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.

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