Coca-Cola just killed voicemail. Should we care?

In December, the company’s Atlanta headquarters shut down office phone messages. Now, if you want to reach someone, you’ll have to e-mail, text, or call their cell.

The shift wasn’t about cost-cutting. (The price tag was a relatively measly $100,000 per annum.) It was about getting in synch with the way employees, especially younger ones, were already communicating. Axing voice mail is a sign of the times. In 2012, Vonage reported that voice mail traffic had dropped 8 percent since the previous year. The media lit up, declaring the voice mail’s death. Given a choice, droves of users are abandoning conversation in favor of writing. Since 2008, the volume of text messages has surpassed voice calls in the United States. For young people, the mix is incredibly lop-sided. The Pew Internet Research Project reports that in 2011, teens texted an average of 60 times a day (with 100 daily for older teenager girls). In 2009, 38 percent of teens talked on the phone daily; by 2011 that number had fallen to 26 percent.

My own research bears this out. In 2007, I studied how college students in four countries used their cellphones. Many chose to text rather than talk because it was “faster.” They didn’t have to listen to the other person. Even those of us residing between middle age and retirement understand the virtues of written communication. It takes longer to listen to the same stretch of text than to read it. Be honest with yourself: How many times have you heard the first few words of a voicemail, stopped listening, and simply called back? If you have a teenager, you know this procedure is de rigueur. (“Uh, Mom, I see you called. What’s up?”)

When I want to talk with my 20-something son, who lives in Ohio, here’s my ritual: I first check Find Friends (a GPS app on my phone) to determine if he’s driving. If he’s home, I send a text to see if this is a good time to talk. When I’m lucky, my phone soon rings. E-mail and texting let us control exactly when and how we send and respond to messages.

We’re unlikely to return an office call at midnight. But written communiqués are fine at any time of day or night – and particularly handy if traveling in another time zone. While pecking away at a keyboard or keypad, we have the option of multitasking. And we’re never going to get stuck too long on a text — just type and send. It’s true that written communication has its benefits. Anyone who’s tried phoning a live person in customer support at your favorite corporation knows the frustration of hunting down a phone number and (if you even find one) waiting interminable lengths of time to be connected with someone. Knowing what we were up against, why, we ask ourselves, did we bother?

Yet for all its problems, human conversations matter. (Some people call customer-friendly L.L. Bean rather than ordering online just to hear a welcoming voice.)

Spoken language is one of the indisputable features that distinguish homo sapiens from all other creatures. Yes, writing is another wondrous human invention, but it’s a relative newbie (less than 5,000 years old). And for all its potential power, it lacks the richness and immediacy of a spoken conversation. When I ask my undergraduates if spending time on Facebook ever makes them feel lonely, I’m sadden when they say yes. Linguist John L. Locke has worried about what he calls the de-voicing of society. And psychologists John and Stephanie Cacioppo worry that loneliness is becoming a modern epidemic.

Voice mail has its flaws, but it still carries the resonances of another live person. Sure, it takes time to hear the message through. But part of living in civil society – or simply having basic manners – is giving other people a chance to have their say and for us to listen. Just how many of those “in real life” conversations are we willing to cede to text? If voice mail goes, which other uses of spoken language are next?

Let’s not hang up on homo loquens.