Courtesy of Erik Werkquist
Aug 30, 2021

The death of the ringtone 

Smartphones
apps
Ringtones
CrazyFrog
Younger generations are increasingly choosing to keep their devices on silent, something for which we should all be thankful. 

There are a few MIDI files that, as the cool kids say, live “rent free” inside my head. From that one infectious phrase in Francisco Tárrega’s Gran Vals for solo classical guitar to the musical stylings of the Crazy Frog (which I’m genuinely annoyed about having to listen to again for the sake of this article) there are some ringtones and sounds that were so completely ubiquitous at a certain point in time that they shall continue to exist inside my skull until the end of time.

It’s not a new phenomenon. People of my parents’ generation can still whistle cigarette ad jingles on command, even if they never smoked. Likewise, anyone who existed as a conscious human being from 1994 to 1999 can definitely sing you “the Nokia song” on command, just as anyone who was sentient between 2000 to 2010 can probably respond with the appropriate string of “duhn dun duh dududuhduhs” if you shout “Hello Moto” at them apropo of nothing. 

However, just as I - a person who freely admits the Motorola ringtone (which came preloaded on my first ever smartphone, the matte black Razor Flip - because I was a badass 12-year-old) kinda slaps - couldn’t whistle the 1950’s jingle for Lucky Strikes (which, on reflection, also slaps), today’s teenagers might be equally baffled if you asked them for a rendition of a classic MIDI ringtone. 

I know, I know, we’re veering into some edgy boomer article territory here. Don’t worry, this isn’t Bloomberg; I have a point beyond “the times are changing and it’s scary”. And it’s very possible that Gen-Z does know what the crazy frog is and how to replicate it at full volume on public transport. However, my point is that the next generation (continuing their run of being better than the rest of us on just about every subject from racial justice and gender politics to the climate crisis) simply don’t care. 

A new report released by mobile phone analysts Sensor Tower found recently that UK users installing ringtone-related apps decreased by a full 20% over the past few years - from 4.6 million in 2016 to just 3.7 million last year. Now that’s what I call progress. 

Millennials and Gen-Z, according to the report, are far more likely to keep their mobile devices on silent or vibrate settings than older generations. Experts put this trend down to teens and twenty-somethings spending so much time on their phones that a loud ringtone is frequently unnecessary to alert them to an incoming call. 

Personally, I think this is a pretty flawed reading of the data. I think there’s a better reason - one that doesn’t reach immediately for the “damn millennials are always on their phones” argument. As an aside, that argument doesn’t really hold much water anyway. Yes, millennials and Gen-Z use their phones the most out of any generation. However, growth in smartphone usage since 2012 has actually been strongest among Gen-X and Baby Boomers, according to data from Pew Research - especially when it comes to using devices to access specific apps like Facebook. 

I would like to present a different reading of why mILlenNiALs aRE kILliNg tHe riNgToNe iNdUsTrY

Here it is: ringtones (and notifications) are rude and annoying. 

A ringtone is, frankly, only slightly less rude than blasting a song on your phone with no headphones while riding public transport - basically a mortal social sin, if you’re British. Loudly intruding on everyone else’s thoughts is a deeply self-centred thing to do. Younger generations are just applying the same etiquette that’s applied in movie theatres since the 1990’s to every aspect of their life. 

However, I think younger generations’ motivation for keeping their devices on mute might not necessarily be as altruistic as not wanting to piss off the people sharing their commute. 

We live in a world in which our smartphones, along with every app inside them, are constantly competing for our attention. A smartphone loaded with just a handful of the most popular social media applications can receive hundreds of notifications every day. 

Our smartphones are packed with apps that constantly and unscrupulously compete for our attention.

"Push notifications are the first line of this strategy," said Randy Nelson, an analyst for Sensor Tower, in an interview with Business Insider back in 2018. "They address you directly and say, 'Hey, come back to the app.' It's the most overt thing these apps do, and it's integral to the process of re-engaging users."

It doesn’t matter if - like me - you only really talk to, like, three people (and one of them is my wife, so I usually just wait til she gets home from work); apps want to let you know that other people are posting things unrelated to you, that products are on sale, that they think you’ll like this channel, that a channel you already like has posted something - anything to grab your attention long enough to pull you back into the app so you can start driving traffic and raising advertising revenues. 

If your sole goal is to pull your user away from the thing that they’re currently doing and drag them back into the endless scroll, there is literally zero incentive to design your ringtones and notification sounds to be anything but as intrusive as possible

I think it makes sense that young people - constantly under assault by every app, channel, and customer engagement tactic on the planet - are keeping their phones on silent. It’s same reason why ad-blocker usage is skyrocketing, why dumb phones, minimalist UI apps and digital cleanses are getting more popular, and why the ringtone industry’s death is something to celebrate: we could all use just a little more peace and quiet. 

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