Why Is Voicemail Still a Thing?
I'm looking at you, Mom.
Image: Sam Fadhley/Flickr
There was a time when voicemail messages were not only useful but also necessary. That time ended somewhere around the dawn of texting and smartphones.
These days, we have multiple tools to replace the function of voicemail. I can't remember the last time I got a voice message that contained any information I couldn't have gleaned from the call display on my phone: This person called, from this number, at this time. Got it. Oh, and since you weren't available to receive the call, it's generally safe to assume they would like you to call them back. If I don't recognize the number, I'd much prefer a quick text over a voicemail message as means of identification.
And while other forms of communication have grown more efficient and practical—you can tell an entire story with a series of three emojis, if you know what you're doing—voicemail has actually become more inefficient, cumbersome, and time-consuming. With so many alternatives, why is voicemail still a function on so many of our phones, a ritual in which so many of us still engage, and a technology that's still widely considered necessary, at least in a professional setting?
"Voice [calls]? Fantastic. Voicemail? It's the dodo bird of communications technology," Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT's Center for Digital Business, told me over the phone.
It wasn't always so. The earliest iteration of what we might consider voicemail messaging, rudimentary answering machines, was developed in the 1930s (the exact date, and inventor, is still under dispute), but the machines were not particularly popular. This might have something to do with the fact that only about a third of American households even had phones at that time. Or maybe it had something to do with the depression. Either way, answering machines didn't start to become popular in homes until the 70s and 80s. By the early 90s, two out of every five households had answering machines, according to a New York Times article from 1991.
"Yet some makers of the answering machine predict its eventual demise, at least in its present form," the article prophetically states. "They expect digital technology, the electronic wizardry that makes compact discs possible, to reduce the size of an answering machine so much that its function will become just another feature on a telephone."
At that time, AT&T estimated most households received an average of 2.5 voicemail messages per day (shudder). Voicemail, then in the form of physical answering machines, was a ubiquitous modern convenience. Entire plot points from When Harry Met Sally hinged on the art of the voicemail message. Entire episodes of Seinfeld were driven by this quotidian piece of technology:
It made sense, then, that when we graduated to mobile phones and their use slowly started to eclipse landlines, we would want to bring this imperative service along with it. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, answering machines became digital, more compact and, as predicted, eventually just a function of a phone. Instead of physical, analog machines, voicemail was outsourced to service providers, which would digitally record and store the messages.
Instead of coming home and pressing play on the machine, you now had to call a number and interact with a robotic operator to retrieve your messages. Still, we all accepted this because there didn't seem to be another solution: How else do you know who called, why, and how to call them back? It was a minor, but necessary, chore. By 2004, 78 percent of Americans had some form of voicemail, and 51 percent had caller ID, according to the Pew Research Center.
"Voicemail was considered to be an integral part of enterprise communications," Schrage said. "What you could not know ex ante was that a non-trivial plurality—and then a majority—of people simply didn't want to deal with the inefficiency associated with voicemail."
That inefficiency only seems to have been magnified by the emergence of newer, increasingly efficient forms of instant communication, like texting. Don't get me wrong: Leaving a voicemail isn't particularly burdensome (although some people report a kind of performance anxiety over the task). But fetching a voicemail message? If feels excruciating. In an age when anything slower than instantaneous is unacceptable, being forced to dial into a voicemail service, poke in a passcode, select the option to listen to your new voicemail, and then actually listen to the—likely unnecessary, redundant, and lengthy—message is acute attention torture. It's a four-step, multi-minute long process emotionally equivalent only to having to endure a full 30-second ad before a YouTube video or watching your Dad clip his toenails over the toilet. So why the hell do we still use it?
Well, increasingly, we don't. Countless think pieces have marveled over the fact that millennials eschew the technology. Businesses from JPMorgan to Coke have started scrapping voicemail to cut costs (and, presumably, because it was an inessential service). Phone company Vonage reported a 14 percent dropin retrieved voicemails from 2011-2012, and another 8 percent drop in both sent and received voicemails from 2013-2014. Tellingly, Vonage doesn't even bother tracking voicemail usage anymore.
"I, personally, don't know anyone under the age of 50 who uses voicemail regularly," Schrage said.
Instead, Vonage and others are cooking up a kind of transitionary tech, bridging the gap between older generations that haven't yet adopted newer forms of communication and younger generations who can't be bothered. It includesvisual voicemail, which sends you a transcript of voicemail messages either via email or text, and services that send you an audio file via text, instead of requiring you to dial in and check your inbox. Another option is to link your landline to your cell, so when a call comes and you're not home, it gets punted to where you actually are.
"Forty percent of today's workforce is made up of millennials, a group that lives on their devices and is used to all of their content in the cloud," Jennifer Holzapfel, a spokesperson for Vonage, wrote in an email. "Voicemail is changing to follow those same rules."
But there's the rub: For the 60 percent of the workforce that isn't made up of millennials, voicemail may still be considered a necessary point of contact. Some people, particularly older generations, don't check email regularly, find texting slow and frustrating, and consider a phone call more personable and polite. There's also a cohort of young people who still love the voicemail, and find it a more human way to communicate
So until this chunk of the population embraces the future, or dies off, we'll probably hold on to voicemail for a few years yet. If you're like me, though, and loathe the anachronistic timewaster, you'll probably hope Schrage's dodo bird analogy extends to the voicemail's ultimate demise.
Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.