Burned out on screens, people are sending lengthy voice notes instead

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Monica Gross, a 30-year-old comedian in Toronto, noticed something odd happening at house parties last year. People were ducking into bathrooms, hallways and quiet corners to record and listen to voice notes — audio recordings you send like a text.

Gross quickly picked up the habit herself.

“When you have so much on your mind and you’re like, ‘This is going to be a paragraph,’ you may as well just make a voice note,” she said.

From house-party bathrooms to internet culture, voice notes are having a moment. Threading a needle between texting and calling, the audio messages are emerging as an alternative to typing on phones. Some say they’re a welcome peek into the emotional states of friends when in-person conversations are rare. Others watch the messages pile up and feel like they’re getting homework. Like all tech trends, the popularity of voice notes tells us about the connections people crave.

Voice notes, which the sender dictates out loud, got prime placement in Apple’s texting app Messages in 2014. Since then, they’ve been added to almost every major social media and messaging platform. Dating app Hinge lets users send voice notes — and those who do are 48 percent more likely to get a date, the company says. On TikTok, people joke that the long, rambling audio clips they send to their friends, partners or parents are “podcasts” based on the plot points of their everyday lives.

To send one, you typically press and hold a microphone icon, speak your mind and send it off. Depending on the app, you can review your note first, listen at a faster or slower speed, or go full circle and read an automated transcript of the note. In Messages, voice notes are ephemeral, disappearing after they’re played, creating a confusing experience for some users.

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People who rely on voice notes are convinced they solve a problem. For the burned out, they’re a break from looking at screens. For the busy, they offer the convenience of talking without the commitment of a phone call. And in an email-and-Slack-drenched world where efficiency reigns, meandering voice notes can be a sweet source of intimacy, fans said.

But not too much intimacy. Unlike calling on the phone, voice notes don’t demand immediate or sustained attention, said Leora Trub, who runs the Digital Media and Psychology Lab at Pace University. That makes voice notes just the right amount of vulnerable for young adults who, on the whole, have fewer friends than generations past, according to the Survey Center on American Life.

“The voice note is this attempt to go back to calling, without actually calling,” Trub said. “There’s such a taboo around calling people; there’s such a fear of interrupting people’s lives.”

Even as our comfort with phone calls has dipped, interest in other audio has grown. Instagram, Facebook, X and Snapchat all offer voice notes in their direct messages. Snap says voice note usage has gone up 50 percent during the past two years.

It’s not just one-on-one chats. On Meta’s Threads, celebrities including Cardi B and Serena Williams share voice notes with their followers. Some perpetual podcast listeners keep audio running all day long to manage their mood or focus, they say, and Spotify says its number of regular podcast listeners has increased tenfold since 2019.

A voice note feels less demanding than a call or voice mail, said 39-year-old Alana Wakeman.

“Voice mails are this looming thing where someone wants something from you,” said Wakeman, a realtor in Ontario, Canada. With voice notes, however, she feels free to set the pace of the conversation and respond whenever it suits her. Recording the messages feels joyful (sometimes because she’s had a few drinks, other times not) and there’s a thrill to speaking so long uninterrupted.

For women, the experience can be particularly exhilarating, said Lauren McQuistin, a singer who runs the Instagram meme page @brutalrecovery. In person, she frequently gets interrupted, she said. Over the phone, there’s pressure to be concise. But a voice note can be about everything or nothing — a funny story, gossip or an emotional monologue. McQuistin likes to listen to her friends process out loud while she makes her morning coffee and says they often have epiphanies halfway through the message. She likened it to a podcast, but the listener’s attachment goes beyond the parasocial: “I actually know these people,” she said.

McQuistin still calls and texts, but voice notes play a major role in her friendships. She spent nine months trading texts with one friend before suddenly receiving a voice note. “It was seven minutes long,” she said. Their friendship blossomed from there.

Jack Crawford-Brown fell in love with his girlfriend while they exchanged voice notes planning a group hiking trip. The 31-year-old start-up co-founder in Brooklyn uses the medium “relentlessly,” even giving feedback at work via voice note.

“We’re the podcast generation,” he said. “I like listening to people and being inside their brains.”

Not everyone, however, is longing for a glimpse inside the psyches of their loved ones. Annie Ridout, a writer in London, has three kids under 10 years old, and she feels a flash of frustration when friends send voice notes during her working hours.

“I’m a busy working mum, and I don’t want people adding to my workload,” she said.

That’s a problem with voice notes, said Pace University’s Trub. They might be cathartic for the sender, but all that venting comes with a risk: The recipient might not have time, interest or a pair of headphones.

People should ask their friends and partners about communication preferences, said friendship coach Danielle Bayard Jackson. One person might love voice notes, phone calls, memes or TikToks, while the next person resents them. Pay close attention to your intent, Bayard Jackson said — is it to connect with your friend, or to ramble with an audience? Consider sending a short text with your voice note that acts as a “subject line,” she suggested, so your friends don’t feel pressured to listen right away. (Something like “date last night” or “my horrible commute.”)

When a form of communication such as voice notes enjoys a trending moment, it’s not necessarily because it’s better than previous options, said Neal Roese, a psychologist studying consumer choice at Northwestern University. Rather, it fills a timely need.

For McQuistin, sharing voice note “podcasts” as she and her friends go about their days is a tiny form of rebellion in a world that feels too sad, too fast and too impersonal.

“So much is being demanded of us in a world that is falling apart,” she said. “I just like to process verbally and know someone is bearing witness. I want to talk about the things that make me feel alive.”

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