20.

You Will Use Your Phone…for Talking?

Why your voice is the next killer app.

By Lois Parshley

Illustration by Gwendal le Bec

As Ukraine descended into war last spring, people on both sides of the border turned to Zello, an app that transforms smartphones into walkie-talkies, to stay up to date on the rapidly shifting fighting. “People were using it to warn about things like air strikes,” says the app’s co-founder, Alexey Gavrilov, adding that protesters also used Zello to organize protests. Ukraine wasn’t the only conflict zone to pick up on the app: Demonstrators in Veneuzela, Turkey, and Thailand also turned to it to organize protests.

As Zello’s success shows, this year many people decided to ditch texting for a throwback method of personal communication — talking. There’s a whole slew of startups looking to disrupt your Gchats: Hubbub, AudioTweet, and CloudTalk, to name a few. Even Facebook Messenger rolled out a sound-recording message option. And in other parts of the world, voice messages caught on this summer: Bubbly, a voice-based blogging service popular in Asia, revealed it already had 40 million users during the course of its recent $39 million sale.

Zello co-founder Bill Moore has an explanation for the shift. He says our increasingly tech-saturated culture is getting frustrated with the rigidity of text — not to mention its ubiquity. “Voice is a way of communicating that’s authentically human. So many people are isolated now, spending a lot of time on the internet,” Moore says. “We’re starting to see a rejection of old forms of [text-based] communication because of that.”

The generation raised on smartphones (and J.Law and 4chan and Edward Snowden and Sony hacks) is also starting to think about the implications of where their content goes. “We’re seeing a shift toward privacy and anonymity,” Moore says. If you’re anonymous, leaked information is less damaging because it can’t be traced to your real persona. So more people are moving in the direction of aliases — think Whisper and Secret, apps that allow people to go undercover even for casual conversation. “One of the ways you can ensure privacy is to communicate without any identification,” Moore says. “If you’re anonymous, it gives people the freedom to say things they wouldn’t otherwise.”

A shift from text to voice might also help solve the obvious problem with the trend toward anonymity: trolls. “It erases a barrier,” says Moore. “You say stuff when you’re removed in text that you would never say face to face. It helps moderate bad behavior. There’s an increased sense of ethics.”

After all, no matter how many fancy tech tools we’ve created, or how addicted we may be to texting, talking never really went out of fashion. “That’s how we’re created to communicate,” Moore says. “A toddler can listen long before it can type.”

Lois Parshley is a journalist and photographer.

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