On a Saturday night earlier this month, I put up an away message on my email: "If you need to reach me, please call me at [310-XXX-XXXX]. Looking forward to speaking with you.” I wasn’t going to a tropical island without Wi-Fi; I was going to a place that's been slowly dying since 2007, a place one of my friends dubbed 'Voiceland.'
Eight years ago, texting overtook voice calling as the most used means of communication in the U.S. After a conversation with Fusion coworkers about the emotional nuances lost in text, I decided to spend a week in a mid-90s timewarp, only talking to people in person or over the phone. (Though I did still snoop on social media, reading Facebook posts but not responding to them.)
It wasn't just an exercise in annoying people. I wanted to find out whether researchers are right that email and texting makes us feel more anxious and distracted; that it serves as a memory crutch, reminding us to do things we might otherwise forget; and that it stunts our ability to have difficult conversations. My experiment proved some of these things to be true; Voiceland was a relaxing place to live, but there were some frustrations that came with living there.
One of the first discoveries of my textless life was the need to be deliberate about who I wanted to communicate with. On Sunday morning, I wanted to head to the park. Normally, I'd send a mass text or email inviting friends to join me there. Text is easy; it's a cheap, low-stakes mode of communication. Making multiple calls, on the other hand, would have been time-consuming and made me feel desperate, almost like I was a telemarketer. I hadn’t dialed anyone in years to make spontaneous plans. So instead, I just strolled to the park alone.
“Oh my god! You opted out of a social moment because you couldn’t call people?” said a colleague when I told him about my sad Sunday (by phone).
You can't just call people anymore, I told him. We call family, very close friends or romantic partners. With others, there’s hesitation. Our relationships now exist on a digital spectrum of intimacy: Social media is the most casual, emotionally-removed place to converse, followed by text, then the most intimate: voice or in-person, where you hear emotions and feel the tension. When you text, you craft a response privately. The other person can’t hear you sighing, feel the awkward silences or see you cringing, smiling, or grimacing. You have time to temper your response—which can be a good thing.
A couple of days into my social experiment, I read on Facebook that my friend's car had been stolen. I immediately called her to check in. I stumbled over my words, and probably sounded like an idiot as I was trying to comfort her. I know she appreciated my call, but she seemed bothered by it at the same time. I caught her off guard because I was calling during work. The conversation didn't feel quite right. Had I texted, and then checked in on her later in person, I think it would have gone better.
According to surveys by the Pew Research Center, teens often text parents about getting in trouble or failing a test, in advance of telling them at home. “[That way the parents] get to think about it and mull it over,” said Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center who studies internet and technology trends. “They were able to abstract the immediate emotion away from the situation.” In other words, messaging is the virtual version of counting to 10.
There are downsides to texting, though, according to a 2012 study that found it may be stunting kids’ ability to read emotional cues. Stanford researchers found that the more screen time 3,500 preteen girls had, the worse they did socially. “When we media multitask, we’re not really paying attention to the people around us and we get in a habit of not paying attention, and thus when I’m talking with you, I may be hearing the words but I’m missing all the rich, critical, juicy stuff at the heart of emotional and social life,” said the late Clifford Nass, one of the researchers, at the time.
Another downside I personally observed was avoidance. One night, I had plans to attend a "robot happy hour" with my editor. As the time drew near, I wasn't feeling as enthused about it, but calling and explaining I was bailing seemed like more of an effort than just going. Had I been able to text, I would have surely cancelled. In the Bay Area, this happens so often that it’s been dubbed the San Francisco Yes, where 'yes' is a stand-in for 'probably, maybe, if nothing else comes up.' It's such a cultural phenomenon that Psychology Today published a blog calling it “Last Minute Itis: The behavior plague of our time.”
Maybe we can blame last-minuteitis on the text revolution. While I was textless, I was more hesitant to cancel on people. Lucky for me, my editor could text. An hour before we were supposed to meet, she texted she wasn't going to be able to make it. I wanted to text her this:
But I couldn’t, and calling to say, "cool," seemed like overkill. Calls can be disruptive, like showing up at your neighbor’s house unannounced. And my editor had already told me she hated calling. She was far from alone.
My voice-only experiment was met with violent reactions. “No one likes it. It’s very invasive,” a Fusion colleague told me. “That’s not an acceptable form of communication in 2015,” said a friend from WIRED. Only my best friend said, "I love phone calls! Call me anytime."
Getting in touch with people in a textless world became more difficult. I had to call during reasonable hours, which I thought was 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (but some recipients of those calls disagreed). I am a night owl; I usually send emails or texts at midnight, but with calling, that wasn't an option.
People often didn't pick up when I did call and so I left long-winded voicemails. (I'd lost the skill of leaving succinct ones.) Many of the recipients, I'm sure, never listened to them. According to Nick Bilton, leaving voicemails is a breach of digital etiquette. Some people called me back. Some of them called back really quickly: one friend who dialed me right back said she thought something was wrong when she saw the missed call, because otherwise, why would I call? Others I had to call again and again, including the sources I wanted to talk to for this story.
Ironically, an MIT researcher who studies how texting and digital communications adversely affect our social skills didn't list her phone number online. I tried calling the MIT press office, but they told me email was my best bet.
I get it. Without a digital record of conversations, it's hard to remember what one needs to do. I made plans to meet up with a friend during a late-night conversation, and totally forgot about it until she texted me five minutes before I was supposed to be there. (I was an hour away and had to cancel.) I missed written agreements made over Slack, text or email, and so did my correspondents. My editor forgot I told her over the phone, among other things, that a story was ready for edit, and I had to remind her in person the next day. I realized just how dependent we are on digitally captured conversations as reminders of things we need to do.
Sometimes it's scary to think that companies have a record of our lives, but our written musings have become more than our to-do lists; they are our emotional ledgers. Some of my most important relationships are recorded forever on Gchat and Facebook messenger.
For my text cleanse, I'd given up posting to Slack, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I could look, but not partake. I found that trying to transport conversations happening there into the physical world felt awkward. When I addressed a co-worker IRL in response to something he posted on Slack, he looked at me like, “Why are you talking to me?” He was sitting next to me, but he had to look up from his computer to acknowledge me.
I wasn’t offended by my colleague's WTF expression; I’ve looked at people that same way when I was trying to multi-focus. Messaging allows us to multitask, and choose which task gets our attention at any one moment.
“We often hear that people really like that text messaging is less intrusive in a lot of ways to the people around them,” said Smith, the Pew researcher. “When you ask people about texting, what you hear is that it’s really the choice for quick check-ins and life logistics.”
Maybe that's why people got annoyed with my use of voice; they're used to short bursts of information consumed on their own terms.
"It's allowed people to communicate more intensively because they're sharing the moment while they're in the moment," said Brennan Hayden, who sent the first commercial text in 1993 and at the time worked for a company that invested in text messaging. Hayden said that telecoms tried to push customers towards texts as well by offering unlimited text plans because it was "absurdly profitable."
Texting, and its more modern incarnations, like Twitter and other forms of social media, has enabled revolutions and social change. The Arab Spring, #BlackLivesMatter and #MyNameIs were enabled by our ability to easily link up through text messaging. In the developing world, where the internet is not always widely available, texting allows people to communicate. It's so effective a community organizing tool that the Ethiopian government and the Democratic Republic of Congo have banned SMS messages in the past to discourage protestors.
One of my younger colleagues, who's been texting since he was 10 and has never known a time when messaging didn't exist, would probably consider that a human rights violation. "Texting is like eating or drinking," he said. "That's not hyperbole in any way…[Not texting] would fundamentally change my life."
And he's right. Not texting fundamentally changed mine. While I occasionally felt left out and missed the interplay of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, living textless made me feel less stressed, less overly-connected. Text is too easy. It allows people to bombard us with messages, punting the guilt and discomfort of answering on the other person. Since I couldn't answer all my emails and texts with phone calls, it forced me to only respond to the most important communication. I made peace with not being able to get to everything. I had more time to myself. I wasn't texting at red lights in my car. I talked to people more. It made me more cognizant of who was a text buddy versus a phone friend.
The fear of missing out on emails and text almost evaporated away. My conversations felt more natural because I wasn't choosing my words as carefully, as I often do in text. It felt like I was living in the moment a bit more.
When I probed further, even some of the phone haters admitted that they liked getting my calls over the week. My questions to them could have been settled via text, but a phone call led to more extensive discussions.
Voiceland was a less efficient place to live, but a place where I could connect more deeply with people (when they picked up). It's not that the call is dead; it's that it's become more important. It's more urgent and more emotion-filled now than ever.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.