With WhatsApp’s new update displaying sound waves on audio messages, a thought has come to mind: Meta (WhatsApp’s owner) has many features to make listening to audio messages tolerable, considering they are more common than ever. This comes from a significant shift in instant communication culture, since bandwidth and compression are no longer massive problems as they once were.
Audio messages have taken the platform by storm, especially in countries like India and Brazil, substituting text messages for those who are unable or unwilling to send regular text messages. However, their inefficient, cumbersome and slow nature is not immediately apparent to whoever sends them.
This comes as a surprise to no one, but microphones do not have the capacity (yet) to selectively filter background noise like magic. This means that audio files are not suitable in any environment with a ton of noise, such as factories, music shows, crowds and parties.
Those are all, ironically, environments where the prospect of sending voice messages becomes enticing. Nevertheless, there is no difference between no message and a completely unintelligible message, so please wait until you can type it out (and let’s be honest, if you can’t devote your attention to typing a message, you shouldn’t be using a phone in that situation anyway).
Furthermore, the receiving end might be in one of these environments. If any of the two ends encounters background noise, it’ll make listening to the message incredibly difficult.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve overheard sensitive info by just minding my own business, all thanks to audio files. From medical details to bank info, there is no limit to what people will loudly declare. For some odd reason, details that would be whispered or written down are now spoken aloud, in public.
Then again, there’s the recipient, who has no way of knowing the contents of the message and might end up blasting embarrassing or sensitive information at full volume. Even if they know the contents of the message, they’ll be inconvenienced by having to search for a quiet, unpopulated place to listen to the message.
An audio file cannot be copied from, and takes significantly more effort to search for the relevant piece of information you want. An address passed through an audio message cannot be pasted into Google Maps instantly, and searching for it amidst 15 seconds of irrelevant chattering and “uh” is going to make whoever you invited seriously reconsider their plans.
Not only that, it is impossible to search through a group chat chockful of audio messages using any sort of “search” function. You’ll be reliant on a kind hearted soul that knows the contents of each message by heart, or hope you can index them mentally. A chat with mostly audio messages quickly becomes an increasingly aggravating game of Simon.
As if that wasn’t enough, once you delete it, it’s gone. Hope whoever sent it still has it.
Unless you live in a bubble comprised exclusively of public relations ministers, encounters with messages padded by silence, derailing trains of thought and hesitation will be common. With text messages, you can quickly correct, reevaluate and confirm whatever it is you’re sending.
With voice messages, there are two options: starting over, or keep going by hastily correcting yourself several times until you eventually get it right, much to the amusement of the recipient. If you do the latter, please consider paying court transcriber rates.
When a relative with zero English experience attempts to describe a problem with foreign equipment or tries to recommend a movie with an untranslated title, it might take several failed attempts to guess what is going on. In a phone call or face-to-face conversation, that can be easily remediated, but there is no guarantee the sender will be available to immediately clarify what they said, making each attempt last hours or even days.
Worse still, when working with complex wording and/or names, that confusion could have catastrophic consequences. A mispronounced address could send someone to a completely different street, and a misunderstood prognosis could lead to damage or harm. As anecdotal evidence, before a paintball game, a friend of mine misunderstood an address, sending him 5km away from the intended location (and then he backed his Corsa into a pole during a u-turn).
Lastly, the least of concerns. Although these aren’t the days of Limewire and Kazaa, downloading audio files is still relatively annoying. So much so that WhatsApp allows you to not download audio files automatically once they’re received, which makes sense in metered connections and to save space in hardware-limited smartphones.
Let’s take a very “conservative” amount of audio messages: 20 per day, at roughly 10 seconds long each, on average. That gives us 1.25 messages per hour from 7:00 to 23:00, 24 kB each. This relatively light amount of messaging consumes, over only 6 months, nearly 90 MB.
It might not seem like much, but that amounts to two apps worth of storage. If you consider these audio files might contain important information (in my case, insurance terms), that makes them undeletable, as no sane human would go through thousands of audio files to cherry pick important ones and delete the rest.
For the love of God, just stop sending audio messages. There is a better way 99.9% of the time.