Texting Won’t Ever Be The Same

How read receipts are changing everything.

There are reasons we choose to send text messages instead of calling somebody: they’re less intrusive than a phone call; they don’t require immediate, direct (re)action; they allow a continuous, unending conversation to unfold over an entire day, or week or whatever; they let us carry on multiple conversations simultaneously; they’re short, given the limitations of SMS technology; they’re fast, if you know how to type. We like them. So in the US we sent 193.1 billion text messages in December.

To hear them tell it, though, the mattresses of telecom CEOs are soggy with cold sweat. And it’s partly because we’re texting less than we used to, using less of a service that’s more profitable than you can imagine. Not because we’re talking with the alphabet less; we’re just talking with things other than SMS — like Facebook messages and iMessage and BlackBerry Messenger.

One of the special things about a text message is that it’s like a letter you send in the mail, only it’s shorter and more poorly written and it arrives faster, because the SMS Express is made out of electric ponies. You don’t know when, precisely, the person you’re sending it to receives it (particularly if you’re on AT&T in New York, heyo), much less when they read it. They don’t know when you read their message. There’s a symmetrical lack of information: Nobody knows when anybody reads anything. So you never know when you’re going to get a response. Suspense! Which can be exciting, like when you like somebody and you hang on their every last text message. Every time your phone buzzes and you slide the unlock button across the screen, it’s like opening the world’s most efficiently wrapped present, hoping what’s inside is the one thing you want more than anything else (a magically bottomless root beer float), except that it’s a person who might want to make out with you. It can also be nerve-wracking, like when you start to think they might not want to make out with you, and every text you send is like pressing the power button on a giant self-flagellation machine, wondering when they’re going to respond and what the time between your text and theirs really means. Or when you just want to find out what your friend wants on this dope pizza you are about to order but they haven’t responded to four texts in a row. Did they read it and are they ignoring it? YOU CANNOT TELL.

That suspense does not necessarily carry over to these SMS-strangling services, which seem to follow the standard tack that more information about a message is more better — where they come from, precisely when they are sent, when they are delivered and and when they are read. Read receipts in particular sound like tiny things, things you would like to get — you should always get a receipt, right? — but they fundamentally alter the nature of the medium.

It transforms text messaging from a postal medium into a conversational one. In other words, when a sender knows that their message has been read, there’s a (near) immediate pressure on the recipient to respond — otherwise it’s kind of like an awkward silence in any other conversation. Why haven’t you responded? The grace period between replies is crushed into near nothingness because the distance between a conversation and this crucial piece of metadata about it is zero, just like in a face-to-face conversation. And while there is now more information to work with in a textual conversation, that information is still incomplete — you can’t tell, like you can in face-to-face conversation, what that silence means, or what other emotions might be underneath the surface (granted, if you’re talking to a sociopath, you can’t in a face-to-face conversation either). There’s still the flattening effect of text. The end result is that there is no graceful way to ignore a message, even for a couple of hours.

The new Facebook messenger app applies read receipts equally, across the board. It’s not optional — people will see when you read their messages, and you will see when they’ve read yours. (And potentially more, like the exact location they sent it from, along with whether it came from their phone or computer.) It is complete transparency in messaging, as you’d probably expect from Facebook. Everybody has the same information, everybody is exposed. You might say you don’t use Facebook Messaging. Well, don’t be surprised when you do, along with everybody else.

Then there’s iMessage, where read receipts are optional. If you turn on them on, people can see when you’ve read their messages. (This may sound confusing: When you turn on read receipts, you’re telling your phone to send up a signal flare when you’ve read somebody else’s message. So it tells them when you’ve read their message.) The people you iMessage may not have their read receipts turned on, though. So you won’t see when they’ve read yours, just that it’s been delivered to their device. There’s an asymmetrical distribution of information — one party knows something the other doesn’t, which drastically changes the rules of the game. If you view the art of, um, iMessage as warfare, knowing when somebody has read your message when they don’t know if you’ve read theirs is a strange kind of leverage. It’s power. To freely ignore, to test. And crucially, iMessage read receipts aren’t selective — you turn them on for everybody, or they’re not on for anybody.

I’ve had iMessage read receipts turned on for a few months, so people can see when I’ve read their messages. I was feeling transparent, I guess. An unanticipated effect is that for some people, knowing when I’ve read their messages has been more nerve-wracking than not knowing. It’s one more piece of information to deal with, a reason to wonder when I’m going to reply and why I haven’t replied sooner. (You can’t not receive read receipts if somebody turn them on.) It’s also subtle pressure to turn on iMessage read receipts, if they haven’t already.

There’s is a trick to covertly reading messages without your phone sending back a read receipt, though. If you read a message in the pulldown notifications pane, or in the preview window that pops up when you first get a message, the sender won’t get a read receipt. Which is kind of a double-reverse mindfuck: The sender thinks they know when you’ve read their message, but they really don’t.

Dr. Debby Herbenick told me that she thinks that messaging services with read receipts “pose an interesting power dynamic, but I think it can be overcome with some basic communication.” There is no small amount of irony in that — more talking about the way we talk — but it’s not unlike the way we’ve been figuring how to be on social networks. Communicating about communicating. There’s a certain sense of inevitability in this anyway: These services will totally supersede plain, flat text messages one day, and they will only get become more real-time, not less. So we’re going to learn how to deal with it because we have to. We’ve already started to deal with some of this, in a way: Google Talk and AIM and Adium have told us for years when somebody on the other side of a conversation is typing a reply. And maybe eventually we’ll all agree it’s okay to take a few minutes to breathe between responses. Or we’ll just all go crazy. But at least we’ll know the precise moment it happened, since it’ll be hardcoded into the message.

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