Updated Apr 27, 2023 - Economy

The voice note boom

Illustration of a voice note with the sound bars gradually increasing and going outside of the text bubble.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The voicemail might be dead, but the quick little audio note is thriving.

Why it matters: People can increasingly drop quippy or professional self-recorded files on apps for work, dating and other personal comms, which many senders and recipients feel builds better connections.

Often called a "voice message" or "audio message," the form is beloved by generations who grew up with screens and were supposedly abandoning phone calls and voicemails.

  • There's a lot that could be behind the rising popularity of the voice note, whether it's COVID-related isolation, long-distance bonding or plain old efficiency of walking and talking with no scheduling required.
  • Plus, a group chat studded with voice memos can be like "a real-time podcast that has not stopped," says Katie Perry, a 36-year-old working in tech in New York.
  • For anyone with issues using their arms or hands, voice notes can be an easier way to communicate than texting.

By the numbers: A recent YouGov poll conducted by Vox found around 30% of respondents communicate via voice note "weekly, daily or multiple times a day," with around 43% of respondents between 18 and 29 years old saying they do so at least weekly.

  • WhatsApp, an early adopter of the format, said last year that users sent 7 billion voice messages on the app.
  • On Hinge, which became the first major dating app to add an audio feature in 2021, the number of voice notes increased by 37% between January and February 2023 compared to that same period in 2022, a spokesperson told Axios. They're most popular among millennials.
  • Voice notes are also integrated into work chat platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams.
  • In 2022, Slack users consumed an average of 1 million minutes of audio clips per week, per product management director Julie Haynes. One year later, that average jumped to 1.46 million minutes per week.

Why we love voice notes

Researchers who study voice and related tech, as well as enthusiasts, pointed to reasons the form keeps people coming back for what text can't always convey: Humor! Drama! Vivid imagery!

  • In an era of podcast listenership, audio hangouts a la Clubhouse and Zoom fatigue, voice notes allow for familiar yet complex storytelling — enough to also become a meme.

Voice note aficionados who talked with Axios appreciate the form for its intimacy and convenience.

  • They allow you to get out "everything you want to say without being interrupted" and "let your thoughts flow," Trinity Alicia, a 23-year-old program coordinator at Boston University, told Axios.
  • Alicia relies on the medium to keep up with friends across the country from college in San Diego and growing up in Maryland, as well as with her boyfriend who lives in a different time zone.

"This could be spicy," Jim Broderick, a 22-year-old working in consulting in Washington, D.C., might think when he gets that voice message notification on iMessage or Snapchat. "It makes stories feel more real, and I feel closer to [the sender]. It just lands better when I hear someone's voice."

  • "I feel like I'm more inclined to listen and pay attention," compared to a group chat blowing up with texts, he added.

Detractors are out there. Taylor Crane, a 33-year-old startup founder based in Brooklyn, thinks voice notes serve some purpose but often prefers the interjections and immediate back-and-forth of a phone call.

  • They shouldn't be used for logistics, according to Crane, who acknowledges they can better capture emotion and nuance.
  • Software features also come into play. He much prefers the feature on WhatsApp and Telegram to Apple's iMessage.

The science behind voice notes

There's science and social psychology behind the appeal of voice notes.

  • Even if they contain asides and are shared in a stream-of-conscious way, voice memos eliminate the effort of typing or editing words. People often convey a single story through multiple missives, creating a distinct experience for the receiver.
  • "We pick up how someone feels within 200 milliseconds" of them speaking, said Silke Paulmann, U.K.-based head of the psychology department at the University of Essex.
  • Especially for people who may be having tough conversations or maintaining a relationship across distance, that really matters.

Among the factors behind that near-instant perception: pitch, speed or pace, loudness, quality of voice and intonation, per Paulmann.

  • "We establish whether someone is in a good or bad mood, whether someone is happy or upset with us. This rapid information extraction is what allows people to then adapt their behavior," she added.

Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, researches happiness and communication. A big takeaway from his work: "If your goal is social connection, it would be wiser to use your voice."

  • In a 2021 study, people attempted to reach out to an old friend via phone or email. Interactions involving voice contributed to significantly better bonds across age groups, Kumar found.

The bottom line: Voice note tech spans more than a decade, with WeChat launching the feature as early as 2011 and Apple hopping on in 2014.

  • As the tech gets integrated into more apps and young people get hooked, dishing via voice memo probably isn't going away.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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