I once played phone tag with a heartbroken stranger. She had the wrong number. She'd call late at night while I was sleeping, I'd miss the call, and she'd be greeted by the grandmotherly voice of AT&T's Pat Fleet, who I let be my generic voicemail message. The woman would leave long messages. I'd try to call back, only to encounter an endless series of rings, never to be picked up. This continued for three weeks. I briefly wondered if she was a ghost.
Her messages usually went something like this: She'd say that she was sorry, that she could change. That she had run out of minutes on her phone, and couldn't be reached at her old number. She'd pause to sob, then promise to call back later, if I would please pick up. Sometimes a child cried in the background.
This was back in 2007. The whole experience now feels extremely dated. Since then, we've experienced a disorienting technological leap. This was a few months before smartphones invaded our lives, essentially rendering voicemail and various other technologies obsolete. Seven years ago, it was still possible to miss someone on the phone.
At the time, I was sharing an apartment in the East Village with a trust-fund kid from the Midwest. I split a room with a guy who was on the reality show Laguna Beach. The latter was an uncomfortable arrangement—only furniture divided our tiny shared space—so I slept with my phone on silent to avoid bothering him. The morning I received the first voicemail, it had a 4 a.m. time-stamp.
I listened to the message and called back. After a minute without an answer, I closed my phone, and quickly forgot about it.
Another message came the next day, from a new number. Again, when I called back, nobody answered. I recorded this one, to send to a friend. It's now the only proof that any of this ever happened.
After getting another message from yet another new number, I called back and this time reached the front desk of a chain motel in Baltimore. I could hear the hum of traffic in the background. I tried to explain the situation to the clerk.
"Someone in your hotel keeps calling me, and they have the wrong number."
"Okay…?" the clerk said.
"Could you patch me through?" I was watching a lot of film noir at the time, and figured it was a good opportunity to use some grizzled, private-eye slang.
The clerk responded automatically, as if reciting lines from a warbly workplace-training VHS tape: "Unfortunately, sir, we are unable to divulge any information regarding our guests. If you would like to leave a message, we would be happy to leave it with them."
"Can you just tell her she has the wrong number?"
"Sure thing. What's the name of the guest?"
"I don't know. She sounds middle-aged, and I think has a kid with her," I said. "And she's sad."
"Gonna need a name or I can't help you."
He refused to make an exception, and I hung up, frustrated.
The messages kept arriving. I thought about making a custom voicemail greeting, making it explicit whose voicemail inbox she was reaching. But by this point I was curious about what happened. I had recently gone through a breakup, which occurred mostly through the exchange of furious voicemail messages. Maybe, once we made contact, we could share a cheesy Hollywood moment, bonding over a great distance about our romantic troubles, and the absurd deficiencies of modern communication.
The following week she called twice more. Based on the changing area codes, she was traveling south.
In his 2002 obituary in the New York Times, VMX founder Gordon Matthews is credited for inventing corporate voicemail. But the true history of voicemail is much more complicated than that, and can't really be traced to a single person. It was a combination of similar ideas implemented via slightly different proprietary technologies at roughly the same time by competing corporations and entrepreneurs.
In addition to Televoice International, which first trademarked "voicemail" in 1980, there were dozens of companies trying to dominate the market in the '70s and '80s. Some went bankrupt, others merged or were bought out. Many went by three letter initialisms: IBM, VRI, DEC, BBL, AVT, ITI, VMX, and AT&T.
Besides Matthews, there's one other guy who could take a fair amount of credit for inventing voicemail, though he's relatively unknown: A Thunderbird-driving, blues-rock saxophonist, and laser expert in Florida named Robin Elkins.
Elkins is a perpetual tinkerer, a Steve Wozniak-type. In addition to being a multi-instrumentalist and releasing several albums, most under a band called Swyambu, he developed a musical instrument called the NIM (New Instrument For Music), which according to him is an "omniphonic" keyboard that has a "Crystal Controlled Oscillator Time Base," keys that light up when you touch them, and built-in artificial intelligence.
"That is half of the system," he elaborates. "The 'other half' is a Complex Sound Generation Module (synthesizer) that makes an enormous variety (limitless) adjustments of the internal complex sound generators." He finally completed it in 2000, after over 20 years of work. He recored one album using the NIM called "XERON: Instructions from Xeron." He told me he is developing a new version, called the NIMAIRE, which is controlled by a windpipe, though it's currently on hold due to lack of funding.
In the 1976, Elkins invented what became an important backbone to voicemail—a digital/analog storage technology—while trying to figure out a better way to record his music. After telecomm companies used his invention without permission, he sued pretty much all of them—he estimates as many as 12, including IBM, Sony, and AT&T. He ultimately settled after over decade of legal battles, and licensed out his patent.
While colloquially voicemail is essentially the same as the answering machine—a recording device that stores messages after a missed call—there is a slight distinction. Voicemail is a remote service that stores messages in a distant location, which you can access anywhere, while answering machine messages are stored and accessed locally.
For most of its existence, voicemail was mostly used by offices, and answering machines were predominantly used in homes. Once cellphones took over, so too did voicemail. You can see this in the below Google Ngram search—it shoots up in the early '90s, before it starts dropping off in the mid-'00s:
Voicemail has been on the decline for a few years now. Tech journalists are circling like vultures. Think pieces musing about its demise have appeared yearly since about 2009. Most of them beat the same drum: Declining usage statistics! Inconvenience! Texting! Millennials!
An Abridged Timeline of Pieces About The Decline Of Voicemail
2015 - ????
There's a deep, popular hatred for voicemail. We cast unwanted calls off to a digital Siberia with phrases like "Let it go to voicemail." There's an entire TV Tropes listing for "Voicemail Confusion." In music, messages are used to establish a somber mood. Mostly, though, people just really hate using it.
This seems justified. Voicemail is pretty shoddy. Messages are brief and awkwardly improvised, littered with pauses and ums and ahs. The sound quality is poor and peppered with static, as if the caller is a time traveler at a remote military base in Antarctica. People usually speak too fast, forcing the listener to replay the recordings over and over, struggling to jot down pertinent information. In some cases, the messages are automatically deleted, usually after 14 days, so they have an ephemeral quality. Their limited length and impermanence makes them an almost useless conveyance for meaningful information. Messages are urgent, empty, and doomed.
My own inbox features six messages from my gruff former landlord in Brooklyn; thirteen from student loan debt collectors, usually from South Dakota, who all add an extra syllable to my last name and ominously want to discuss my "options"; one from my mother, with news of my grandmother's passing; and five long, empty accidental calls from an ex-girlfriend's broken flip phone that sound like unreleased John Cage compositions (titles include "Purse Interior Shuffling Noises" and "Someone's A-Yellin' On The Bus"). The latter became an inside joke: "Your butt called again. It seems to be doing well."
The true nature of a technology often reveals itself once the initial glow of its optimistic potential fades after years of dull utility. This usually occurs during its decline, after it's replaced by something else that's shiny and new. Ultimately, voicemail's purpose appears to be as a receptacle for casual despair. For bad news that requires a slightly personal touch.
That's what I concluded, until one night, while spelunking into the depths of YouTube, I discovered a video someone uploaded of their old answering machine playing back messages. The footage was shaky, shot by a man alone at his cluttered work bench, recording a recording of a moment distant in time, of two squeaky, loving voices.
Digging deeper, I found a bunch of similar videos, all uploaded by disparate people, either to backup meaningful messages on a piece of old tech before they trashed it, or to share with the world a bit of weird found footage they dug up from thrift store.
A lot of the recordings are charming—like this one, from a guy's irritated 5-year-old daughter. But most are really odd. There are two guys talking about a fish in the '80s; one guy playing back 49 messages consecutively while repeatedly saying "this is so stupid"; an alleged ghost playing a glitchy organ; and a guy repeatedly chanting "dolls, dolls, dolls." One even stars Weird Al.
The messages are haunting and funny and alive. They made me realize that perhaps voicemail is only crappy because we're using it wrong. Its intended, marketed use—as an accessory to the telephone—never let it realize its true archival and communicative potential. We only ever saw occasional glimmers of how fun or emotionally resonant it could be, as you can read in Leslie Horn's recent Gizmodo piece, about the voicemails from her father she saved on her phone after he died.
Voicemail allows us to send a bitesized ephemeral clip of audio straight into another person's pocket. It's not too different from SnapChat, if you think about it, but in ways much more intimate. Elkins's original patent, after all, calls it simply an "audio storage and distribution system." Maybe the "decline of voicemail" is really just a decline of a specific use for it, catching a missed or ignored call. And, instead of disappearing—the software vaporizing as operating systems inevitably change, the hardware bulldozed into an enormous pile in Agbogbloshie to forever poison the soil—it will live on in some other form.
Three weeks after the heartbroken woman's first call, I was up late studying in my room alone, when my phone lit up with an unrecognized number and hummed across my desk. It pulled itself along with its own vibrations like an over-caffeinated worm. I grabbed it before it crawled off the edge. It was her.
"Hello?" I answered. My unfamiliar voice threw her off.
"I… uh… I think you have the wrong number."
She sighed. I imagine she thought about all of her previous messages, the fact that her ex had received none of them, and about all of the time and emotional energy wasted. Her embarrassment was palpable. I felt incredibly guilty.
I had so many questions I wanted to ask, but she sounded so crushed, and I realized how unfair I'd been to her by not trying harder to contact her. I wasn't sure what to say.
"Are you okay?"
There was a long silence.
"I'm fine," she said, hanging up.
[Top photo via Shutterstock]