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Why does everyone hate Read Receipts? We did some research to find out.

Read receipts, such as that familiar blue double-tick on WhatsApp or timestamp on iMessage, are the object of a lot of frustration. At least we know this anecdotally — and there are blogs and articles all over the net complaining about the feature. But we couldn’t find any research on them, anywhere. So Teis and I went on a mission to find out.

We did 11 interviews to initially find out the patterns of behaviour, feelings and attitudes surrounding Read Receipts. These findings were translated into a survey which was completed by 108 students at the University of Copenhagen. Not massive numbers, but big enough to say something interesting. (So yes, officially these results can’t be generalised broadly. Though its up to you if they reflect your own experience!) Here’s what we found out:

  1. Read Receipts spark anxiety for senders

Interview participants discussed an opened message symbol creating “social anxiety,” “speculation,” and even “fear” when they are waiting for a response. In our survey the largest number of respondents choose that feeling ignored (35%) as best representing how they feel when a message has been marked read and not responded too.

The survey describes a situation where the user has seen that a message they have sent has been read.

2. Read Receipts also stress out receivers

According to participants, Read Receipts increase a pressure to respond as a receiver, whereby they feel “overwhelmed,” and “stressed out” by the social commitments that they form — a finding that also came through with survey respondents.

The survey describes a situation where the user has opened a message.

3. Almost everyone has Read Receipt avoidance strategies

Respondents across the board employed strategies to avoid showing that they had read messages, such as marking messages as unread and reading snippets on lock screen in order to “pretend that I didn’t see it.” 82% of survey respondents reported avoiding opening messages so not to mark them as read.

The prior question identifies respondents who who try to avoid marking messages as read.

4. Though they also make people check their phone more

The Read Receipt may cause participants to increasingly check their phone and cross check with the online status of the receiver, potentially even calling out the receiver for not responding. Senders “speculate”, “interpret” and “imagine” what is going on at the “other end.” Ultimately, the Read Receipt allows the sender to “assess the other person’s interest” in either the conversation, or them.

5. There is a group of people who blissfully ignore Read Receipts

Nevertheless, a sizeable chunk of respondents say they feel comfortable (24%) , don’t care (12%), or even feel intrigued (16%) when an opened message has gone without response. Good for them!

6. Nobody loves read receipts

Overall, interview participants reported at least disliking Read Receipts, though some noticed functional contexts where they might be considered useful (such as knowing a housemate had received your message asking you to grab milk from the shop.) Highly negative attitudes include seeing the feature as “evidence against you,” which can be used as a “personal attack,” supplying “unwanted information.” They are “intrusive” and influence behaviour in negative ways to the extent that “they are not good for you.” The survey confirmed that nobody loves Receipts Receipts, though results were more level-headed than in the interviews.

Where 1 is strongly disagreeing and 5 is strongly agreeing.

7. In a dating context, Read Receipts are particularly scary

Unsurprisingly, the social context which had the biggest effect was dating. Users simply hated Read Receipts in the early stages of romances, with respondents claiming they play a part in “mind games,” an endless source of insecurity and focus of interpretation. This played out in the quant, with respondents most commonly “more aware” of Read Receipts with a date, and slightly less so with a girlfriend/boyfriend.

Two key factors seem to determine the dynamics here, which are the amount participants value the relationship, and how certain they are in the relationship. When people care a lot about an uncertain relationship, the impact of Read Receipts is at its strongest.

8. Women are more bothered by Read Receipts than men

Further analyses revealed that gender plays a role in the effects of Read Receipts. This was clearest in the effects of Read receipts on Receivers, where women 44% of women reported feeling pressured to respond when a message has been marked read, as opposed to 24% of men. As senders, women were more likely to report feeling ignored or intrigued by an open Read Receipt. This could also be interpreted the other way around, simply that men are twice as likely, as both senders and receivers , to report that they don’t care (despite going on to report Read Receipt avoidance strategies, interesting…)

Survey options were created based on commonly occurring themes in interviews

9. We tried to link these effects to personality, but failed miserably

Gender wasn’t initially where we were headed — we wanted to look at personality. We did a short personality questionaire within the survey, but the data was stretched across too many variables. There’s definitely some kind of link between neuroticism and how much Read Receipts bother people (at least this was apparent in the qualitative research — and just common sense) but there simply weren’t enough respondents to prove this. You live and learn.

10. Overall, there was a sense of Read Receipts taking away control from users

Both the pressure to respond and the anxiety of waiting for a response can disturb attention or interrupt “trains of thought.” With messages to respond to and people to initiate conversation with, many keep a “mental list” of their various conversations’ statuses in order to “plan” communication. One participant felt like she was constantly “juggling conversations,” and part of a “horrible game of catch-up.” Due to these effects, some have deactivated Read Receipts (where that option is available.)

However, these strong feelings have not been reflected in the number of people who have turned them off where they can.

What’s it all about?

It seems Read Receipts are playing the role of feed-back in a normal face-to-face conversation, that is, social cues like nodding which indicate that we are listening. Including Read Receipts in applications like Whatsapp and Facebook chat brings the texting experience closer to a real-time conversation.

However, Read Receipts, especially in applications where they cannot be turned off such as Facebook messenger, do not give receivers a choice to show if they have listened or not. This goes some way to explaining why receivers can feel “forced to respond” and annoyed about the feature.

Users dislike Read Receipts (together with online statuses) being able to communicate about their behaviour and let the world spy into their lives, but value being able to find out about other people. So Read Receipts are something of a double-edged sword, subject to a lot of hatred — but a power people don’t like to give up.

You are welcome to check out our survey results here. You’ll have to trust us on the qual :-)

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