Call Me, Maybe: How come no one talks on the phone any more?

“Mr. Watson – Come here – I want to see you.”  These were the words spoken by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, when he made his first call on March 10, 1876. 

If Mr. Bell had available to him all the various communications technologies available today, what would he have used?

Perhaps he would have buzzed off a text, Snapchat, or WhatsApp with the phrase “W - come here. I want 2 C U.”  It might have included a pin on a map to his exact location.  He would have thrown in an emoticon or Emoji that expressed his current mood.  

Or if he wanted to replicate the effect of multiple people listening in on the call (see photo above), then he might have posted it on social media.  “Come here, @MyDearMrWatson. Your ninja assistant skillz are needed” he would have tweeted.  Perhaps a selfie and the caption “See what you are missing? #ComeOnOver” would have posted to Instagram or Facebook. 

Or perhaps we would have just said “Siri, find Watson.”

There are five main factors that have impacted my use of the phone the last few years, causing me to use the phone less:

1.       Asynchronous communication:  In our 24x7 bustle of business today, it is impossible to assume that people will be available for a conversation at the same time.  This is further complicated if you want to get more than two parties in conference.  Emails will wait until people are available.  Even the more immediate text messages will hold until people can read and respond.  

2.       Mobility:  The rise of the text is in direct proportion to the rise of mobility.  People aren’t looking at emails on their desktop, they aren’t talking on the phones (which are increasingly awkward for phone conversations without a Bluetooth headset), but rather they are looking at small screens and wanting to respond efficiently, often while doing something else.  These factors combine to make text (or the close equivalent of audio or video text) the best option. 

3.       Record Keeping:  Unless recorded, phone conversations are poor for record keeping.  Emails, and even texts, can provide a “paper trail” as things need to be referenced (i.e., What day did I say I would come back with a proposal?) or researched (i.e., What pricing did Bill commit to?).  And what is better for documentation than a photograph, which have forever changed the kind of communications we are doing.

4.       Beyond Audio: Photos on Instagram or Super, videos on YouTube, Vine, Meerkat, FaceTime, or the use of hashtags in multiple formats to allow for searching and categorization – all of these new technologies go beyond simple audio to give a richer experience.  In our experience, a growing number of Planar desktop monitors come with integrated web cameras for precisely this reason.  If a pictures is worth a 1,000 words, then a picture is work a 7.7 minute voice mail (at a typical reading cadence).

5.       Voice Mails (from Hell):  I am not a fan of the audio message or voice mail.  It is slow and no one is very good at it (leaving messages, listening to messages, the whole process).  We include too many details, rambling on and boring our recipient.  Or we leave our critical information (like a return phone number that can be clearly heard).   As a marketing executive, I am convinced I am on every mailing list in the hemisphere and get dozens of voice mails each day, so perhaps I am particularly jaded, but there is no denying that it is faster to read a text or an email than it is to listen to the same recorded in voice mail.  

All of these speak to an over-arching trend and that is the pace of business life.  Mr. Bell’s message was surprisingly urgent for its day.  In 1876, nearly everything could wait.  It had to.  But today we can’t tolerate a delay and we want instant answers to our questions, so that we can provide instant answers to our customers.

By 1915, Bell had finished the first transcontinental phone line.  He picked up the line in New York and told Watson to come there, repeating his line from 30 years earlier.  Watson, who was sitting in San Francisco, joked that he would come in a week before they’d be face-to-face.  I guess even these pioneers of telephony would have preferred Skype.