Phone calls: An endangered species, killed off by social media?

Summary:Phone calls are in decline among the iGeneration. Some theories as to why traditional phone call is 'endangered' by social media and written communications.

Wired's Clive Thompson argued the case that "cultural transition" was killing off the traditional phone call, replaced with with text messages, instant messaging and social networks.

I have suspected this for a while frankly, with many of my peers, student colleagues and friends though being connected to multiple networks, applications and even devices at any one point, struggle to perform a simple task like picking up a call when their phone starts to ring.

I charged up my BlackBerry and tested this out. I called 20 people, all within the same timezone and country to minimise any extra roaming call charges and suchlike, and at the same time of day to maximise the chance of connecting the call.

It was around 3pm, when I knew people would either be at work or awake (students often sleep in to mid-afternoon; anyone with kids will know this). I also selected people semi-randomly, though made sure I knew the person well enough to be able to engage them in conversation.

  • 20 phone calls made to landline contacts (all over 30 years of age): 14 picked up, 5 rang out and went to voicemail (one of them was my boss - shame on you!), 1 call engaged.
  • 20 phone calls made to mobile contacts (all over 30 years of age): 18 picked up, 1 call rejected and sent straight to voicemail, 1 call disconnected with no voicemail.
  • 20 phone calls made to mobile contacts (under 30 years of age): 5 picked up, 12 rang out and went to voicemail, 2 calls disconnected with no voicemail, 1 call engaged.
  • 20 text messages sent out to the same mobile contacts (under the age of 30): 18 responses within an hour of receiving a delivery report, 1 didn't reply, 1 didn't get a delivery report back in the hour.

I doubt if I repeated the test again I would get such a good result, but for now, it shows one interesting result. Older people still use voice communications. Younger people don't pick up, but opt for a text solution instead.

What I found most revealing through this test is that those who are in their first or second year of university, are more likely not to pick up their phone when called than those who are in their final year or in post-graduate education. Those who are 'closer' to high school than they are graduating appear to be not as interested in phone calls as they are text messages and suchlike.

If I'm honest, Thompson hit the nail on the head. He's absolutely right: the phone call is dying off with the Generation X, and the Generation Y/iGeneration are using their phones, but not as phones. Surely a phone is indicative of a device which enables one to verbally communicate with another person?

Well, no - actually. Just as the BlackBerry was once a fruit, so was an Apple, and a worm was something you found in the ground, and Java was a place or a coffee and not a programming language.

A phone isn't a 'phone' anymore. It's a communication device, and though you can of course still make phone calls if you wish, it's negated by social media and the mobile keyboard.

I prefer a phone call. It took me a while to warm to the idea, but as a journalist you find you can always get more out of someone if you speak to them either in person or over the phone. Email frankly gives them time to think, though once it's written down it can be very hard to retract, unlike the typical unrecorded phone call. Besides that, a phone call is very social and will be remembered long after a typical Facebook chat conversation.

If I were to really pull at the seams, it almost feels like the iGeneration is scared of picking up the phone. I can't pin a specific reason on why, exactly, but Pat Phelan believes it boils down to timing and how busy the recipient is. In a work environment, I can understand this. But this is of a social nature, and though presence technology is useful, I suspect one could argue that an incoming call surprises the recipient when in a state of not expecting a call.

However, some could argue that text messages often with the bundle and tariff they are on are free up to a certain limit, and outweigh free minutes. Plus, data on a smartphone bundle - if you were lucky to catch the unlimited supply while it lasted - enabled Facebook, Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger and all kinds of data-intensive messaging applications to be used instead, all for free.

Voice can give away a lot about where you are, what you are doing, give context to emotion and frankly requires effort. An instant message or a Facebook wall post gives off very little, usually. But us young'uns have managed to develop our own text-language to include elements of emotion; the emoticon, the ability to add inflection, capitalisation and other techniques which add feeling to the conversation.

It's not great, and it is far from a replacement from the voice at the end of the phone - but it is a start. It never has, nor never will be enough though.

What do you think?

Topics: Social Enterprise, Mobility, Telcos

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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