Best friends Hope Sloop and Bobbi Miller first met on TikTok. Although they have known each other for less than a year, they rarely see each other in person because they live on opposite coasts. But one particular form of communication has kept them close: voice messages.
Also called "voice texts," "voice notes" and "audio messages" — not to be confused with voice-to-text through virtual assistants like Siri — voice messages are a feature built into messaging apps including iMessage and WhatsApp.
"Between Bobbi and I, we probably send each other anywhere from 10 to 50 a day," Sloop said. "It's a lot."
Texting can muddle meaning, and calls can trigger anxiety. But for many, short voice recordings offer an easier, low-pressure alternative in a world that's grown more accustomed to audio mediums such as Clubhouse and podcasts.
The ability to communicate tone is a big part of the appeal.
"We're able to hear the sheer joy in each other's voice," Miller said of her friendship with Sloop. "Or if we're going through something, just like having a hard time, sometimes in text the gravity of the situation doesn't always get relayed."
"It really just helps to mitigate any of that gray area of what you're saying. It's just very, very direct and I think it feels much more conversational," Miller added.
Miller and Sloop, both 24, aren't an anomaly among their Gen Z cohort. Though the feature has been available in popular apps for over a decade, it has increasingly become a favorite way to connect, especially among younger generations.
According to a recent YouGov survey conducted by Vox, 62% of Americans say they've sent a voice message, and about 30% communicate by voice message weekly, daily or multiple times a day. And 43% of 18- to 29-year-olds who responded to the survey said they use the feature at least weekly.
WhatsApp revealed last year that an average 7 billion voice messages were sent daily on the app.
In isolated times, the audio-friendly tech boom may be influencing our communication styles
For some, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of the communication form.
Shortly after its launch, the Chinese messaging app WeChat added the feature in 2011. WhatsApp's came a couple years after that. Apple caught on to the fad, releasing voice messages on iMessage in 2014.
But in 2020, those who longed for connection while homebound found their social salve in voice notes.
"I miss chatting verbally with friends and family members, so these days it's especially comforting to hear their voices come through my phone speakers." Nicole Gallucci wrote for Mashable that year.
At the same time, audio-heavy social media was emerging. Clubhouse, which launched the same month as lockdowns in the U.S., drew millions to the app's live audio rooms. Twitter answered with its own audio-only town hall feature, Spaces. Dating apps Hinge and Bumble have also caught up to the trend.
As voice messages become a growing preference for consumers, trend forecasting firm Trendera reports a simultaneous shift in increasing consumption of podcasts, audiobooks and other audio-only content.
So voice messages no longer seem like such a far jump.
With more people working from home since the pandemic disrupted the workplace, fewer adopters have to wait until they find a quiet place to listen to audio texts.
It's no wonder Miller, who hosts her own podcast covering pop culture, has grown comfortable enough with hearing her own voice to send her friends minutes-long messages.
Her friends jokingly refer to those missives as "the Bobbi podcast."
Still, the feature has its haters. "I absolutely despise it when people use voice notes over just plain old texting," Talla Kuperman, a jewelry designer in her early 40s told The Wall Street Journal. Having received drawn-out voice notes, she thinks that, in the absence of a universal etiquette for them, some are far too time-consuming. "I actually find it very selfish," she said.
Voice notes can help us bond
Research suggests that you don't necessarily have to be a fan of voice messages to reap their benefits.
"There is a fundamental mode of communication that connects human beings and their social needs, and that's hearing a voice," Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, told NPR.
For a paper published in 2021, he studied the benefits and drawbacks of various forms of tech-enabled communication. He found that interactions involving voice (phone, video chat and voice chat) produced stronger social bonds and no increased feelings of awkwardness when compared with text-based interactions (e-mail, text chat). Still, he says his research suggests that "asynchronous" forms of communication like voice notes, that don't involve a back-and-forth dialogue, can't replace the benefits of "synchronous" calls that allow us to pick up on linguistic cues to have a more seamless, responsive conversation.
The appeal of the voice note
So, why not just opt for a call? For one, tech fatigue has come to include phone calls.
"For whatever reason, traditional phone calls are increasingly a work-related activity," said Jasmine Golphin, a 36-year-old filmmaker.
Voice notes also don't require carving out a dedicated time to hop on the phone, she said.
People NPR spoke to for this story said they tend to be a lot more forgiving when expecting a quick reply to voice notes. The fact that read receipts — those time stamps that snitch on you if you've seen a message but haven't responded yet — aren't an option on voice notes removes some of the pressure.
"I don't have that same level of anxiety as to whether someone's going to respond or not, because I don't know if they listen to it," Miller said. "It gives people plausible deniability."
Then there's the beauty of the voice note's ephemerality. On the iPhone's messaging platform, if you don't "keep" a voice text within two minutes of receiving, the message vanishes. (You can also tweak expiration length to "never" in settings). That removes the formality of "getting it right," with the added benefit of not squandering phone storage.
As Gen Zers resurrect outmoded technology, like film and point-and-shoot cameras, Sloop thinks the voice note — which recalls walkie-talkies — similarly caters to the demographic's nostalgic leanings that offer a respite from the abundance of other tech.
Plus, it's just plain fun, she says.
"Every time I've ever gotten a 4-minute, 3-minute podcast voice message, it's always like, let me grab my little popcorn," Sloop said. "Something's going to be said that is going to be entertaining. It's going to have a beginning, middle and end. It's a storytelling experience." [Copyright 2023 NPR]