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The universe of voice notes

It’s hard to imagine a future in which my WhatsApp inbox is more voice message than text

The problem with voice messages is you can't skim them.
The problem with voice messages is you can't skim them. (iStockphoto)

Last week, a friend sent me a voice note. While the note was playing, I put my phone down and undertook a rare activity—combing my hair. I knew it was a voice note and not a phone call but I found myself responding out loud to what she was saying. Not once but three times, I came out from my bent over, hair flipped position to respond. And each time I had to remind myself that she couldn’t hear me.

Voice notes are still strange enough in my life to cause this kind of disorientation, a mild, benign version of the apocryphal story of a panicked 19th century audience running away from a train in a Lumiere Brothers film. Before this, I only knew voice messages as plot devices in old American sitcoms.

I am also from a generation that has gone from loving the mobile phone like it was our piya reborn seven times to treating it like an ex you have to work with. A few years ago, when I was reading Neapolitan novels back-to-back on my phone, I stared blankly more than once whenever the phone rang. But honestly it didn’t require Elena Ferrante level genius for that to happen. I use my phone for pretty much everything except phone calls. And my friends too, I thought. “Why call when you can text?” “What kind of sociopath calls before texting first?” “Sweating and gritting my teeth the whole morning because at 11.45 I have a scheduled phone call.” These were everyday complaints. But now they are busy launching and embracing lengthy voice notes.

So is it just communicating in real time they/we have been having a problem with? Cool, cool, cool.

I am trying to work myself to a point where I can actually send a voice note. I do enjoy listening to the throaty, giggly, dramatic-pause voice notes from my friends. Even the voice notes from that one friend currently in Dhaka that need all my brain cells, a dictionary and steroids to boost the poetry in my inner self before I can understand more than half of what he says.

While feeling protective about my textual history, I can see what universes voice notes open up. An older friend whose friends and cousins back home in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, are uncomfortable typing in English only send her voice notes in Telugu. “They don’t mind my sending texts in English but they reply with voice notes,” Sunita told me. Sunita has gotten past her initial discomfort with voice notes and sends out missives in Telugu too nowadays.

Another friend reported a development with her local grocery-store owner in Bengaluru. “Around six months ago, he had started recording our phone calls when I called him with my list for home delivery. Then he told me I could just text him a list. Now I know people nearby who just leave him a voice note.” No more waiting for his eternally busy line to get free.

One friend’s primary-school-going niece and loving nephew (who has Down’s Syndrome) have been sending her wonderful, must-be-saved voice messages for years—paving the path for slow adaptors among us.

The trouble is, I love texting. I have ever since my Mars-bar sized Nokia went under my pillow. Textual chemistry is my kryptonite. It’s hard to imagine a future in which my WhatsApp inbox is more voice message than text. But WhatsApp can clearly imagine it. Which is why it’s promising a feature in which you can speed up voice messages (a feature Telegram already has). If you have been leaning on the electric pole on the street trying to squeeze the phone into your ear to somehow hear long, rambly, mumbly messages from your college friend while smiling at your frowning neighbours, you will probably appreciate this feature (personally, to understand my Dhaka pal better, I would love a slow-down feature plus the aforementioned extra brain cells). You can now send voice messages on Twitter DMs if you like (there is probably a room discussing these developments on super trendy voice-only, iPhone-only social medium Clubhouse right now. I dunno. I am an Android user).

I know enough about myself to know what is making me so resistant to it. You can’t skim voice messages, WhatsApp’s proposed speed button or not. This was my problem with YouTube videos for the longest time. Please judge me. I deserve it. I deserve to be doubly judged for wanting to skim a two-minute message which actually sounds like a person I know and not the hypnotic sleight of hand of text. What was I going to do with these two minutes? Go to Singapore, as Bengaluru auto drivers would tell me sarcastically when I would fight about change as a youthful skinflint.

Instead, the two minutes sometimes go into an imaginary bank now. I can replay and listen to my friend who sometimes sends me a message—her singing but without words. No word props for me to send automatic hahahas to. It is preceded by no explanation I can hang it on. It’s pure voice. It arrives in the middle of the night. I can’t forward it. It’s just for me. It’s just two minutes of her.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.

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