In Argentina, text message fields are filled with wordless, empty bubbles. In China, the hundreds of millions of WeChat users bark into their phones publicly instead of scrolling through clunky pinyin keyboards. The rest of the world is slowly giving up on texting. Why?
Voice messages. That is, recording your message in a tiny audio clip, then sending it instead of a text. It's like leaving little voicemails back and forth. You might know it as the microphone icon next to the text field on your iPhone's Messages app.
Audio messages on WhatsApp are especially popular in Buenos Aires, where, according to an Argentine graduate student conducting research on Internet culture in the United States, "Argentinians like to talk, they like to hear themselves and their voices and each other."
"If you are driving, or walking, or doing something and you can't type — or even if you can type," another Argentine told Motherboard, "many people prefer sending a voice message anyway. It works really well and answers all your communication needs."
In the United States, however, Apple's voice messaging hasn't caught on in the same way. And in mobile history, voice messaging hasn't always been convenient or useful. But now, popular message apps have the function built in, phones have high-quality recording and storage space and bandwidth is more plentiful than ever. The voice memo's moment is about to arrive.
It's time we caught up to Argentina and China. Even if it makes us look like we're in this hilarious Boost Mobile ad from 2004, shouting "Where you at?" into our phones like Ludacris, Kanye West and the Game.
Some college students spend up to eight to 10 hours a day on their phones, according to a 2014 Baylor University study. We need to reclaim that time. We need to get our voices back.
Young people are already phasing texts out of their lives: Jenny, a 38-year-old from Michigan, says voice texts are about 25% of her communications, though there'd be much more if other people in her life had an iPhone. Voice messages give Jenny the ability to never get it wrong, never be misunderstood — to add all of the context clues lost in texting back into her communication.
"I would say more of my female friends voice message me back than male friends, relatives and [my] significant other," Jenny told Mic. "But even he knows I would rather hear him say he loves me than read it in a message."
"I find it easier while traveling to communicate with my fiancé," said Tricia, a South Carolina-based 28-year-old entertainment writer who has to switch back to texting when she attends loud shows for work. "For me, the biggest benefit is being able to clearly communicate my exact verbiage and tone without any guesswork needed by the other party."
Voices have brightness, timing, ambient sound, dynamic range. You might lose emojis and GIFs, but you get back humor, vibrancy and the convenience of autocorrect never bungling another message again.
"[My] significant other knows I would rather hear him say he loves me than read it in a message." — Jenny, 38
"If someone tried to cut me off in line, saying, 'Oh hell no, that bitch did not try to just cut me off,' is a lot funnier for my friends to hear instead of read," Jenny said.
But beyond the nuances in communication, one of the best things we save is time. The longer a message is, the quicker it would be speak it aloud. Wanting to send a paragraphs-long text and sick of tapping it out one character at a time? Send a voice memo and shave the time down.
"It comes handy for longer messages, which I could speak out in five seconds," said Zack, a 38-year-old from San Diego for whom voice messaging accounts for about 40% of his texting. "It's more convenient and don't have to worry about autocorrecting."
Some people think voice messaging is an abomination and a blasphemy. After all, there are plenty of reasons not to like sending your own voice. Maybe you'd rather take your time crafting a message. Or maybe you'd rather people stop wasting yours by making them decipher your garbled voice memos. Author and New York Observer editor at-large Ryan Holiday* recently wrote:
Let me get this straight. You think you're so important than instead of spending five minutes assembling your thoughts into coherent and clear sentences, you thought it'd be better to send an unedited three-minute stream of consciousness audio file that we, as the recipient have to download and listen to? Instead of actually calling and interacting with someone like a human being, you thought it'd be better to just record it and lob it over.
Oh but it's easier for you that way? Fuck you. Fuck you in your self-important, externalizing face.
Holiday's argument is that when you send a voice message, you're being selfish. Sure, you save yourself the time and effort of composing your thoughts more succinctly, but the recipient has to listen to your voice message, possibly over and over again, just to get your meaning.
It's way easier than you think to start doing this regularly: Ever since last September when Apple released iOS 8, it's been easy to send these messages. The best way is to open your text conversation, hold the little microphone icon to the write of the message field, speak your message and, without lifting a finger, flick your thumb straight up to the arrow icon. When you release, the message will send automatically.
You can keep voice memos that might be important to hold on to — like if someone says something particularly sweet, or perhaps threatening — but everything you don't explicitly save will be deleted to make room on your device. Facebook's Messages app, one of the most consistently downloaded apps in the country, has a very similar feature.
*Disclaimer: Holiday was this writer's editor at the Observer. When he learned I'd be working on this story, his advice was that I "should just say: 'You know, I was going to write a thoughtful entertaining article about this plague on human decency but instead of just recorded a few minutes of audio of me talking to myself while I was driving. Here you go everyone!'"
Last names were withheld.