Talk Versus Text

Now that data transmission far exceeds conversation, what is the future of the telephone? “Siri, what is the future of the telephone?” I asked my iPhone.

“I found 20 astrologers. Tap on the one you want to call,” Siri responded.

That’s not a bad answer to a somewhat complicated question about an old technology posing some challenging decisions to communications managers. What is the role of “talk” versus “text” in the marketing communications mix?

Siri is the persona given to the iPhone’s search function — a telephonic concierge. If Siri’s answer doesn’t work for you, try a thoughtful article entitled “The Call of the Future,” by Tom Vanderbilt, published in the spring quarter edition for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“In 2009, the United States crossed a digital Rubicon: For the first time, the amount of data sent with mobile devices exceeded the sum of transmitted voice data,” Vanderbilt’s article begins, the opening scene of a paradox about a tool that has been around since 1876.

Your age may dictate your views on the telephone’s future. 

“This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social network messaging,” Vanderbilt quotes journalist Clive Thompson.

In 2003, the average local mobile call lasted a leisurely three minutes. By 2010, it had been trimmed to a terse one minute and 47 seconds, Vanderbilt noted.

While phone calls only show up as a small fraction on charts for telecommunications usage, conversation is not yet done in, according to Vanderbilt. But it does face some bias.

What’s going on? Vanderbilt offers his list: 

1. “Simple economics may be one significant factor; in many European countries, texting is cheaper than making a call.”

2. “Personal inclination, rooted in psychology, may be another; researcher Ruth Rettie, of Kingston University, in London, has found that British mobile phone users often fall into “talker” and “texter” camps, the latter (the “phone averse”) leaving, rather uneconomically, huge numbers of unused voice minutes on their phone plans each month. (Their average mobile call is less than 30 seconds.)

 3. “Or it may be merely a matter of logistics and convenience… The phone call can seem less a welcome invitation to connect than a disruptive, troublingly analog experience.” 

“You’ve got to get the whole chit-chat in there,” one texter told Ruth Rettie in the course of her research on mobile phone users. Noting texters’ disaffection with calls, Rettie wrote, “There was a need for small talk, silences were unacceptable, and finishing a call could be difficult.”

Much of the article traces the telephone’s history, its many roles in our society and impact on our culture. Whether conversation via the latest phone is a convenience or a curse for the socially timid, the debate continues about the telephone’s future.

“But it is difficult to say, as it seems to be morphing once more as a cultural form, whether the telephone has profoundly changed us in any way,” Vanderbilt concludes.  

Which leaves us to ask Siri once again for an opinion: “ Siri, has the telephone had an impact on our culture?”

 “Checking on that for you." 


Tom Vanderbilt is the author of the 2008 book “ Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us”). He is currently at work on ”You May Also Like,” a book about the mysteries of human preferences.

Our thanks to Denis Mulvihill for sending the article CFM’s way.