In spite of all its limitations—and even because of them—the technology still has a purpose.
The first ever BlackBerry, released in 1999, came with just five megabytes of storage, or the equivalent of about a single song. That is so small a percentage of the storage offered by top-of-the-line, one-terabyte phones today that you are better off writing it in scientific notation. If its full storage capacity was purposed for music, a modern iPhone or Samsung Galaxy could hold hundreds of thousands of downloaded songs, representing more than 1 million minutes of audio.
And yet those same phones will sometimes whine that your voicemail is full. Exceed some seemingly mysterious limit, and your inbox shuts down until you go through and prune it. Would-be message leavers are hard-bounced: “The mailbox is full and cannot accept any messages at this time. Goodbye.”
It feels oddly in tension with the rest of our digital lives. We have been conditioned to expect a kind of data maximalism from years of free storage on Gmail, iMessage, and Facebook. But it seems wireless carriers, who have stored voicemails on behalf of customers since the pre-smartphone era, would rather not be in the business of hosting an unlimited supply of audio messages. Instead, they force the data equivalent of the KonMari Method: Declutter your inbox and save whatever is sentimental or important.
Carriers record and capture voicemail because they maintain all of the telephone-related parts of your device. (They’re also the ones that assign you a phone number and connect you to a wireless network.) Verizon, AT&T, TMobile, and so on—these are the companies that initially grab your voicemails for you.
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And at one time, it ended there. A person would check their voicemail by calling their own number and entering a passcode. But then came smartphones. The voicemail section of your device is now called Visual Voicemail, and it’s layered on top of the carrier’s system. Your smartphone’s software, which is likely made by Apple, Google, or Samsung depending on what type of phone you have, retrieves your messages from the carrier’s server, downloading them to your phone and displaying a list of them in a scrollable way. You may even get a rough transcription of the messages.
However, most carriers still limit the number or cumulative length of the messages you can store within their system. The typical voicemail plan is not very big; even premium plans from the country’s largest carriers max out at about 40 messages a user. When asked why voicemail storage limits exist in the era of data sprawl, a spokesperson for AT&T wrote that the company aims to “provide customers access to their messages in an efficient, reliable, and fast manner”: a nonspecific answer that suggests that having access to a very large number of voicemails might lead to an inefficient, unreliable, and slow experience. Although most of us own smartphones, carriers do still provide the old dial-in service—maybe for those with flip phones or landlines—and it’s hard to imagine navigating through thousands of old recordings this way.
The interplay between Visual Voicemail and the traditional voicemail system—in a sense, a melding of new and old technologies—is where things get a little weird and interesting. When you get a notification that your voicemail is full, it’s referring to your carrier’s voicemail system. Remember, your device itself could theoretically hold more voicemails than you might ever receive in a lifetime, and the iPhone, at least, makes good on this promise: If you dial into the voicemail system the old-fashioned way and delete a message there, it will remain in your Visual Voicemail inbox forevermore. (Or at least until you decide to delete it there, too.) You can also export voicemails to your email or a file-hosting service. All of these are pretty good ways to get around your carrier’s storage limits. A spokesperson for Verizon told me that storage limits are “very seldom an issue” for this reason.
Still, why the hassle? None of the three biggest wireless providers—AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile—would tell me how many voicemails they’re storing at any given time, and what infrastructure is required to do so. In general, data-storage costs aren’t what they used to be. Paul Finnigan, a voicemail pioneer who until 1999 led the International Voicemail Association, a trade group that developed voicemail standards, told me that in the early days of the technology, it cost his company 10 cents (about 40 cents in today’s money) to store a single message for 24 hours. Now, experts told me, it’s way cheaper.
But storing data in general requires managing it and protecting it from bad actors, which might be something these companies hope to avoid as much as possible. “The more data that you have and the longer that you have it for, the greater the risk that you’re inviting,” Chris Frascella, a law fellow at the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, told me. Frascella said that generally speaking, when companies take a “data-minimalism approach,” it is to minimize the hacking risk, “because data that’s not there can’t be compromised.” From a privacy and security perspective, storage limits might actually be a good thing for the consumer; they probably leave us less exposed. Just last month, T-Mobile disclosed a data breach affecting more than 800 customers, its ninth since 2018; all three major carriers have likewise had some kind of data compromised in recent years.
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Granted, in 2023, no one seems to be clamoring for unlimited voicemail stored with their carrier—or clamoring for voicemail at all. The technology’s eulogy has been written and rewritten for more than a decade. But it has also proved to be curiously unkillable. AT&T told me that the majority of people still set up and use their voicemail inbox, and that from the company’s perspective, the technology is “healthy.” A Verizon spokesperson told me over email that “rumors of voicemail’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
So the technology is in a tricky place: People don’t love it, but they can’t seem to give it up. To better understand this tension, I called Steve Whittaker, a professor of human-computer interaction at UC Santa Cruz who worked on visual voicemail in the late ’90s. When he didn’t pick up, his prerecorded greeting suggested that email would be a better way to reach him.
“A lot of the time, technologies don’t really die,” Whittaker said when we eventually caught up by phone. “They just kind of get layered on top of each other.” It’s hard to see a world in which remote, asynchronous audio messaging sputters out completely, but that doesn’t mean it has to be through voicemail, exactly: Voice memos of the sort that you can send on iMessage or WhatsApp offer all the whimsy and personal touch of voicemail while dodging all of the unfun parts.
Still, one of voicemail’s advantages is simply that it doesn’t involve any screens or buttons or downloading any software. You’re prompted to speak, and you do so. Anyone can do it, and everyone does. This can have sentimental advantages. When one person I interviewed for this story mentioned saving messages from his mother in case she died, I knew exactly what he was talking about. After my grandfather died, I took comfort in replaying an old voicemail of him singing me “Happy Birthday,” as he would insist on doing every year.
But no amount of voicemail from my grandfather will change the fact that he’s gone. And for every sweet or heartwarming message from someone you love, there are probably a dozen or more that you have no use for. No one wants to hold on to every callback message from their health-care provider. And don’t even get me started on spam.
The internet of the past 20 or so years has tried to convince us that digital nostalgia is good, and that it is charming and not creepy to see a Facebook photo from 10 years ago resurface on our News Feed. That’s made it harder to let go of things, or to delete accounts, for fear of what we might lose. “If we didn’t have limits, we would gorge ourselves to death on this,” Roger Entner, a telecommunications expert and the founder of Recon Analytics, told me, explaining that, although most people are diligent about listening to, say, a voicemail about getting some milk and eggs from the store and then deleting it, others treat the same message “as a gem that needs to be preserved for eternity.”
In a time when we have the option to hoard endless digital libraries about our lives, perhaps it’s nice to have one technology that still occasionally forces us to consider what’s really important. Right now your carrier requires you to tend to your garden regularly, which is unintentionally refreshing. Our lives are ephemeral, and perhaps more of our data should be as well.