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Quartz Obsession — Voicemail — Card 1
Love it or hate it, the rise and fall of voicemail is sewn into the fabric of modern culture. Whether stored on little cassette tapes inside answering machine equipment or in the digital ether, voice messages have served as plot points for TV shows, been featured in songs, and led to some spectacular celebrity downfalls.
But they also tell an everyday story about how humans interact with quiet. Leaving a voicemail, for some, is anxiety-inducing. It’s a moment that requires stepping into the tiniest of spotlights with one shot to communicate a thought or feeling with brevity, clarity, and purpose—all while conveying just the right tone.
Voicemail is so fraught that AT&T essentially passed on early answering machine technology invented by its Bell Labs geniuses in the 1930s. Faced with a combination of recording’s permanence and conversation’s casual nature, businesspeople would flee phones for the more careful rhythm of mail, executives believed.
Feeling nervous yet?
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Quartz Obsession — Voicemail — Card 2
5: People who have some claim to the invention of the voicemail concept
6: Maximum rings that AT&T allows before a call switches to voicemail
10: Years inventor Robin Elkins spent battling giant companies over ownership of voicemail
33 seconds: Length of the voicemail that toppled pro golfer Tiger Woods’ reputation
$3.2 million: Amount JP Morgan estimates it saves annually by eliminating voicemail
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Quartz Obsession — Voicemail — Card 3
That blinking light on your office phone usually portends banality, but some voicemails have rocked popular culture. A voicemail unveiled Alec Baldwin’s aggressive side when he called his 11-year-old daughter a “rude, thoughtless little pig”; another exposed Tiger Woods for having an extramarital affair (that one now has a slow-jam remix); and yet another voicemail helped solidify our knowledge of Faye Dunaway’s oversized ego.
Other celebrities have used them for their art. The last minute of Kate Bush’s song “All the Love” features short spurts of random voicemail messages. Most of Frank Ocean’s song “Be Yourself” draws from a long voicemail from his mother. Drake’s song “Marvin’s Room” begins with a long sample from a voicemail left by his ex-girlfriend, Erika Lee.
The artists most indebted to the technology are the band They Might Be Giants. Starting in 1985 the band recorded one song on an answering machine each week, as a way of getting ears at a time when they didn’t have a record contract and couldn’t perform live. They called the project Dial-a-Song and anyone could call and listen for the price of a three-or-so-minute call to Brooklyn. Because their answering machine confused extended notes with the beep that ended the message, they had to break up the notes, giving them their readily identifiable, dynamically clipped sound. They could also hear when listeners hung up during songs—the ultimate fine-grained feedback on their arrangements.
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Quartz Obsession — Voicemail — Card 4
What does it mean to be a modern worker? Before Covid-19 the phrase connoted a certain frame of mind—the kind shared by people who have a deep relationship with their work; who derive some portion of their identity from it; who want their teams equipped with tools to make them as creative and productive as possible, for love of the work or sense of purpose as much as for profit. Now it seems we are all modern workers, whether on laptops in living rooms, on the frontlines of healthcare, or on apps that allow us to patch together gig jobs or network for new opportunities, all the while trying to not only balance work and life but to do it simultaneously. Quartz at Work gets down to business in a new weekly email newsletter called The Memo.
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Quartz Obsession — Voicemail — Card 5
“You and ‘The Little Mermaid’ can go [BEEP] yourselves! I told you to stay near the phone. I can’t find those books, you have other books here. They must be in La Jolla. Call me back. I’m not going to stay up all night for you. Goodbye.”
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Quartz Obsession — Voicemail — Card 7
1878: Thomas Edison proposes using his new phonograph to record phone calls.
1898: Valdemar Poulsen patents the Telegraphone, the first machine for magnetic sound recording and reproduction.
1931: William Schergens invents the answering machine.
1934: Bell Laboratories installs an answering machine.
1954: Bell Labs releases the short-lived “Talking Rubber” answering machine.
1975: Gerald M. Kolodny and Paul Hughes invent a voicemail application for everyday use.
1978: Robin Elkins invents digital/analog storage technology for voicemails.
1979: Gordon Matthews invents the idea of corporate voicemail.
1980: Televoice International trademarks the term “voicemail.”
2007: Alec Baldwin leaves an infamous, verbally abusive voicemail for his 11-year-old daughter that goes viral.
2015: They Might Be Giants restart Dial-a-Song, which had previously been active from 1985 to 2008.
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Quartz Obsession — Voicemail — Card 8
“Thank you for using [slight pause] AT&T.” If a certain voice comes to mind, from making long-distance calls, using calling cards, or getting trapped within labyrinthine voicemail systems, you’re probably not alone. Long before Alexa and Siri, one of the most listened-to automated voices in the world belonged to a real human, voice actress Pat Fleet. The telephone giant was her first major client, which provided immediate worldwide exposure—over 30 years into her telecom-focused career, it was estimated that her voice was heard 250 million times a day.
Fleet took the reins as the voice of Ma Bell from Jane Barbe, who was possibly the first voice actress to specialize in communications-network and voicemail systems. The former big-band singer started in 1963 on dial-in time and temperature updates. When she moved to AT&T, her voice went out over the phone lines 40 million times a day, and she guided people through over a thousand business voicemail messaging systems, in over a thousand cities across the world.
But she was more than just a pretty voice. Voicemail guidance has to be as efficient and flexible as it is calming, and part of what made Barbe an unsung star of the mass communications era was her precision. “She had the ability to give readings of precise lengths, often measured in tenths of seconds, which are required in a medium in which messages are often assembled from dozens of individual sound bites,” the New York Times wrote in her 2003 obituary.
Every medium has its fans, of course, and Barbe’s work lives on online, alongside Fleet’s recordings. Before cell phones and online help, at the peak of giant, maze-like corporate voicemail structures, ABC News anchor Ted Koppel talked with both Barbe and Fleet about the new how-we-live-now phenomenon of “voice mail jail.” If you want to go straight to the source, Telephone World has Jane Barbe mp3s and a side-by-side comparison between Barbe and Fleet.
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Quartz Obsession — Voicemail — Card 9
In the 1980s, 20 hours of voicemail storage capacity cost about $180,000. By 1992 that had plummeted to $13,000. Because storage is digital now, it costs about $0.01 for each gigabyte of storage. A gigabyte can hold between 16 and 20 hours of audio.
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Quartz Obsession — Voicemail — Card 10
In the eighth season of Seinfeld, one of the four main characters, George, screens his calls using voicemail to avoid what he believes to be an inevitable break-up call with a woman he’s been dating. His efforts wind up being foiled when she uses another character, Kramer, as an unsuspected go-between.
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Quartz Obsession — Voicemail — Card 11
Why is it that so many people express dread about leaving and receiving voicemail messages? Turns out it may have a lot to do with the abstract feeling of being alone.
Listening to a voicemail is an inherently one-sided experience. You can’t respond or engage. But there’s evidence that helps explain why leaving voicemails can be just as awful. In a 2012 study, CUNY psychologist Joshua Clegg explored the topic of social awkwardness. As part of his work he asked a sample group to give an impromptu defense of their opinions on a given topic.
“It was excruciating for most of them; many of them were sweating, fidgeting, looking at the ground, tongue-tied,” he told The Cut. “Some of them even had to quit in the middle because it was too difficult for them.”
The voicemail puts the recorder and the listener in a distinctly awkward spot. Both acts induce explicit social attention, which may increase feelings of social awkwardness, Clegg argued.
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