I will never forget my first time; the nervous fumbling followed by self-conscious small talk and no, you perverts, I’m not talking about sex.
The events that precipitated the recording of my first voice note are hazy; they involved the loss of a set of house keys, the drunken proposition of a good friend and the single-handed consumption of a 20 chicken McNuggets sharebox. This was not an anecdote that the written word could do justice, although the WhatsApp group and packed Victoria line train carriage probably thought otherwise.
Tales of late night debauchery, broken hearts, infiltrated DMs, Sunday food comas and Love Island conspiracy theories sparkle to life via the medium of the voice note. And Mark Zuckerberg has been listening. In March, Facebook began trialling a voice clip feature on users in India, allowing them to record aural status updates to broadcast on their timeline. A Facebook representative told TechCrunch: "We are always working to help people share and connect with their friends and family on Facebook in ways that are authentic to them. Voice Clips gives people a new medium through which to express themselves."
So we will soon be able to tell the world what’s on our mind, before promptly deleting in shame after we’ve listened back to our surprisingly shrill or monotone voices – there is rarely an in-between. This new feature comes after a steady decline in unique user-generated content on the site, which prompted the introduction of Facebook Live videos and Facebook stories, although both have been superseded by their Instagram equivalents. I would also make a strong and compelling argument that no one ever needs to be notified when a girl they met during freshers' week and never spoke to again decides to live-stream herself dancing to "Mambo No. 5" at a Vodka Revs somewhere in Buckinghamshire.
But in our self-service society, where you’re more likely to interact with a bot than a human being, we crave the nuances of a real human voice. The popularity of podcasts like My Dad Wrote a Porno is as predicated on the sense of being part of a gang of friends as it is on the content. A study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross revealed that over 9 million people in the UK (the population of London) are either always or often lonely. Hearing a person’s voice in your ear, whether as a voice note or a podcast, can make you feel less alone.
The laughter over voice notes is so infectious; when you type things over text like ‘lol’ or ‘haha’ we all know that you’ve actually got a face like a smacked arse.
Siobhan Lawless, a writer from south London, thinks the popularity of voice notes lies in their ability to convey authentic emotion. "There’s nothing better than a friend telling you a story about their tragic Friday night out and voice notes have the power to make you feel like you were experiencing it with them," she says. "The laughter over voice notes is so infectious; when you type things over text like 'lol' or 'haha' we all know that you’ve actually got a face like a smacked arse." We’ve all been there, haven’t we, on the receiving end of a dreaded 'ha' – the most passive-aggressive two letters in the English language.
Simona Barbieri, founder of Hub Dot, a company based on making business connections, communicates with her colleagues almost exclusively in voice notes. Initially a lot of people in the team rejected this new age form of communication, explains Barbieri: "They all thought it was extremely odd, the men especially felt very self-aware and awkward about how they were coming across." As an Italian expat, Barbieri thinks this reluctance is a cultural as well as gendered point of difference. "Everyone in Italy uses them, a lot of people in the team are English and Scottish and thought it was very weird but now they love it. It makes me feel a lot closer to the team and makes us work better; over email people can get the wrong end of the stick."
Although it’s not just women who love a voice note, men seem to fall into two categories – those who voice note regularly and those who haven’t got a clue what they are. Harry Browne, a strategist from west London, was introduced to them after a stint travelling around South Africa, where he used them to keep in touch with people at home. "I think it’s much more personal than a text, although I do get sent some weird ones," he says. "My friend recently sent me one of him learning the flute in Peru, it was literally just a four-minute recording of a high pitched flute noise."
Most millennials I know would rather get off with Nigel Farage for an hour than pick up or make a phone call. We’ve grown up with so many methods of communication – from MSN Messenger to Instagram DMs – that we naturally gravitate towards the least intrusive means of contact. Our thoughts are carefully composed, edited, screenshotted to a friend and edited again; an unexpected phone call is akin to your mum bursting into your room while you’re stark naked, doing something questionable.
Most millennials I know would rather get off with Nigel Farage for an hour than pick up or make a phone call.
The voice note is a happy medium for our generation of call screeners and ghosters; it allows us to communicate on a more personal level without worrying about time zones, charges and unsolicited monologues about the weird dream your mate had last night. No one in the history of humankind has ever wanted to know about the dream you had last night. I don’t care that you were naked riding a kangaroo down Deptford High Street, Karen.
Anyway, the point is those little green bars are popping up everywhere and whether you love them or hate them, voice notes can vivify digital communication, regaining an intimacy that we’ve lost over text and email. Particularly when they most often contain exhaustive accounts of your best friends' bikini waxes. Some things, perhaps, are better left unsaid.