Who put the literacy in digital literacy: Why is voice messaging absent in digital sociology, why are we obsessed with text, and why is this title longer than the post below?

Who put the literacy in digital literacy: Why is voice messaging absent in digital sociology, why are we obsessed with text, and why is this title longer than the post below?

Voice messaging sends prerecorded audio messages via messaging apps. Users can mix and match audio messages with other media such as text or visual.  Voice messaging allows people to get around the flatness of textual communication, adding tone and nuance. It requires greater intensity of engagement at the other end. The receiver has to listen, not just glance. Zoomers have a reputation for fearing the phone call and voice message allows a less demanding but still personal way of interacting.

In every way voice messaging is its own communication media. It has specific interactional characteristics that set it apart qualitatively from text messaging, one to one calls, and other modes of communication. Yet almost every article I read on digital society namechecks textual, audio call and video communication. None mentions voice messaging, one of the most significant changes in communication media in recent years. It is completely under the radar of digital sociology even as part of our standard list everyone uses of ‘this is how folks interact now’.

Voice messaging has some fascinating characteristics. Zhang (2028) reports that in Chinese professionals consider it ‘obnoxious’ and only tolerate its use when it is sent from a senior to a junior person. The reasons are probably the same for both parties: it has limited information density and resists rapid, easy consumption. A voice message conversation appears just as a list of audio links. There is no simple way to parse or prioritise content without having to listen to the whole thing. It is a demanding medium for the receiver, but not the sender. In business/professional worlds it is a statement of who is time rich, who is time poor, and who matters more. Effectively, ‘I couldn’t be bothered to type this out’.

As well as shifting or exposing power relations in one set of communications, it may shift them in another direction in a different set of interactions. It opens up some possibilities for people who are unable to use text, or find it difficult. Its use can signal the presence of intimacy and care. It allows users to signal the content and intent of their communication. Here is a longer message I would like you to be more involved in listening to. It moves us away from a literal understanding of literacy as textual aptitude. As a mode it also highlights the attentional context of consumption. A voice message makes it harder to prioritise one’s attention in consuming communication, but on the other hand displays a greater commitment to the interaction.

On the next point, does our not bothering with voice messaging indicate we are too text focused in both method and critique? Textual sources and modes of analysis are simpler in many ways. There is a lot of textual data, and using text allows us to avoid or obfuscate some ethical questions around data reuse and anonymity. Voice messages tend to just be private so are not immediately accessible. There are practical reasons but also our theoretical tools are designed around the bloodless written word and we suffer for it.

Zhang, Zara. 2018. ‘Sending WeChat Voice Messages Is a Status Symbol in China’. Quartz.

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