Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

After watching the Oscars last night, I had a thought: what would these stars' cell phone address books look like? Imagine having names like Nicholson or Spielberg or Streep in your phone, and having your number in theirs. But then I realized: there must be other numbers in those phones — normal peoples' numbers. Hair stylists. Agents. Casting staff. Assistants. Many of them probably have your number, too. That seems risky when you're a celebrity; how can you control who ends up with your number? As it turns out, I am not the first person to think of this problem, which perhaps is why I am not a successful entrepreneur instead of a lowly FC blogger.

The folks behind have already created a surprisingly flexible telephony tool that can allow users to create a 2-way disposable phone number for about $5 a month. Of course, other services like GrandCentral and Gizmo already create virtual phone numbers, but Vumber does a few tricks that make it particularly useful for business folks, movie stars, and even chat room users (Vumber has recently partnered with Paltalk, an online chat site.)

Like other telephony services, it gives you web access to voicemail and allows you to chose how incoming calls are handled if you don't answer them: some can be sent straight to voicemail, others can be given a "number disconnected" message (ouch!), and still others can be given a special recording that you set. Lo, how many ways to avoid people!

But Vumber's distinctive feature is this: the site is quite clear that it allows you — perhaps even expects you — to change your Vumber an unlimited number of times, as if Vumber-changing were a metric for celebrity (and it likely could be.) This is representative of a patently different idea about virtual phone numbers than espoused by, say, GrandCentral, which aims to centralize calling between several phones and/or reinvent voicemail. The "disposable" nature of Vumbers mean that you can give them out with relative impunity, whether it's to an online store or a other sketchy character you might otherwise think twice about. (Some other software, like Gizmo, requires users to buy numbers.) You can also call out using your Vumber, though it's a chore (you have to punch in your own Vumber, then the number to dial), thereby maintaining the illusion. Presumably this would allow a salesperson, for example, to give out his Vumber freely at trade conferences without having to have a dedicated "work" cell phone to protect his privacy.

There's no doubt in my mind that there are more perfectly-suited uses for Vumber than my non-celebrity brain can generate as examples. However, what's most interesting about Vumber isn't even the freedom it provides its users, or the multifarious ways it could be used, but in the anonymity that it endows telephones for the first time since Bell's invention. It's likely that part of the explosion in the utility of email has to do with its inherent anonymity and ease of control, and Vumber poses the question: what if phone numbers could be used similarly? Were these features — the ability to pre-screen calls, jump numbers and set privacy restrictions — popularized, would some of the communication that has now been relegated to email move back into the realm of the telephone? I, personally, hope it does; my fears of carpal tunnel grow at every 1,000 word email I draft.