Why Nobody Uses Their Phone as a Phone, Anymore

As phones have advanced, we've stopped using them as phones. Maybe that's ironic. Maybe it's totally predictable.

First, the stats: The number of text messages sent per user increased by nearly 50 percent last year, while talking minutes per user have fallen. Old-fashioned "talking" now accounts for "less than half of the traffic on mobile networks," Sprint Nextel chief exec Dan Hesse told the New York Times.

In the blogosphere, these kind of stories often get the "human-relations-are-dying!" treatment. On the contrary, the fact that texting replaces some talking isn't really evidence that we're losing touch. It's evidence that we prefer flexibility. Calling, it turns out, is an inefficient way of communicating some messages. It's easier to type the sentence "r u free at 8?" than dial and hope the person picks up. It's easier to read that sentence on your own time than interrupt your conversation at the moment your friend wants to know about your availability. (The irony here is that sometimes text-conversation threads continue for so long that it winds up taking longer than an old-fashioned "voice" conversation.)

Moreover, it's shouldn't surprise us that as our phones become little computers, we're thinking about them as little computers. After Jim Fallows wrote a lengthy, positive review of the Nexus One "Google" smartphone, he was reminded to post a follow-up in response to a reader's question: "How is the Nexus One as a . . . uh. . . phone?" That wasn't oversight on Fallows' part. It's common-sense to review a smartphone as a smartphone -- which is to say, as something much, much more than a phone.

Another factor that goes unexplained in the article is that talking over the phone is destined to flat-line or decline as other communication streams come out. Thirty years ago, if I wanted to talk to a friend in another place, calling was pretty much my only option. Today, I can email, Tweet, Facebook, text, instant-message, video chat, and so on. Different communication mediums are ideal for different messages at different times. So the story here isn't really that smartphones are killing talking. The story is that a host of emerging technologies are revealing that Americans love to talk, but they don't always want to use their voice.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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