Image: Nico Kaiser/Flickr
On any given block in Buenos Aires, you are likely to see someone speaking into their phone, but not on it; talking to someone, but not necessarily with anyone. I recently visited the city, and was struck by the fact that it seemed like all the citizens were walking around expressively talking to themselves. In reality, most people are perpetually sending voice memos to one another.
The phone call has long been a thing of the past when it comes to daily communication, but in Argentina, mobile phone users are increasingly turning to voice memos instead of texting to communicate.
"There’s no way you can confuse the intent of things, you can hear the tone of voice."
These messages are sent almost exclusively through WhatsApp, which has around 11 million users in Argentina. Federico Novick, who is from Buenos Aires and is doing graduate research in Internet Studies in the US, said many people in Latin America use WhatsApp instead of SMS because it’s relatively cheap.
“The main reason people use WhatsApp in Argentina is because in many Latin countries, you have to pay for every text you send,” he said, “whereas with WhatsApp, you pay one price for data and you can send as many as you want.
My friends there tell me the voice note phenomenon started when WhatsApp introduced voice messages in 2013. Novick said because WhatsApp is such a major platform in Argentina, users quickly embrace new features, particularly the voice message, which appeals to Argentina’s talkative culture.
“The audio feature has gained popularity because Argentinians like to talk, they like to hear themselves and their voices and each other,” he said.
The volleying of voice messages often starts off with the same phrase: “Paja escribir,” or “Too lazy to write.” Then the exchange begins.
A group text in Argentina.
“For us it’s really practical,” Nacho Castillo, another friend of mine who lives in Argentina, tells me. “If you are driving, or walking, or doing something and you can’t type––or even if you can type, many people prefer sending a voice message anyway. It works really well and answers all your communication needs.”
There is apparently a whole separate system of social rules to abide by when sending voice notes.
“At first there was a certain level of trust, like you wouldn’t send a voice note to any old work friend, just to close friends,” my friend Valentina Ruderman told me. “Now you can send it to more and more people, but it’s still a step in romantic relationships, sending voice messages.”
Another friend told me a girl he never actually hangs out with frequently sends him 15 minute voice memos talking about what she did that day, decidedly a breach of voice message etiquette. “I’ve never actually listened to anything she’s sent me,” he told me.
The same friend told me that after nights out, his group chats are filled with long, drunk voice messages from everyone in the message that almost nobody actually listens to. Ruderman said she sees this as somewhat of a dark side to voice memos, saying often they are the equivalent of saying, “Let me finish,” or generally not caring what the other person has to say.
“There are people who overuse them, too, sending messages of one second like, ‘I’m coming,’” she said. “There are people who don’t write at all anymore.”
Planning a dinner by voice memos in a group message.
But there are many benefits to sending voice messages, including the convenience of being able to send them while driving or walking. Most taxi drivers I spoke with used voice messages instead of texting while driving. Another benefit of voice messages is that they leave no room for misinterpretation, unlike text messages
“This makes it all more transparent, there’s no way you can confuse the intent of things, you can hear the tone of voice,” Ruderman said. “There aren’t a thousand ways you can interpret one phrase.”
Users can also forward the same message they sent to one person to multiple people for a more efficient way of spreading information. Ruderman says she will often start a voice memo with something like ‘My night last night,’ tell the story, and then send it to multiple people so she doesn’t have to retell it.
The downside of this convenience is the ease of forwarding to others voice notes someone else sent you, and the inability to deny saying something when the evidence is right there, in your own voice.
“There have been a lot of scandals with voice messages because you can resend the message itself,” Castillo said. “If it’s a celebrity, you realize it’s the voice of a celebrity. I know someone who is friends with a few local celebrities and will sometimes forward their voice messages to different group chats.”
Despite the scandals, the greatest appeal of voice messages may be that they offer a more personal form of communication than a series of text messages.
“If there’s someone you haven’t talked to for a long time and they send you a voice message, you can remember how their voice sounds,” Ruderman said.
After returning to the US from Argentina, I began to replay some of the voice messages from friends I already missed there and realized Ruderman is right: The messages provide a level of intimacy that texts do not. I’ve now started sending voice messages of my own and attempting to introduce my American friends to voice memos.
As technology makes it increasingly easy to communicate across oceans, it also separates us to a degree from the intimacy of face-to-face communication. Voice messages offer somewhat of a remedy––and it might be time for the rest of the world to catch on.