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Insider December 30, 2021 — The rise of audio communication

Voice’s renaissance

Hey, hey, hey. I recently heard someone liken times of year to the days of the week (e.g., January = Monday), and I can’t help but think that, yes, of course the Thursday of 2021 (New Year’s Eve Eve) fell on an actual Thursday. It’s that day you just wish would end already, which is currently how I feel about this year.

Fortunately, looking back isn’t all bad. As the year wraps up, I’ve got a cool little story about a phenomenon that’s played out throughout the pandemic. Hope you enjoy.

Hey, the ‘80s called — just ‘cuz calling has gotten really popular

Live audio apps clearly had a moment this year, but that hasn’t been the only boom in using voice. Spoken person-to-person communication has had all kinds of bumps throughout the pandemic — and I reached out to a bunch of companies to learn what they’ve been seeing:

  • In April 2020, the amount of time US callers spent talking on the phone surged to 40 percent over pre-pandemic levels, according to Verizon and AT&T. As of October 2021, Verizon’s numbers have dropped a bit, but they’re still 20 percent higher than before lockdowns began.
  • There was a 20 percent increase in the amount of voice messages sent via Facebook Messenger in the US from March 2020 to March 2021. As of late November 2021, 400 million voice messages had been sent via Messenger every day.
  • On New Year’s Eve 2020, WhatsApp broke its all-time record for the number of calls made on the app in a single day, period. Users called one another, using voice or video, a total of 1.4 billion times.

In addition to these hard metrics, updates and improvements for call- and voice-messaging apps have gotten sustained focus from their parent companies. WhatsApp made it possible to speed up the playback of messages that you receive, then started beta testing the ability to continue playing a message when the app is closed. Slack debuted its own capabilities to record and send voice messages within message threads (and play them back at different speeds), and that was just a few months after introducing Huddles, its live audio feature.

On top of the various writers who have recently published about the joys of sending voice memos, particularly in contrast to the dryness of texting, some people have come to prefer these asynchronous voice options because of their schedules and circumstances. Julia Holland, a marketing specialist from Quincy, Massachusetts, says that while dating during the pandemic, she didn’t feel safe meeting up in person but still wanted to get a sense of someone’s personality; since phone calls felt “awkward” with a stranger, she’d suggest that they exchange voice messages instead. (Acknowledging that Hinge recently introduced this as an in-app feature, she laughs, “they stole my trick!”) Graham Cook, an audio producer in Philadelphia, says he’s recently opted for voice messages while driving: if a time-sensitive question comes through via text, he feels safer absent-mindedly tapping once on the screen, recording his voice, then tapping it again, rather than navigating to a whole new window to make a phone call. And a friend of mine who used to call me every Saturday morning throughout the pandemic? She’s now got a thriving social and professional (and vaccinated) life in Arizona — and has since moved to voice memos. 

It’s not yet clear if these voice trends will continue. Meta declined to share comparative voice communication data from any later than March 2021, keeping hush on more recent changes in traffic for either voice messages or calls within WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Instagram DMs. Apple, which has its own recording function in iMessage, declined to release its own numbers. AT&T didn’t offer updated calling rates to show if it had a decline like Verizon. At any rate, Omicron is likely already complicating any projections about where and how people will spend their time. But if you have any leads, why don’t you give me a call?

Take care, folks. I mean it.