Read Receipts and the Evolution of Conversation
We’ve come a long way in the field of long-distance communication. The “History of Messaging,” as explored in a cute educational slideshow provided by simpletexting.com, tells an incredible story of human ingenuity and progress. Early civilizations relied on smoke signals to send messages from village to village. Later, the written word was disseminated through creative vehicles such as message-in-a-bottle, carrier pigeon, or balloon mail. These methods, while conveying more specific information, were still unreliable for ensuring delivery to a particular recipient. The discovery of electricity in the mid-18th century brought with it a wave of innovation in communications technology. The invention of the telegraph and the telephone in the 19th century enabled the instantaneous transfer of written information — and even oral conversation — across great distances. An amazing feat, to be sure, but such an interface was limited by the immobile restrictions of the telegraph and telephone devices.
These restrictions were only overcome in the second half of the 20th century. The development of the pager in 1949 meant that for the first time in human history information could be passed between two people almost instantly, at any time and in any place. However, the crown jewel in the History of Messaging only came in 1973, with the invention of the cellular phone.
The cell phone seemed to have finally achieved what thousands of years of innovation had sought. Normal human conversation between individuals, as it occurs face to face, could now occur in real-time, irrespective of the participants’ location. The distance between speaker and listener had been reduced from thousands of miles across the globe to mere millimeters between face and phone. One could imagine that the apex of long-distance communication had finally been reached, and could no longer be improved further.
But history has proved that assumption wrong.
The first Short Message Service (SMS), or text, as we know it today, was delivered to a cell phone on December 3, 1992. Due to phones’ limited capabilities, texting was originally reserved for exchanging basic information, while a phone call remained the go-to for conversation. But with advances in cell phone keyboards, touch screens, predictive text and autocorrect, texting has morphed into what many consider a suitable replacement for verbal communication. According to a study conducted by OpenMarket, 75% of Millennials would choose a text-only phone over a voice-only phone.
You can “text” over one of multiple instant messaging platforms; today’s most popular platform is Whatsapp. From 2011 to 2018, the number of worldwide Whatsapp messages sent daily has increased from 1 billion to an astounding 65 billion.
Nearly everyone is familiar with Whatsapp’s Read Receipts system — the little gray checks that informs the sender if their message has been successfully sent and delivered. This is a standard instant messaging feature. What makes Whatsapp unique, however, are the blue checks that denote whether or not the message was read by the recipient. This feature can be toggled on or off, depending on the user’s personal preference.
Here’s why you should turn it off.
Texting may have effectively replaced verbal conversations, but there are elements of conversation that texting is simply ill-equipped to replicate. While face to face interactions are obviously ideal, even a phone call allows for basic cues such as inflection and tone of voice to clearly communicate more nuanced messages, with both participants actively engaged in the interaction. The information in a text, on the other hand, is processed unilaterally by the recipient. As a result, the interpretation is all-too-often subject to unconscious bias and misunderstanding — totally irrespective of the sender’s original intent. When important real-world conversations are conducted via text, miscommunications abound.
Email is a perfect example of instantaneous electronic messaging (usually) used properly. Most often utilized in a professional setting, emails are sent to convey basic information, which is typically absent from sensitive emotional undertones. The recipient is free to check their inbox at their leisure and confirm receiving an email at their own discretion. Dodging replying to an email will typically prompt the sender to follow up with a phone call or some other means of communication, wherein a response is more guaranteed.
To some degree, texting should function similarly. Because messages are committed to permanent text form and sit waiting in a chat thread, the recipient is free to read and respond at their leisure. A message that requires immediate confirmation should either itself be labeled as such, or be delivered through a different method that inherently demands confirmation — like a phone call.
However, Whatsapp Read Receipts robs texting of this distinction. From a practical perspective, it is very helpful to know the status of a sent message. But from a human perspective, blue checks promote the very misuse of technology that plagues the texting generation. Knowing your message has been read brings with it nagging anticipation of a quick reply — one that is not always possible or preferable for the recipient to oblige. This breeds an expectation for text conversations to function with the same level of responsiveness and engagement as a verbal conversation. These expectations reinforce the perception that texting is synonymous with talking, while its dangerous interpersonal shortcomings remain unaddressed.
So turn off your Read Receipts. Don’t let the implicit social pressure of blue checks dictate how you text. The truth is, we could all learn to live with a little waiting. And if you really need an immediate response, thankfully, we've developed incredible technology to make that happen: just pick up the phone and call. A real conversation never killed anyone.
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