Voicemail, that old voice era hallmark, is dead. But app-centric voice messaging is very alive


Just over a month ago I turned off my voicemail. After voice calls and SMSes, voicemail has been the longest used service I’ve had since I bought my first cellphone in 1996. It was an essential part of the cellphone era, wasn’t it?

To say I hardly miss it, hardly needs to be said. Like just about everyone I know these days, my voicemail has politely implored people not to leave a message and to rather text or email me. I even helpfully spelled out my email address.

People still left voicemail. For years it hasn’t really bothered me because for the last decade I have paid for an extra voice-to-text translation service that turned those messages into text. Instead of listening to my voicemail, I would get these handy SMS messages – with most of it properly converted into text.

But when Vodacom shut it down at the beginning of November, I took it as a sign that it was time to just turn off voicemail altogether.

For the past month my life has continued without voicemail without it being missed in the slightest. I quite rightly assumed that I don’t have to ask people to send me a text message (via whatever channel they prefer) because that is now the common assumption.


Except voice messaging is flourishing; and from an unexpected source. Almost every texting app – including WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger and WeChat – let you send short audio clips

I have to admit – perhaps irrationally – to not liking voice messages because they defeat the point of a text messaging app: to send text messages.

That’s not to say they aren’t useful. For the sender, they are especially handy. Instead of typing up a note with your thumbs, you can hold down the microphone icon and dictate a message.

What could be easier? Just ask the WeChat users who sent 6.1bn voice messages last year. There is a sincerity to hearing a voice message as opposed to reading a text one. You can hear real emotion in someone’s voice and it’s a much warmer, more intimate way to communicate, isn’t it. Even if it’s one sided.

But you can’t just glance at your phone’s locked screen notification to see whether its urgent or not – because you just get the voice message icon. Nor can you discretely listen to it like you can reply to a really urgent text message. It feels like a fundamental betrayal of the whole point of text messaging, doesn’t it?

We’re not making as many phone calls any more, as the voice-centric cellphone was replaced by the data-centric smartphone. We stopped holding cellphones next to our heads and instead stare down at smartphones scrolling through social media and tapping out messages.

Now, the phone is going back up to our ears, as it were. Unless of course you’re a Bluetooth headphone user.

Voice messaging is more personal – albeit many people are unfortunately given to unnecessarily rambling – and it’s the evolution of messaging happening in front of our eyes. Whether it’s a permanent new feature, or a passing generic fad, we’ll probably know in the distant future. Like next year.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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