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Artillery Row

The invasiveness of voice notes

Don’t send them, and if you must send them keep them short

The first time I ever received a voice note was a startling and sinister experience. Rather than reading whatever somebody had deemed necessary to tell me from far away, I was suddenly required to listen to the information instead. More important than anything is that the decision to interact in this capacity was entirely theirs. Where a text had been sent, a voice note inexplicably followed.

I might call it an affront; an imposition, even — this (once) new-fangled way to communicate and interact that requires a whole other level of engagement and energy. 

Why do we put up with this? Voice notes come with a heightened degree of urgency, and the need for such a sentiment is assumed by the sender, yet this is clearly not such an urgent situation that they will actually call you. You should hear their voice, in other words, but they are not committed to hearing yours.

You might think I should more readily adapt. Voice notes have been around to some extent since 2013, after all. But they’ve only really become popular in the last couple of years. Maybe it was lockdown. Their trajectory has been Muskian. 

Of course, I am not entirely averse to modernity. Tapping my phone in place of an Oyster card when travelling on the TfL network has proved welcome. So too has connecting my phone to whatever car I’m driving so I might listen to questionable covers of popular music by unfashionable musicians. I greatly enjoy Netflix.

Imagine replying to a text with a voice note. Imagine

There just seems an element of narcissism at play here. Just because the sender’s circumstances means a voice note is the most practical way to communicate for 60 seconds does not mean listening for that amount of time is the most practical way to receive it on the other side. It is such a mindless and abrasive assumption. Imagine replying to a text with a voice note. Imagine.

Also, you can scan a text message from anywhere, at any time, but voice notes are reliant on the environment. Listen in the hubbub of traffic, for example, and everything is soured — in listening and in speaking. If you are in the office, or church, or possibly prison: headphones. That’s tedious time spent.

I concede that they are not absolute in their wretchedness and that there is an exception: voice notes can be enjoyable if funny. The Wembley Lasagne story that went viral in March 2020 — as lockdown hit, while everyone was speculating as to what on earth was going on — was a joy. Round and round it went, a preposterous and nonsensical tale about how the government was baking an enormous lasagne in Wembley Stadium. It would be cut up and deployed by drones to those in need, said then 29-year-old Billy McClean, an unknown software salesman from London. It was a fabulous spoof. So long as there is entertainment value — there are a handful of people from whom I find voice notes acceptable: one is a publican; another is a friend called Chris who pretends to be a radio presenter called Ellick Bowen — voice notes aren’t hell.

Yet as ever the exception proves the rule. There are those who argue that it is softer and more intimate to hear somebody’s voice than read a message. Let’s journey back to a time when voicemails were common: I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who enjoys listening to those. Audio received later on isn’t the same as a real-time conversation over the phone. Voice notes aren’t as personal as people think they are. They are just reminders of the distance between you and your interlocutor, and of the absence of real communication.

If they must be sent — unless, as I mentioned before, they are 1 minute 15 seconds of comedy gold — they should never exceed 30 seconds, just as text messages should never be essays. Keep it short and as sweet as the form allows.

Yes, I receive voice notes. When pushed, I send them. I must because it’s the way of things. Technology has taken life out of our hands for the most part — the desires of a few people who are good at computers dictates so much of how we exist today, pushing us ever closer to a clinical world of robot shagging and driverless cars casually mowing down hapless kids.

I suppose I just wish we weren’t so compliant. Unlike phone calls or texts (which might be short little letters), there is no romanticism to voice notes. They are humanity slipping away. You can send them to me, but I can’t promise I will listen.

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