A few months ago I asked some folks that I would backchannel regularly with on Facebook if we could move to another platform. I like Facebook but I found that I was spending too much time there. Someone would message me and often I would retrieve the message using my computer rather than my phone and that meant going to Facebook. The little window with the message was a tiny portion of the rest of the screen which was filled with updates from my friends, family, and colleagues and I was just no match for it. While messaging I would inevitably start to scroll the stream and even after the messaging stopped I was scrolling along. So I asked some people that I messaged with there regularly if they wouldn’t mind moving to another platform and for the most part it was not a problem. But then the other day I was just thinking how nice Twitter DMs were because there was no “read receipt” and no typing indicator – when bam Twitter announced both of those.
It is not that I am against read receipts or typing indicators, I use both in other platforms, it is just that I was kind of liking not having them in Twitter. It was nice to have one place that did not have them in juxtaposition to all those that do. I was just considering some of the benefits of not having these before it got turned into a new feature so I thought I would reflect some here.
For one, read receipts are misleading; you don’t actually know if the person read your message. What you do know is that the app registered that it was opened as a new message came through. However, it could be that the person left the app open with your message thread active, but has since walked away from their phone or computer. It could be that the person clicked on the message thread but chose to not read it because they got distracted by something else, or maybe because the thread was rather long and they didn’t have time. Of course with some companies using eye tracking software to make apps that remind us to blink while looking at screens (yeah I’m not going to link to those you are going to have to google that for yourself) I suppose you could get closer to a real read receipt but that is super creepy. It also then begs the question of what it means to “read” something. Can I get an “understood” receipt? How about a “read but was slightly confused due to cultural context” receipt? Oo Oo, how about a “had to rethink multiple world views” receipt?
The other thing is that bugs me about read receipts and typing indicators is that they feed into an always-on mindset. I collaborate with several colleagues all over the world so I can’t talk about how one should block out a particular time of day for not being on the internet – the sun will not allow me that nor would it of anyone working on a global context. Maybe this is why I am more sensitive to these micro-moments like when you see that typing indicator pop up and you are waiting for the person to finish and hit send. Often, I’m thinking as I’m typing and sometimes I even need to delete the message once I’m finished because I can see that it is not right once I compose it. What a let down to someone who has been watching those three bouncing dots for several moments to just watch them go away with no message. Would it be better for me to send a message that I was not happy with just because I think the other person(s) are expecting something? Wouldn’t that lead to worse communications? I thought the point of communication technology was to help us communicate better.
I keep read receipts on for several technologies but I have turned it off on Twitter DM’s for now. They did make me turn them off which is a little annoying. Why can’t new features be opt-in rather than opt-out? Or make it opt-out for new users but let current users keep using the system in the way in which they are accustomed – at least for a little while. There is no option to turn off typing indicators so I guess I will have to live with those.
My point in writing this post is to remind that our lives are hybrid and that our digital interactions often do not allow us to know what is going on with the person on the other side of the screen at any given moment and that I think that is okay. I think that we should use things like language, empathy, and hospitality to reach out to one another when we want to know about each other. In some situations maybe we just need to give some time for the other person to respond. We can’t let on/off switches stop us from connecting with one another. If you are wondering why a person has not responded to you, maybe just ask. People are complex creatures and I don’t think we should rely on a read receipt as an indication of how another person is interacting with us. They could be tired, dealing with other work, in a bad mood, paying attention to family, dealing with social anxieties, or any number of other realities. I’ve been a big proponent of stating that online is real too, but we must realize that when in a world that shifts so readily between synchronous and asynchronous that there is a ton that we cannot see, hear, feel… experience. There is so much that might be going on with a person on the other side of the screen and a little blue check is not going to really give us much insight into their lives.