By Xinyuan Wang and Tom McDonald
Both Tom and Xinyuan noticed that ‘sending voice messages’ (fa yuyin) via Chinese social media platforms WeChat and QQ was very popular in both our north and south China fieldsites. Their informants kept talking about the ability to leave voice messages using these platforms.
WeChat was the first to introduce the ability to ‘send voice messages’ in its app. This simply involves navigating to the chat screen of the person you wish to send a message to, and then pushing on the record button. This activates the microphone, you speak your message, and then you release the button. The message is then sent to the recipient, and appears as a speech bubble with a loudspeaker symbol amongst the ordinary dialogue (see figure). The recipient has to press the loudspeaker symbol to play the message.
Informants in both sites have reported that they found voice messaging to be convenient as it eliminates the need to text. In both sites many of our participants reported that they found sending written messages always takes a longer time, and that inputting Chinese characters was a struggle.
Besides functional advantages of WeChat voice message, it is curious to note that people have developed a strategy of appropriating WeChat voice message in terms of personal expression and relationship negotiation. For example, people believe that voice message is more personal. Many of our informants agreed that voice messages are not suitable for sending to everyone. One of Tom’s informants hinted that sending voice messages would only be appropriate for people who were quite close. Another, a young female office worker, explained that her online communication with her previous boyfriend predominantly featured voice messages. Especially to close friends and lovers, voice messages appear to express much more emotions than text-based channels.
Also the intonations of voice message matters a lot and help to make things clearer. In some cases, voice message somehow contributes to a better quality conversation. For instance, instead of sending a text message to her boyfriend saying she felt tired and sick, one of Xinyuan’s informants chose to send voice message, which really ‘sounds’ very weak and sick. Another participant showed Xinyuan how to use voice messaging in order to make a ‘white lie’ to a friend since, compared to phone call, one is more able to control one’s emotion and intonation using voice messaging. Similarly, people in Tom’s site reported that compared to phone calls, voice messaging offered the advantage of being able to ‘take one’s words back’ thanks to a feature that, if one is not satisfied with the recording, one is able to delete the voice message before sending it. It seems that people have realised that some serious arguments from phone calls were actually caused by a wrong word or improper intonation.
It is also curious to note that the majority of young women in Xinyuan’s site reported that they actually listened to their own voice messages after sending them off. Many expressed surprise at hearing the sound of their own voice since most of them felt somewhat strange about it in the beginning since “it doesn’t sound at all like my voice!”. Scientifically speaking, the reason for such discrepancy is because when people speak they hear their own voice in two different ways – one through the outside sound waves, which also hit other people’s ears, and the other one through the inner bony skull which actually polishes one’s voice with ‘a false sense of bass’. However, for us it is also interesting to look at the social consequences of hearing one voice regularly. Apparently, people became more aware of their own voice while using voice message. And women (around 80% to 90%) appeared more aware of their voice since fewer male users (around 30% to 40%) told Xinyuan that they regularly listen to their own voice using voice messages.
It should be noted that unlike Europe or America, where there has been a long history of leaving voice messages thanks to the prevalence of the telephone answering machine, Chinese homes have rarely bought the units. Although the country’s mobile phone providers have started offering voicemail capabilities, there has always been an additional charge for the service, meaning take up has always been low. As such before WeChat introduced voice messaging the practice of talking to machines just hasn’t existed for most Chinese.
This asynchronous voice messaging represents quite a major change in the way that people communicate, moving from sending messages consisting of Chinese characters or emoticons to sending messages that are primarily aural. But it also raises important questions, such as: Does voice messaging in a way function as a self-training process in terms of speech skill? Or does it contribute to people’s self-recognition through social interaction? And does the effect of voice messaging vary with relation to gender?
In Miller and Sinanan’s recent Webcam book, the authors noticed that one of the important features of the webcam is that it effectively acts as a mirror, allowing many people their first ever opportunity to see themselves whilst in conversation. It is interesting to note that a similar novel state of communication is taking place in the case of voice messaging among Chinese users that people could actually listen to themselves during the daily communication for the first time. In both sites of China, we found that even though people started to apply voice message mainly because of its functional affordance, they ended up with a new consciousness of their voice as something one can creatively craft in order to send.
Yes, there are few things harder than facing yourself. Like it or not, it seems that social media in a way has ‘pushed’ us to know more about ourselves and our social relationships. And for many in China this means it may be time to face their own voice.