Clive Thompson, Clive Thompson on the Death of the Phone Call
According to Nielsen, the average number of mobile phone calls we make is dropping every year, after hitting a peak in 2007. And our calls are getting shorter: In 2005 they averaged three minutes in length; now they’re almost half that.
We’re moving, in other words, toward a fascinating cultural transition: the death of the telephone call. This shift is particularly stark among the young. Some college students I know go days without talking into their smartphones at all. I was recently hanging out with a twentysomething entrepreneur who fumbled around for 30 seconds trying to find the option that actually let him dial someone.
This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social-network messaging. And we don’t just have more options than we used to. We have better ones: These new forms of communication have exposed the fact that the voice call is badly designed. It deserves to die.
I honestly dislike ‘phone calls’ — random, out of the blue interruptions by someone who has my phone number. On the other hand, I have many long phone conversations every week, which are increasingly on Skype or soon, I bet, on my iPhone (or iPad, once it is rigged with cameras), involving video communication. These are situations where I will put aside other work, and solely focus on the topic of the call. Note however that these sessions often involve multiple people, and generally include real-time chat among the parties. These are more like online meetings.
But yes, I find that I use other communication preferentially, like texting and Twitter — where I don’t have to dedicate my foreground attention. I have set up my voice mail to redirect to Google Voice, so I can get a transcript of the voice mail, after which I treat it like a text message.
And I find it odd when I realize that someone I am working with is a ‘phone person’ — someone whose primary mode of interaction is via phone calls. It seems old-fashioned, like smoking a pipe, or wearing a cravat.
Thompson suggests that adding presence to handsets would help, since this would mean that we’d know if someone was available for a call. I think that doesn’t work, really. It just creates another layer of etiquette, where people would want to indicate they are around for emergencies, but not for casual chat, and they would have to update their presence everytime they were on a call or went to a meeting. Better to text and ask if someone if free to take a call, I think, if only because it can be ignored or deferred until an appropriate moment.