Microprocessing

Using Read Receipts Might Make You a Better Person

They have a lot of haters, but don’t write them off

Of all the different tools and features we use to communicate virtually, read receipts might be one of the most contentious.

“I hate read receipts, especially with men I’m talking to,” says Sarah Solomon, an author based in New York. “It’s such a one-sided power move, like, ‘I’ve chosen to ignore you. Deal with it.’”

“If someone is going to read my text, but not respond to it, I don’t need to know about it,” says Rose London, a law clerk in St. Petersburg, Florida. “When I see that ‘read’ with no response, it’s like, well, fuck you too then.”

I have to admit that, while conducting some interviews for this piece via text message and Twitter DMs, I was beginning — for the first time, really — to feel anxious about my own use of read receipts. Here were these passionate haters of read receipts, generously sharing their thoughts with me only to, a few minutes later, see a little checkmark appear beneath their message when I’d finally gotten to it. I still, cautiously, employ read receipts, but for a lot of people, they’re probably better turned off where possible (that is, most platforms other than Facebook and Instagram); they’re stressful, intrusive, and offer little value or information that people actually want.

James Lynden, an innovation strategist in Berlin, conducted a small study on the impact of read receipts on conversations and their participants — the first, to his knowledge. The results were not in their favor.

“It’s hard to put a positive angle on them,” he says. “They spark anxiety for people. They stress people out, and often, actually, some people can feel a bit overwhelmed.” This is typically caused because people feel a duty to respond in a timely manner, he says.

Lynden’s study, which he conducted with co-author Teis Rasmussen and published in 2017 in the Journal of Media, Cognition, and Communication, found people frequently had negative responses to read receipts on apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, and Snapchat. While some participants in the study had slightly positive feelings toward read receipts, more people disliked them, and they felt more passionately, too. When receiving a message with a read receipt, most study participants reported negative feelings, such as feeling a pressure to respond (36.6%), annoyed (8.9%), or guilty (29.7%). And 21.8% of participants said they didn’t care.

Other studies conducted since Lynden’s have found similar results. A 2017 study surveyed 718 people about their feelings toward read receipts, finding diverse but generally negative emotional responses to them. Respondents felt upset, angry, and experienced low self-esteem when their messages were read but not responded to. They also reported feeling concerned about the safety of the recipient when messages were left unread. And 2020 research found that people feel bad more quickly when waiting for a response to a message that’s been marked as “read” than one that’s been left unread.

One of Lynden’s most interesting findings is that people will frequently find creative ways to put off opening a message if they know it’ll generate a read receipt. “There’s almost this portfolio of avoidance strategies” people implement to avoid opening a message and sparking a read receipt to pop up beneath it, says Lynden. Nearly every participant (93%) in his study copped to using avoidance strategies, such as not opening a message, reading only the message snippet that shows up on the user’s screen, or turning off read receipts entirely, to avoid sending a read receipt before the recipient is ready to respond. A 2016 study investigating how students feel “permanently online” found that 43% of participants often postpone opening a message to avoid sending a read receipt.

“I tend to like people better when I discover they have them turned on.”

But this also points to one of the more positive aspects of read receipts — that they can compel people who are bad at replying to texts to, well, actually respond. I’m pretty bad at this, often taking days or, um, even longer to answer texts, even from the people I’m closest to. The read receipt helps, a little bit, in pushing me to sit down and respond to a text once I’ve read it; if I’m not ready to devote time and energy to the text, there’s probably no need to read it, either.

Carmen Bush, an instructional designer in Oakland, California, says she loves read receipts because they compel her to be a better communicator. “I hate when other people don’t have them on, because I think other people should take more responsibility for their communication habits. ‘I’m a bad texter’ is just a stupid ass thing to say,” she says. “Work on it! Use the tools available to you like turning on read receipts to get better! I became a much more present and authentic communicator when I turned them on.”

Plus, she adds, “I tend to like people better when I discover they have them turned on.”

Multiple people told me they like the sense of accountability read receipts enforces in their conversational habits. Ordinarily, if someone says something to you in person, you in some way indicate that you’ve heard them and are processing the information, usually with some kind of body language or a verbal response (alternatively, you could, of course, pretend you hadn’t heard them at all). A read receipt is just that, a receipt — acknowledgment that you’ve heard what the other person has to say. For some, without it, it’s too easy to drift away from the conversation without giving it the attention it deserves.

Part of the problem is that text messaging is stuck in a weird purgatory between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Synchronous communication is like a phone conversation: participants respond to each other in real time, without much delay. Asynchronous conversations include conversations such as emails, which typically don’t require an immediate response.

Texts, though, are neither or both, depending on how you look at it. They’re the new generation of chat platforms like AOL Instant Messenger, which back in the day was mostly synchronous. You sat down at your computer, and for an hour or two (or, if you were a teenager at the time, like me, late into the night) you had conversations with people, more or less in real time. If you stepped away from your computer, you put up a moody away message (“I keep on talkin’ trash but I never say anything”; “I am a visitor here, I am not permanent”) so people knew you wouldn’t immediately respond. If you forgot, you’d show up as “idle” after 15 minutes of no activity.

For some, without a read receipt, it’s too easy to drift away from the conversation without giving it the attention it deserves.

With text messaging, you’re assumed to always be sort of available. Conversations are always halfway happening, which can add to insecurity and a lack of clarity around response times. Read receipts help set boundaries around a conversation. If you’ve read it, it can be assumed that if the text requires a response, it’ll be coming shortly.

Peter Nguyen, a personal stylist based in New York, loves read receipts for this reason. They train him to respond, he says. “It helps me avoid using my phone when I need to concentrate. When I know I’d want to respond to messages if I check, I put my phone away so I can focus,” he says. “I basically treat text convos like a conversation I’d have with you or someone in person… I wish we could go offline and slam the door via text message.” If he can’t carry on a text conversation, he says he’s busy and will text back later.

Without read receipts, it’s easier to read a text message, put it away, and forget to respond, creating anxiety in the recipient as to whether or not you ever read it or intend to reply at all. But read receipts compel the user to attend to a conversation with as much focus as possible by reading and responding within the same time frame. The 2016 “permanently online” study found that read receipts compel people to respond to texts more quickly than they would otherwise; it’s also the only study I was able to find that compared having read receipts on to having them off. (Others primarily focused on the impact of having them on, leading people “left on read,” — reading the text without responding — and so on.)

Read receipts can also help in a disaster scenario, according to Yuuki Kato, a professor at Sagami Women’s College in Japan who has researched how read receipts impact senders and recipients. “In the event of a disaster, we can check the safety of the recipient,” he says. “In Japan, when big earthquakes occur, I strongly appreciate the read receipts.” His 2017 study, which points out that the popular messaging app Line implemented read receipts after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, found that people feel anxious when their messages go unread, because they worry for the recipient’s safety. The read receipt shows to the sender that the recipient is, at the very least, safe enough to read their texts.

Still, most of the research — which, to be clear, is still limited — doesn’t fall in favor of read receipts in many cases. I’ll still keep them on, because my circle of texting friends is limited, and there’s little anxiety on anyone’s side about the status of the relationship (to my knowledge, anyway). Were I dating, or if I was texting with a boss, I’d probably turn them off: I’d prefer utmost privacy with both classes of people. But for everyone else, I’ll get to your text as soon as I can.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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