Embracing Read Receipts
For an obnoxious, extroverted person, I like to keep my online life private. I post funny things or important life events on Facebook to update my friends, and my Snapchat Story is basically food porn. I’m also one of 5 people in the world who doesn’t have a Twitter, and I thought Instagram died years ago.
That all being said, I f***ing love read receipts.
Recent buzz within Uber shows a larger trend of “social engineering” used by tech companies to influence their customers. This isn’t anything new; for a company to scale and succeed, their product/service must not only be able to bring in new users but also retain current users, and one of the ways to do that is through social cues and psychological manipulation. Read receipts used by companies like Facebook push users to continue being active in their communities with social anxiety. While the degree of social anxiety varies from person to person, this phenomenon is still effective in pushing users to continue communicating, much to the benefit of social media providers.
While we currently face the epidemic of #fakenews littering newsfeeds, it was only five years ago that Facebook Chat’s newest “Seen” feature was the headline social media controversy. Suddenly, our amazing Facebook friends and “friends” (people you met at a party like 3 years ago… maybe…) could see if we respond quickly (or at all) to their messages. The treasure trove of “sorry didn’t see it because ______” excuses suddenly disappeared, and now all Facebook users had to grapple with the fact that other people could peer into our day-to-day lives —when we read, process and accordingly choose to (or not to) respond to them — by simply sending a message. According to your reaction (or inaction), users were now privy to a sharp rebuke.
And it was terrifying, especially for people like me who used to chronically overthink social situations. Back in 2012, I had just entered college and met what felt like my entire 1500-person class in the span of a week. Now, with Facebook’s read receipts, it felt like I had to be surgically precise on whose messages I clicked. Clicking on a message meant a prompt response, and the chaotic school year made it hard to keep up with 15 people, let alone 1500. In my mind, a few poorly-timed taps when I was too busy to socialize would lead to a few unintentional ignores, which would lead to a few lost friends and eventually cause my social life to crash down (remember that I was an immature 18 year-old who had no clue on how real people function).
Fast forward past graduation to my new life as a busy graduate student, and I now faced a question that many others in my position pondered: how can I keep up with all of my old, college friendships when I’m suddenly meeting new, exciting people at my job, random outings and SoulCycle?
You and I have actually faced this question multiple times, when switching from preschool to elementary to middle to high school, but each time, many of our friends and classmates moved with us. But, now it’s different. You may find yourself in a new city or that your friends have dispersed across the country while you stayed back in your college town. Now, time and distance threaten to break your friendships.
As someone 13 months removed from that gut-wrenching fear, I can tell you that this threat is smaller than it seems; you’ll keep close friends around by having dinners, Skypes and trips while trying to communicate on Facebook Messenger or texts. Still, the drop-off rate is huge. For most of my friends, the ~50–100 college classmates we talked to every week dropped down to talking to ~5–10 per week and seeing 2–3 on a lucky week. I found that the people who I had completely lost touch with were my good (but not closest) friends, the ones that I would hang out with from time to time but never consistently made plans with. Still, I wanted to keep up with these people because of the dynamics we built in late-night conversations on philosophy, the NBA, and future ambitions, among many other things. I didn’t want to lose these people, but it seems like I was expected to lose.
Do the drop-off numbers reinforce that a part of life is moving onto a new group of people while only keeping the very close ones from the past? That’s the direction that my parents suggested, and it makes sense in their lives. They grew up without the technology that has helped unify us all today. But just like Slack simplified communication between hundreds of thousands of people and Google Calendar organized the schedules of millions, what is the tool to fight this friend drop-off? Surely, modern technology has a solution.
It turns out that future U.S. President Mark Zuckerburg and his counterparts provided an alluring solution to this dilemma 5 years ago. Read receipts, the feature that threatens our privacy, also helps us surpass the inertia to be swamped in our own lives and not connect with the people around us. It’s still true that platforms like Facebook use social anxiety with read receipts to push people to continue using their platform, but instead of looking at read receipts as an annoying, constraining feature that we begrudgingly accept and comply by, it’s time to invert the power dynamic. Now, we can see read receipts as a tool for remembering to connect and experience our lives with a wider group of people. Let’s turn our social anxiety into social productivity.
Your social life completely changes after college. The physical constraints of a campus increase the probability of physical encounters. When you’re in the real world, you don’t need to fear awkward situations with distant “friends;” chances are very high that you’re not going to see them. In this context, read receipts can be seen as a boon to users, providing the slight pressure needed to force them to prioritize people outside their close friend circle.
This type of interaction is especially important with reports that people are feeling more lonely than ever before. Through our Facebook accounts, we have each put together a group of people that can help us combat this trend of loneliness and even discover the close friends that many of us are seeking. By giving a dose of social anxiety, read receipts are a way to push ourselves out into our broader friend networks, resulting in wholehearted efforts of connecting with others that can be seen as producing social productivity. So, reach out to some of those old friends whose message you may have missed or ignored because you were too busy. Turn on your phone’s read receipts. Embrace the social anxiety provided by read receipts and convert it into your own social productivity.
This all being said, using read receipts as a tool of social productivity should never be mistaken for putting and/or keeping yourself or anyone else in an uncomfortable position. Advo’s own Tara Gupta gives an excellent overview on different ways to get out of those situations in ways that are respectful to yourself and the other person (her thesis: communicate and disconnect — don’t ghost), which can similarly be used for platonic relationships. 👇
It’s been 9 months since I moved to the West Coast for graduate school and turned on my iPhone read receipts. By forcing myself to read each message I receive and send the according read receipt, I feel compelled to continue the conversation. Even with this, some friendships have crumbled since college, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to build stronger friendships with people from college and even high school that I didn’t have the time to fully engage with. In the process, something that I had deeply despised has now become something that I really appreciate, and dare I even say, need.
Maybe I should start that Instagram account.