Slydial Voicemail Service Offers “The Illusion of Communication”

Sartre said “Hell is other people.” A local startup seems to be banking on that sentiment.

Here’s the paradox that Boston-based MobileSphere is exploiting: We all want to own a cell phone. But a lot of the time, we don’t actually want to talk with our friends, family, co-workers, and all of those other people who are just trying to suck the life out of us. So when we absolutely have to reply to a message they’ve left, or tell them we’re too busy to meet them for lunch, or offer some other minimal gesture of recognition, calling them is far too risky: they might actually pick up, forcing us to interact. It would be far better if we could simply leave a voicemail message, without ever causing their phone to ring. That way, there’d be no muss, no fuss; no dealing with an actual human and all their demands and sensitivities.

And that’s exactly what you can now do with MobileSphere’s new Slydial service, launched yesterday. If you call 267-SLYDIAL (267-759-3425) and enter the phone number of any U.S. mobile subscriber, MobileSphere will connect you directly with their voicemail inbox, where you can leave a message that is as sincere or as noncommittal as you like. The service is free; all you have to do in return is listen to a 10-second audio advertisement.

Now, it is quite possible to think of civilized circumstances under which Slydial’s service might be useful. For example, you know your mom is at her weekly mahjong match and it would be impolite for her to answer her cell phone. You can Slydial her and she can call you back whenever she likes. Or your husband is at work and you don’t want to interrupt him—you just want to remind him to pick up some milk on the way home. So leave him a message via Slydial—it’s probably faster than texting him.

But that’s not how MobileSphere is marketing Slydial. No. They’re openly pitching it as a way to avoid unpleasant conversations, annoying people, or any situation where you might have to take responsibility for something. “Checking-in with a boss, friend, significant other or parent has never been easier as Slydial provides the illusion of communication without the hassle of engaging in a time-consuming conversation.” I added the italics, but I am not making this up; it’s right in Slydial’s press release.

In case you need help bringing your baser instincts to the fore, MobileSphere has hired some cheesy actors to make videos explaining why Slydial is so useful. One features a twenty-something, iPod-toting woman who says she uses the service to avoid her creepy personal trainer’s come-ons. Another shows an unshaven slob explaining how he advised his best friend that he shouldn’t “wake the dragon” by calling his wife to confess that he’d just lost five grand in Vegas—he should just Slydial her.

Even the greeting you get when you call the Slydial number carries on with the unabashed cynicism. “Why would you want to call someone and not talk to them? Because actually talking to some of your weird relatives makes you wish you were having a root canal instead. Because the big game cannot be a triumph with a long conversation with your girlfriend about her new shoes. Because you need to call in sick without any hassle from your boss.”

And the thing about it is, none of this stuff seems to be tongue-in-cheek. It’s an odd marketing approach for a straight-laced mobile software company primarily known for providing low-cost wireless international calling, landline long-distance services for university students and traveling executives, and a Web-based text-messaging service known as Joopz.

Gavin Macomber, MobileSphere’s executive vice president of marketing and business development, resorted to more conventional business-speak in the company’s release—at least for a couple of lines. “MobileSphere has long provided its customers with innovative mobile services to enhance the user experience,” Macomber said. “Slydial offers a convenient, clever and flexible approach to staying in touch and communicating with family, friends and business contacts.”

But then came this: “From breaking up with a significant other to calling in sick from work to placing surgical sales calls, our users, from teens to adults, are finding countless reasons to slydial someone. It provides the ultimate illusion of communication. Being able to get the last word in has never been this easy!”

I’m scheduled to talk with Macomber directly later today (unless he just Slydials me). So I’ll have a chance to gauge whether MobileSphere’s lowest-common-denominator marketing campaign is serious, or just seriously sassy.

Update 11:14 a.m. 7/22/07: I had an interesting conversation this morning with Macomber, who describes Slydial as “combating technology with technology.” To see what he means, check out the interview.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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