Social Implications of Read Receipts on Real-Time Messaging Apps

Communication has evolved hand in hand with technology, providing new mechanisms by which people can communicate their ideas personally, creatively, and vibrantly. From smoke signals to SMS, each new form of non-face-to-face communication has always added a new dimension to conversation, whether it be in its expressiveness (for example, via emojis) or its permanence, once writing systems were established.

In the past, the void between sending a message and receiving a response involved a three part cognitive process of considering:

  1. Did they receive the message?
  2. If (1), have they read it?
  3. If (2), why have they not yet responded?

However, the stages of the process have, up to and including SMS, been combined all into one vague “waiting” stage. This is the state that we’re used to when we send business emails; we can hope for a fast response but cannot get any status updates until they actually reply.

Enter Facebook messenger and similar applications that allow a finer grained view into how the conversation is unfolding via read receipts. Messenger exposes a set of features that in theory are meant to help the user’s communication (if we hold true that the purpose of Facebook Messenger is to improve and facilitate communication between individuals — the introduction of games to messenger provides evidence counter to this point). However, experience tells us that these features actually put a strain on the conversation and the dynamics of the relationship between the two individuals engaged in the conversation.

Although the implications extend to countless applications, for the sake of this post we will focus on the features as implemented in Facebook Messenger, and consider the effects that they have on both parties involved in the conversation.

A small circle at the the bottom right of whatever message you have most recently sent helps you transition, in different forms, through the three cognitive question-stages described above.

  1. A dark blue circle at the bottom right of the message (see below) indicates that the message has been delivered (it would be a white circle if it were not delivered)

2. And once the conversation partner has viewed the message through the app, the circle change to a small image of their profile picture:

Ideally, our conversation partner, Divya, would respond relatively quickly to the above, and the communication will go smoothly. However, we must consider in what ways communication can break down as a result of these status indicating features, and how the features help us transition between the questions.

Question 1 — Did they receive the message?

This question tends to be a simple matter of technology working as we have expected it to, and the blue circle answers this for us definitively. Per the Facebook help pages — An empty, blue circle indicates that the message is sending (to the Facebook servers, not directly to the recipient), a blue circle with a check mark means the message has been sent (i.e. hit the Facebook servers), and filled-in blue circle means the message has been delivered (sent to the recipient’s phone or other device from the Facebook servers).

If there is a failure in the message in its delivery, we can simply attribute that to Facebook, as a system, malfunctioning. Although this is not ideal, the failure is on the communication medium, rather than on the communicating parties.

Question 2 — If (1), have they read it?

What if the message has been delivered, but not yet been read? What can we, as the message sender, interpret from this apparent inaction?

One of the features that makes the internet and its messaging applications unique within the realm of our interaction its is asynchronous nature. We can choose to be plugged in, receiving messages and tasks and responding to them on the fly. We can also choose to disconnect from the internet for a while, allowing senders to send messages and get the ideas of their minds in a quick message, but leave us undisturbed, free to engage in something else for the time being. This is a marked distinction from disruptive forms of communications like phone / skype calls, with which we must engage immediately, either by taking the call or by choosing to ignore it. Of course, with both phone calls and messages users can choose to silence notifications or leave their devices behind, but these are active self-control measures that the users themselves must take, distinct from the inherent nature of the medium.

In the simplest case, if someone has not seen a message, we can attribute that to them being busy. No one signed a contract, when they signed up for Facebook Messenger, that they would always be “on-call,” and no one really has even an implied “SLA” for response time, except perhaps by reputation. We want to assume that people are inherently good, and believe that they will read and respond to the message the next time they are available.

Question 3) — If (2), why have they not yet responded?

What if the message has been read, but not yet responded to? This stage is the most harmful and has the largest damage potential for relationships.

At best, our conversation partner is either thinking about how best to respond, or has seen the message and either got too busy to respond or simply forgot to do so.

However, another subtle feature embedded in Facebook Messenger nudges us to discount innocent forgetfulness and instead distrust our conversation partner. Consider the blurb in the Messenger window right under our conversation partner’s name, that displays either that they are “active” on the site, or when they were most recently on the page. Is this really a useful feature? Let’s say that I sent Divya the message about our project deadline 15 minutes ago, saw that she had seen the message 15 minutes ago, and was last active on Facebook 5 minutes ago. “Active” seems to imply that our partner is currently and actively messaging other users. As a feature, this indicator is likely meant to make us not feel as if we are interrupting our conversation partner, if they are already engaging with others on the platform. Unfortunately, the presence indicator can also serve as a persistent form of social rejection — In our example, Divya’s decision to have recently been “active” and talk to others on the platform while implicitly ignoring us (even though we had messaged her first!) is a subtle but powerful suggestion that we may not be important to her, or that she is actively choosing to not engage in conversation with us.

But each of us is also, at times, the individual who happened to not respond immediately to some message and instead have forgotten to respond. When we read a message but don’t immediately respond, many of us feel a sense of guilt for not having responded, knowing that our friend is likely wondering why we have not yet responded and feeling rejected.

So how do we avoid this guilt? Increasingly, a pattern I’ve noticed people (including myself) engage in is to sneakily read messages without triggering the “read” indicator. This can be done in a number of ways; If you have the Facebook Messenger App installed on a mobile device, it is relatively simply to read the received message via the notification, which avoids the “read” trigger. On the desktop site, if you have the Messenger page open in the background but the window is not in focus, the content will still appear for your reading pleasure, but again, without triggering the “read” receipt.

It somehow seems better to passively ignore someone by “not having seen” their message, when we could conceivably blame the failure in communication on Facebook as a system or application, rather than having read the message and choosing to not respond. Perhaps this is a relic of a time when communication occurred primarily over SMS (for me and my fellow millennials, at least), in which case “I never got that text,” was a common and easy out of sticky situations, as SMS failures were not rare.

Surely, such behaviors are white lies at worst, in which we carefully tiptoe around awkward social situations by carefully curating the self that is presented to others. Behaviorally, however, it seems like these actions amount to a resistance to the amount of information that the application gathers from us, and what it chooses to do with that information, in this case painting a picture of our behavior, implicit and explicit. From both message sending and receiving ends, it seems like receipt / read / activity notifications are not a net positive for the user experience.

Technology and the ubiquity of mobile technology has led to developers having access to much more user information than ever before. Uber can now track passenger locations even after they’re dropped off, and even the LinkedIn App requires permissions for our current location. From the product perspective, these new pieces of information are highly valuable and allow developers to add new features that will hopefully lead to greater user satisfaction in surprising ways. Yelp proposing a list of new restaurants near you that might be interesting is a good example of a benevolent use of this information in a way that the user wants. However, apps like Messenger, and even Yelp, are at risk of misusing these bits of information, and cause their users to not only be unhappy with the application and the information that they collect, but also the other users’ that they interact with via the app.

When an application that is supposed to bring people together and make it easier to communicate leads to us tiptoeing around our social interactions via the medium, it’s time to rethink what the app’s end goal is, and whether all of the features that have been built up to that end actually do support it.