Apptitude: Wild Pling!

Why the white-hot messaging app Pling makes Yahoo columnist Virginia Heffernan's heart sing

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

Pling is a communication app that lights up the brain’s every pleasure center:

How delightful, how graceful!
How surprising, how groovy!
How beguiling, how simple!
How necessary!

Pling, which Apple handsomely featured in its unsung Mac App store, and which is now used in 85 countries, is a voice-texting service.

In its deadpan-kawai marketing materials—the formidable Droga5 does the app’s chic advertising—Pling promises to “restore nuance to communication.” At the same time, it’s a “faster way to communicate.” So it’s voice. It’s text. It’s fast. It’s nuanced. Such are the paradoxes of Pling.

Not until you give Pling a gratis whirl will you be able to square all these circles. It’s available, for free, both for iOS and for Macs.

Pling is loaded with paradoxes, but that’s not to say that Pling is hard to explain. On the contrary, this catnip-for-capitalists app (a fat Pling investment is being announced soon) is nothing if not pitchable.

In short: Pling lets you create and send recordings that can then be retrieved as naturally and blithely as text messages.

Want to envision the Pling lifestyle? I’ll give you the mobile snapshot: You get a little signal saying you have a Pling. One glance at your phone and there it is, looking like an email or a Facebook notification, but cuter. Tap it and there’s a friend or colleague’s voice (sounding radio-dreamy, I might add, not at all thin and cellular; though I can’t be sure, I’m convinced that the Apple-microphone recording and magic Pling compression of this app sweeten our voices, just as Instagram’s filters sweeten our pictures).

“Hey, let’s send those newsletters this afternoon.”

“Stacy and Bliss are saying 7pm for dinner. Is that too early for you?”

“We found Wallace’s baseball glove! You can pick it up on the way to practice.”

To respond, or sass back, or bridle, or balk, or relent, or placate—or do any of those things that humans do when they form words with their lungs, throats and mouths—you just press the screen, hold like a walkie-talkie and speak your piece. Done.

Pling screenshots: On the left, record your message; on the right, your current Plings.To swap everything from big ideas (“Let’s bomb Iran”) to sweet nothings (“I love you”) voice-to-voice, that’s all it takes. There’s no onerous setting up of calls, nor praying to get voice mail while a phone rings.

And for the receiver, blessedly, there’s no digging into—or worse laboriously dialing into—horrible, ignorable voice mail. For neither party is there a life-draining header or footnote about leaving messages after tones or what button to press if you’re not satisfied with your message. Just tap a Pling and hear an in medias res voice-note, the kind someone might slip you in person, in the break room or at a school drop-off.

Pling has scant conventions as of yet so you have room to improvise and find out how you like it best. Maybe it’s that tech-frontier whimsy I hear in the voices of the half-dozen people I Pling with. Adepts, it seems, don’t identify themselves (“This is Jamie”) since our names are on our Plings. No one does much off-signing. They just talk. They seem amused and freewheeling. Having broken the yearslong vow of silence enforced by text messaging, we even sound liberated.

Now is the time when, if I’m not careful, I might lurch into sentimental phonocentrism—the belief that speech and sounds, including war whoops and yodeling, are intrinsically superior to written language. It’s no exaggeration to say that a significant strain of Western philosophy, from Plato to Derrida, turns on the tension between cool, earthy talking and showoff-y, mind-game-y writing.

But the only side I’m on is that of the tension itself, since it’s tension that enlivens the culture. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore that since the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1989 digital life has been dominated by written forms. Email, search, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter are still thick with text and almost entirely silent. So maybe it’s nice that orality is getting a hearing again, with Pling.

The Web favored the writers of the world. Many of us who’d rather write privately than converse publicly (exposing our lisps, croaks and stutters), battened on this bias. At the same time, people with beauty, authority and range to their voices, the types who excel in vocal exchanges, have been held back by graphocentrism and its attendant phonophobia. Email and text messaging have cost good talkers their expressive palette, persuasive power and—who knows?—maybe even girlfriends and jobs.

Fluent melodious talkers, then, break the chains of spelling and punctuation! Return to the breath, the strum of the vocal cords! With Pling you’re not beholden to the goofy babytalk of text messages. Nor must you conform to email’s inhibiting formal requirements, which can impede communication by issuing dozens of invitations to masquerade and pretension. (I just got a personal, emotional email that contained the soap-operatic sentence, “It’s quite clear, as you well know.” The best of us often work too hard and sound too Jamesian in email.)

As the shamelessly phonocentric Pling fanatics will tell you, with voice comes emotion, personality, nuance and sarcasm. (Pling freaks tend to have a sinister commitment to safeguarding sarcasm; can’t figure it out.) In interviewing various people about Pling, via Pling, I can say firsthand that my exchanges were more informative and exciting and complex and funny with Pling than they would have been either on email or in a stilted and laboriously scheduled phone call. (“Is this an OK time?” “Can we switch to a landline?” “Are you still there?”)

Voice permits spontaneity, intimacy, humor. When you communicate with your brain, lungs, larynx, tongue and teeth, you are, it seems, more apt to change course, to find inspiration, to amplify or temper a thought on the spot. You are audibly thinking—and, done right, the neuromuscular event called talking can sound better than music.

Pling for Professionals is a paid app that offers a suite of workday services that, just to begin with, let hundreds of people talk to one another. The inspiring OS X version of the app is, for now, the one in which the developer, DE-DE, has the most pride. The Web app most starkly distinguishes Pling from lower-feature walkie-talkie apps like Voxer and Zello. Keep it open on your desktop and you can exchange with friends and colleagues pithy vocal marginalia to work and life all day long.

DE-DE, led by silver-tongued Plinger Hashem Bajwa, has big plans for the app. In the works are Pling buttons that will allow oral comments on articles and artifacts; ways of archiving and flagging good Plings; public and social Plinging; and more. Saudi Arabia is on the brink of banning Pling, so they’re off to a good start.

But whether Pling slips seamlessly into your life, as it did mine, or seems like another battery-drainer to find a use for, it’s worth sending and receiving one single Pling. Get a friend or child or grandparent to sign up with you. And then leave each other some goofy test messages, as if you were Alexander Graham Bell.

And then just enjoy the sound of human voices unthinned and unbroken by cruel degrading cellular translations. Listen for words and breath, emotion and reason, signal and noise. You may never want to text again.

  • A firefighter’s plan to save lives and employ brothers
    A firefighter’s plan to save lives and employ brothers

    Being named Ohio’s “entrepreneur of the year” in April was enough to confirm for Zach Green that quitting his job as an Eli Lilly brand manager to start his own business was the right move. But seeing the announcement of his award in the paper alongside the news that his former employer would lay off 30 percent of its sales force “was the ultimate validation,” he says.

  • Apple expands buybacks by $30 billion, OKs seven-for-one stock split
    Apple expands buybacks by $30 billion, OKs seven-for-one stock split

    By Edwin Chan SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Apple Inc has approved another $30 billion in share buybacks till the end of 2015 and authorized a rarely seen seven-for-one stock split, addressing calls to share more of its cash hoard while broadening the stock's appeal to individual investors. Activist investor Carl Icahn, who had famously called on the iPhone maker to boost its buyback program, tweeted his approval of the move on Wednesday. On Wednesday, Apple reported sales of 43.7 million iPhones in the quarter ended March, far outpacing the roughly 38 million that Wall Street had predicted. But whether Apple can again produce a revolutionary new product remains the central question in investors' and Silicon Valley executives' minds.

  • U.S., euro zone activity up; China decline slows
    U.S., euro zone activity up; China decline slows

    By Rodrigo Campos and Jonathan Cable NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - The U.S. manufacturing sector expanded in April and the euro zone private sector started the second quarter on its strongest footing since 2011, while the pace of decline in Chinese factory activity slowed, surveys showed on Wednesday. Financial data firm Markit said its preliminary or "flash" U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index dipped to 55.4 in April from 55.5 in March. Economists polled by Reuters expected a reading of 56.0. Earlier on Wednesday, data showed China's HSBC/Markit flash PMI for April rose to 48.3 from March's final reading of 48.0, but was still below the 50 line separating expansion from contraction.

  • Buffett says abstained from voting on Coca-Cola's compensation plan: CNBC
    Buffett says abstained from voting on Coca-Cola's compensation plan: CNBC

    (Reuters) - Warren Buffett, chairman of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway , said on Wednesday he thinks Coca-Cola's controversial equity compensation plan was excessive, but that Berkshire Hathaway abstained in the shareholders vote. Earlier on Wednesday, Coca-Cola said 83 percent of shareholders approved the plan. Critics, most notably activist investor David Winters, said the plan would dilute the holdings of current shareholders too much. As of December 31, Berkshire owned 400 million shares of the company, just over 9 percent of the shares outstanding.

  • Ahead of earnings, Caterpillar dealer data paints mixed picture
    Ahead of earnings, Caterpillar dealer data paints mixed picture

    (Reuters) - Caterpillar Inc released unaudited dealer sales data on Wednesday that showed a deepening deterioration in global demand for its mining equipment but a continued, albeit modest, rebound in sales of construction equipment as well as reciprocating and turbine engines. The world's largest maker of construction and mining equipment said global dealer sales of its yellow earth-moving machines fell 12 percent year-over-year in March, after falling 8 percent in both January and February. Equipment demand from mining customers was especially weak, Caterpillar said, with global dealer sales of those high-margin products tumbling 46 percent in March after falling 37 percent in both January and February. The downturn in demand for mining equipment was especially dramatic in the Asia-Pacific region, where dealer sales slumped 65 percent in March after falling 55 percent in February and 53 percent in January.

  • Buffett: moving oil by rail safely major industry concern
    Buffett: moving oil by rail safely major industry concern

    By Luciana Lopez NEW YORK (Reuters) - Warren Buffett, chairman of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, said on Wednesday that safety is a major priority for the rail industry, after a recent spate of accidents raised concerns about how to transport oil safely. He added that the delay in the construction of the Keystone pipeline was unlikely to prompt additional purchases of tank cars at Berkshire railroad unit BNSF. COCA-COLA COMPENSATION PLAN Buffett also said, in an interview with CNBC the same day, that he thinks Coca-Cola's equity compensation plan was excessive, but that Berkshire Hathaway abstained in a shareholders vote. Earlier on Wednesday, Coca-Cola said 83 percent of shareholders approved the plan.

  • Valeant CEO 'disappointed' in Allergan poison pill: CNBC
    Valeant CEO 'disappointed' in Allergan poison pill: CNBC

    (Reuters) - The chief executive officer of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which made a $47 billion unsolicited offer for competitor Allergan Inc on Tuesday, said during an interview on CNBC that he was "disappointed" with Allergan's so-called poison pill. Allergan on Tuesday night said its board of directors had adopted a one-year stockholder rights plan to give it more time to consider takeover proposals. The Valeant offer was made with Pershing Square Capital Management hedge fund, which built up a stake in the company. ...

  • Valeant, Ackman offer to buy Botox maker Allergan for $47 billion
    Valeant, Ackman offer to buy Botox maker Allergan for $47 billion

    Canada's Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc said on Tuesday it and activist investor Bill Ackman made an unsolicited $47 billion bid to buy Botox maker Allergan Inc as it seeks to become one of the world's five biggest drug companies. The offer, if successful, would bring together two mid-sized pharmaceutical companies with expertise in skin care and eye care products, and is highly unusual as activist investors typically buy stakes and then agitate for strategic change. Ackman's Pershing Square Capital Management, Allergan's largest shareholder with a 9.7 percent stake, disclosed in a filing on Monday it is supporting the bid. Allergan said in a statement that it has received the offer, and will carefully consider the proposal and "pursue the course of action that it believes is in the best interests of the company's stockholders." Valeant offered to pay $48.30 a share in cash and 0.83 of its common share for each Allergan share, valuing Allergan at $152.88 a share, a premium of over 7 percent to the company's closing price on Monday.

Follow Yahoo! News