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The Slippery Slope of Read Receipts

The controversial function hints at a very dangerous kind of entitlement.

Getting the Message

The controversial function hints at a very dangerous kind of entitlement.

By Lauren Diethelm, University of California, Santa Cruz

I hate read receipts.

I hate them.

I hate that other people expect me to respond immediately and get offended when I don’t; I hate that I also expect people to respond to me and get offended when they don’t, and I hate the culture of entitlement that knowing and caring whether or not your message got read perpetuates.

Are you feeling my hate yet? Is it clear how much hate I’m harboring? Just making sure.

The Slippery Slope of Read ReceiptsI used to be friends with someone who was extremely emotionally needy, and I made the mistake of keeping my read receipts on (Apple gives you the option to turn them off, thankfully, but I bought the phone used and they were on by default). If I opened her message but didn’t acknowledge it, I would come back to twelve new messages asking if I had “left” the conversation without saying anything, or if I was mad at her, or if she had said something wrong, or if, or if.

More often than not, I had just read the message and then gotten caught up in something else, exceeding the apparently appropriate two minute window of response time.

This is the beauty of texting—you can multitask! You can put the phone down and do multiple things at once without being super rude. But only, evidently, if you respond within the appropriate window. (Who decided the length of time for this window? Who decided there even needed to be a window?) I’m not friends with this person anymore for different reasons, but having this experience with her made me super paranoid about not opening messages from anybody I’m not ready to respond to, and you can be damn sure my read receipts are off now.

As I combed the internet to help me write this article, I came across this other article, and for the author, read receipts are an instrument in her quest for better self-care—and that’s great.

I love self care. Treat yo self however you can. But that doesn’t mean you have to feed the beast. The author—and I know a lot of other people who feel this way—worries that her loved ones will feel ignored and hurt if she doesn’t answer them “immediately.” And maybe they would, but also consider this: So what?

Nobody is entitled to your presence or your response or your time just because they’re friends with you or because you used to always respond right away and now you’re busier than you used to be and they’re annoyed about it. They’re grown ups.

Unless someone is dying or their house is burning down, nothing terrible will happen if it takes you an hour and half to respond to their text. As much as I disagree with some of the points made in the article I linked, I definitely wholeheartedly agree with the idea that setting boundaries for yourself is crucial. It happens that my boundaries take more of a “fuck off and deal with it” shape, but to each their own.

Why is the need for an immediate response such a thing? Where did this mindset come from?

This question was surprisingly hard for me to answer empirically—mainly because when I google anything with the phrase “read receipt” in it, I get a gazillion results telling me how to turn them off, but not much else—and I guess ultimately, it doesn’t matter who started the actual technical practice. (My guess, though, is Apple; they seem to have a track record of creating things that seem cool at first and then become creepier the more you think about them, like that Find Your Friends app. I’m not a fan of that either.) Regardless of when the technical aspect came into being, the cultural stampede toward more ways to be constantly connected freaks me out.

Messaging apps have little colored dots letting you know when a person is online and just ignoring you, and iMessage has that maddening little text bubble that proves they read your message and started to answer it, and then stopped. Apps like Facebook Messenger and Snapchat don’t even give you the option to turn read receipts off, leaving you with no option but the inevitable feelings of disappointment and indignation that they didn’t say anything back.

I routinely catch myself staring and waiting for that damn bubble or wondering why, if that person is online at the same time as me, aren’t we talking yet?

Do they hate me? Maybe if I stare at their little green circle and think about them hard enough, they’ll get the message, literally and telepathically.

When I catch myself doing this, I try to put down my phone and do something real, like cook dinner with my roommate or hug my dog—he loves me, at least—because as hard as it is to avoid, I don’t want to be that person. And it is super hard to avoid! Talking to someone online is way, way more difficult and weird than talking to them in person or even on the phone. There are so many non-verbal communication elements—tone, body language, facial expressions—that get missed when talking on the internet, and the lack of those elements makes it easy to read something into what they say that actually isn’t there. Sending a risky text is way riskier than saying that same thing in person because it’s harder to gauge the reaction, and that risk factor is what leads to the anxiety about and obsession with response and response time.

The entire way our generation behaves online has been irrevocably changed by whatever you want to call this—an innovation, an infection, an advance? Whatever the term, the resulting emotional exhaustion that results from constantly having to analyze who said what when is a cultural phenomenon that I would have loved to be left out of. But alas, I’m right in the middle of it with everyone else. And, just in case you forgot from earlier, I kind of hate it.

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