Sarah Morrison, a Williamsburg resident in her late 20s who writes for Missbehave magazine, had no problem copping to the fact that she often ignores friends’ phone calls.
“I’ll sit there and watch the phone ring and be like, ‘UGH! Why are they calling?’” said Ms. Morrison, “99 percent” of whose plans are made via text, email or “BBM” (that’s BlackBerry Messaging for all you Luddites out there). “People definitely get annoyed.”
Doug Murray, 29, of Bushwick, who teaches middle school in the Bronx, has a similar habit. “Most often it takes two or three calls before I’ll call someone back,” said Mr. Murray, who usually emails from his T-Mobile Smartphone whenever he’s in a WiFi hot spot. The casual “catch-up” call, he said, is a thing of the past: “Even on friends’ birthdays, I’ll just send them an email or a text. It sounds pretty lame, but it’s a habit I’ve fallen into.”
Whoever thought we’d miss the cell-phone jerks yapping away on Starbucks lines and crowded intersections from Soho to the Upper West Side? More and more they’ve been replaced by a new and even more off-putting breed of zombielike technophiles; heads slouched downward at their palms; eyes glued to miniature computer screens; thumbs rapidly tapping away on the same devices that would have been pressed up against their ears a year or two ago.
Gabbing is out. These days, it’s straight to voice mail. And even when callers repeatedly dial their closest friends, it’s often not a ring tone they get in return, but a text message—“hey. you call?”—or a 10-word email ending in a phrase like “Sent from my BlackBerry.”
Yes, New Yorkers have come to loathe the act of talking on the phone. Why bother, when they can just type on a tiny touchscreen? It’s so convenient, so effortless—not like having a real conversation in which you actually have to listen and focus and respond. And suddenly people are keeping as much distance between their phones and their mouths as possible.
This sociological shift prompted the following inquiry on a Yahoo! Q&A forum on Nov. 23: “Why don’t people answer their cell phone[s] anymore?”
“I HATE talking on the phone,” wrote one New Yorker (presumably from his phone), within 30 seconds of receiving a reporter’s email asking the same question. “People call me and I text them back.”
“I don’t have a B-Ber or an iPhone and yet I seldom talk on the phone AT ALL,” another, Maureen Flynn, a 26-year-old corporate philanthropy consultant who lives in Queens, chimed in moments later. “I T9 like a champ!” she said of the letter-predicting technology used for quick and easy text-messaging.
STATISTICS CONFIRM that cell phones are getting more love from their owners’ thumbs than their lips. During the first six months of 2008, mobile users in the U.S. sent or received almost 385 billion text messages versus the 295 billion calls that were made from or received on cell phones, according to data from the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade organization that tracks wireless trends. It was the first time ever that text messages surpassed calls, said Bob Roche, the association’s vice president for research. Emailing and instant messaging from cell phones is also on the rise. In September of this year, 34 million Americans accessed email on their phones, versus 23 million in September of 2007, said Jaimee Steele, a spokeswoman for the digital media research firm ComScore. Likewise, 22 million people IM-ed from their phones this September versus 15 million during the same month a year earlier, according to ComScore’s data.
It seems like the fancier these smart phones become, the less they actually resemble, well … phones.
“We say every day that these are no longer just phones, they’re ‘personal communication devices,’” said David Samberg, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, which just rolled out its latest BlackBerry, a touchscreen model called the Storm that has received poor reviews thus far. “They’re minicomputers.”
And that is precisely why they appeal to people like 27-year-old Katia Bachko, an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review currently between apartments, who in July made the big leap and bought an iPhone.
Ms. Bachko said the little gizmo has kicked her phone call “avoidance disorder” into high gear. Just ask the friend she saw the other day with whom she hasn’t had more than a “two-sentence” phone conversation in the past three years. Or the guy she recently dated for five months, with whom she spoke on the phone a total of (no joke) one time.
“When I look at my cell phone, I don’t look at it as a way of talking to people,” said Ms. Bachko, speaking from her landline in the CJR offices. “This is just the thing I use for text messaging or to check email.”
Ms. Flynn, the philanthropy consultant, lamented the change.
“When I was in high school it was such a big deal to get my own line and talk for hours upon hours about nothing and everything all at once,” she wrote, “and now I don’t even want to call and ask my friends what bar they’re at because it takes too much effort. Sigh.”
Why don’t people want to talk anymore?
Dalton Conley, chair of the sociology department at N.Y.U., suggested it’s because smart phones enable both our laziness and our A.D.D.
“Texting you can do while you’re doing something else. A verbal conversation requires a lot more focus,” said Professor Conley, whose book Elsewhere, USA, about technology’s impact on daily life, will be out from Pantheon on Jan. 13. “People were doodling in meetings long before there were text messages.”
Of course, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
“The debate is, does this constant texting of short, Twitter-like messages then facilitate in-depth conversation, or does it supplant it?” Professor Conley said. “I think it supplants it. It reduces people’s commitments. It’s easy to just text someone to cancel plans and not have to face hearing their disappointment or frustration.”
That’s why Nicole Ferejohn, a 27-year-old who works on Wall Street and lives in Carroll Gardens, is wary of her brand-new Storm.
One night a few weeks ago, Ms. Ferejohn was hanging out with a group of friends when she realized, after numerous requests for her “BBM name,” that she was the only person of the bunch who didn’t have one. She caved into the pressure and ordered a BlackBerry the following morning.
“I felt like I needed to have it because I didn’t want to be left out, but the fact of the matter is, I’ve held out this long because I don’t want to become one of those people who freaks out if they accidentally leave their phone at home. It makes it too easy, and you lose that effort you have to make with people,” said Ms. Ferejohn, who was drowning her anxieties in a pint of India pale ale at a dimly lit East Village pub one evening a few days before her BlackBerry came in the mail. She took a sip and frowned. “I don’t want this to become the only way we communicate. That would be so sad!”