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A s the pandemic transformed the world in 2020, we leaned further into our reliance on technology, which continued to alter and tweak how we engage with each other. There were obvious winners; the Zoom app thrived; another app called Houseparty was the biggest thing for all of two weeks before it was never heard of again. Amid all these crazes, however, a quietly unassuming communication tool also flourished – the small but mighty “voice note”.
First introduced by WhatsApp in 2013, and later adopted by iMessage, Facebook and Instagram, the voice note – a short recorded message – became an instant success among millennials. Initially its rise was spoken of as a passing fad, but time has shown it has in fact become a major communicative asset. Seen by many as the perfect medium between phone calls, texts and unwanted voicemails, the voice note fits seamlessly into the modern world in a way that its cousins the phone call and voicemail do not. At some point in the past five years, “let me voice note you” has become one of my most-used phrases, as I try to explain something in detail and depth.
Communication fatigue last year manifested itself like never before. The pandemic proved a challenging time for most, burnout was real, angst was high, and being “Zoomed out” became a very real thing. When at home (which for many of us was almost all the time), the desire to hear people but not necessarily see them grew; how many of you were reminded that your Zoom camera was not on, after intentionally switching it off?
The voice note proved itself to be the perfect pandemic companion. As people’s homes became their offices, the need for communication that respected boundaries became all the more important. Herein lies the genius of the voice note – it maintains intimacy, being able to hear that friendly voice, while not being intrusive.
In an era of pressured fast replies, voice notes gave people their technological agency back; and in lockdown, one of the most pressured periods in the modern age, this was essential. We have all been there: someone sends us a voice message and we simply don’t have the energy to play it. Thankfully voice note etiquette does not demand that people reply straight away; the power lies with the recipient, who can play the voice note and reply to it in their own time. And unlike with voicemails, there’s no plodding automated procedure to go through to get to the messages. And you can keep them as long as you like, and go back to them in an instant. The joys of communicative flexibility! There is of course voice note etiquette that not all abide by, and I admit I have left a message or two longer than the one-minute mark.
Technological connectivity naturally increased during lockdown, but this has not necessarily meant people have felt more connected – in fact, there has been a growth in the “loneliness epidemic”. According to the Mental Health Foundation, the lockdown left millions of people across Britain feeling increasingly isolated. Of course, no one is claiming that voice notes are complete remedies for loneliness, but one cannot deny the value of their uninhibited nature. The ability to convey tone, nuance, emotion and idiosyncrasies – to hear the shriek in a friend’s laugh, or the gasp of shock in a family member’s voice – these are things that any number of texts, even with emojis and gifs, cannot convey. The voice note, unlike written messages, leaves little room for misinterpretation; what you hear is what you get. The unedited flow of a voice note permits a means of communication that feels more genuine to both participants.
The pandemic also transformed the world of dating; the app Bumble added a new feature, and the popularity of “voice-note dating” has risen. In a time of lockdown and social distancing, this seems to be a natural evolution in communicating romantically.
Interestingly, this reliance on audio comfort and communication has fed into the success of the new audio app Clubhouse, which in many ways is the development of the voice note.
As most of the country has entered the new year in tier 3 or tier 4, the lack of social activity looks set to continue for months. So if you’re not already using voice notes, the chances are that in 2021 they’ll be impossible to avoid.
Magdalene Abraha is a writer and publisher at Jacaranda Books. She runs the A Quick Ting On series