty easy to ignore a ringing phone. Much easier, say, than ignoring a person who is ostensibly in a discussion with you, all the while texting someone else.) Several others tell Paul they now make appointments to schedule business-related phone calls.


Another of Paul's sources is Claude S. Fischer, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of a book on the history of the telephone and more recently, "Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970." Ironically, Fischer's voice-mail recording warns callers "I don't check these messages often" and encourages them to try email.


He tells Paul phones were first sold exclusively for business purposes and only later for home use. Social interactions were discouraged at first "because it was considered improper usage," Fischer says. These comments seem to imply that phasing out phone usage is just another in a long chain of changes in interpersonal communications.


A 6-month-old Washington Post article republished at Tulsa World offers some statistics to help illustrate the trend of declining voice usage. The average length of a cell phone call dropped from 2.38 minutes in 1993 to 1.81 minutes in 2009, according to industry data. Between 2005 and 2009, the number of cellphone messages containing text or multimedia content jumped by 1,840 percent.


The growth is led by 18- to 34-year-olds, whose average monthly voice minutes fell from about 1,200 to 900 in the past two years, according to Nielsen research. Texting increased from an average of 600 messages a month two years ago to the current 1,400-plus texts a month.


No ages are given for the 468 folks who left online comments on Paul's New York Times piece. But they were overwhelmingly in favor of the phone, with only a small sliver saying they rarely used the phone and a larger number blasting the Times for what they considered navel-gazing. (My favorite of these last types of comments, from Geronimo in California: "Scanty personal observation fluffed up to an hobbyist sociological theory, and garnished with pretend philosophy-of-life. Yep, it's another New York Times think piece.")


Julie, a lawyer from New York City, writes:


... Crafting an email response to a client (depending on the inquiry) very often takes twice as long as explaining it over the phone (read: saves $$$$ for client). and the phone conversation has the added benefit of building a personal relationship with the client and saving the client the time of parsing through paragraphs of legalese. ...


She also extols the joys of phone conversations with distant friends and family, saying "i want to hear the belly laugh and sniffles and all the other subtleties of phone conversation."


Artie from Honolulu echoes Julie, saying, "In my experience, phone calls can be useful in the work environment, saving the time it takes to compose an email about trivial details." He adds:


More importantly, if you write an email, it may end up anywhere--beware! Phone calls evaporate into the ether, unless your phone is tapped. There are certain personnel matters, for example, that should only be discussed in person or on the phone. ...


Dan from NYC notes, "The popularity of Skype seems to imply that people still enjoy telephone conversation with the added benefit of face-to-face interaction."


Business concerns aside, many commenters worry about the cultural effects of substituting text and emails for phone calls. From Michael Simmons, who lists his location as Planet Earth:


More celebration of society's continuing dehumanization. It sometimes takes 5 emails to answer a question that can be settled in a one-minute call. Most people don't fully read or absorb emails. Most people aren't writers. And most people in the Twenty-Worst Century are dumber, less soulful, less generous, less thoughtful than humans were 40 years ago. Give me the warmth of a human voice anytime. But if folks have no warmth to offer, then they might as well stick to texting. ...

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Mar 23, 2011 6:49 PM Ron Ron  says:

In response to the responses in the article from people that appear to be working in professional areas of business. In this regard there will always be the need for either face-to-face conversations or via land-line or cellular phone systems. Though it is a bit amazing that there are not more visual telephone systems in place to allow a more personal communication experience.

In business we need that personal touch, as children and teens take over the cellular phone usage, you see less and less need for the traditional means of communication. Its just the next step in evolution. As an older adult, it see no need to really chat on the phone anymore, not when I can create web-based information that can get the point across just as easily as chatting in person, and with less hassles then dealing with an person - in person.

Its still to early to really judge what is going to happen in the future, we are still a young species, and all can change either forward or backward...


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