Fighting the extinction of the phone call
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    Many people are guilty of, at one time or another, willingly letting their phone ring straight to voicemail. That is, if they are still getting phone calls at all anymore.

    Research by Nielsen Holdings, a global information company that studies consumer behavior, revealed that almost all age groups are spending less time talking on the phone than before. The ringleaders are twenty-something year-olds, also known as Millenials. The average for monthly voice minutes has dropped from approximately 1,200 to 900 in the past two years for 18 to 34-year-olds. During that same time period, texting among 18 to 24-year-olds has more than doubled.

    Katz Sundarraj, a Weinberg freshman, puts a face to these statistics. “[I talk on the phone] only if I really need to get a hold of that person’s attention really quickly,” he said. “Sometimes if you call for no apparent reason, it’s sort of socially taboo. No one calls just to say hello. Usually you plan a phone call.”

    Sundarraj is not the only one who avoids the dreaded phone call. Communication freshman Alejandro Vacas said that most of his friends definitely favor texting. However, Vacas is a call-enthusiast, who said said he actually prefers talking on the phone because he feels more connected to people when hearing their voices.

    But Communication Studies Professor Jeremy Birnholtz disagrees. He called the association between voices and closeness a “misperception.”

    “I don’t think that [association] is always true,” Birnholtz said. “Having a long phone conversation is a relatively new idea. Historically, shared phone lines and cord phones discouraged tying up the phone line for hours.”

    Birnholtz doesn't think generational tensions are more profound today than they’ve been in the past. Generational differences in communication preferences can create challenges, he noted, but that doesn’t mean it’s a “new social problem.”

    The explosion of communication technologies

    The decline in phone call minutes does not mean people are talking to each other less. In fact, quite the opposite is true. “We really do have more options to talk to more people at any time,” Birnholtz said. Phone calls are not becoming universally obsolete so much as more communication methods are gaining importance.

    But some new, supposedly easier communication methods also present new challenges. “We’ve never been able to do this before as a species, and we are social creatures and we love to talk to each other and so we do it a lot,” Birnholtz said about frequent communication. “But, there’s some evidence that that’s driving us a little bit crazy.”

    Birnholtz suggested that people must figure out how to use the technologies to their benefit, without over-stimulating themselves by using communication technologies even when that communication is unnecessary.

    And ease of communication may not always mean it’s the most efficient.

    Sundarraj commented that, for some purposes, texting is more useful than talking on the phone. He said texting is most useful for, “getting across short bits of information in a time-efficient manner.”

    On the other hand, Vacas said one of the reasons he prefers talking on the phone is because he finds it more productive, though texting intuitively seems to be the faster method. He reasoned that with texting, multiple messages must be sent back and forth to accomplish what could be done in one brief phone conversation.

    The future of communication

    In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Bosses Say ‘Pick Up the Phone,’” many companies said they have lost potential clients and hires because their workers used email rather than phone calls. The changing landscape of communication raises the question of whether phone call minutes will dwindle to their extinction or remain a necessary commodity.

    “A huge amount of work is done on the phone every day in organizations across the world,” Birnholtz said. “So to not understand the norms around that and how to do it is not a good thing if you plan to go out into the world and exist in an organization that has that sort of culture.”

    Birnholtz added that in our increasingly connected and logged-in world, people are expected to be more technologically savvy.

    But Medill lecturer Stephan Garnett is adamant that phone calls should not be replaced.

    In journalism, specifically, Garnett insisted that “talking to someone face-to-face or voice-to-voice is the way to do this job.”

    He said he has learned so much as a journalist through conversations in person or on the phone. To the journalists who want to do all their work – email interviews and article writing – from behind a computer screen, Garnett had only one thing to say: “You are not a journalist, you are an asshole with a laptop.”

    Garnett provided a word of caution to placing too much emphasis on new technologies. “Human interaction is an essential part of life, and once you begin to lose it, you become as much of a machine as the machines you love so much.”


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