I like talking to people. I do it all the time online, and sometimes even offline. Shooting the breeze is one of my favourite hobbies. But there’s one thing I hate about it. When someone contacts me online or via text, I occasionally need some time to reply, or don't want to. That’s why it infuriated me when Facebook introduced the “seen” feature back in 2012, which alerts the person you’re chatting to on Messenger when you read their message. The pressure was just too much.
But at least there was good old WhatsApp. Before being bought by Facebook for $19bn, stress-free chat was its raison d’etre; unlike FB Messenger, it wasn’t just a social media add-on.
Although that’s what I thought. Today it's announced the arrival of the “double blue tick”. Unlike the single blue tick (which means that your friend can only see when your handset receives their message), two ticks means that they can see when you’ve read it. WhatsApp hasn’t confirmed whether it’ll be optional, but given Facebook’s record, and how users can’t switch off the current tick system, it seems unlikely.
If you’re like me, you reply to most messages promptly, but there are always those you're not so sure about. It might be from someone who wants you to do something, or has a track record for lengthy, inane chats. Conversely, it might be someone really important, but you might not be in the right frame of mind to reply. You might be drunk, or half-asleep. Yet in any of these situations, if you “see” their message, that’s it. You’re now obliged to engage in a conversation that you don’t want to be in. Otherwise, it just looks like you're ignoring them, and they get upset.
Before Facebook’s “seen” feature, where was the precedent for this? The arc of social media has always seemed to bend towards everything being easier. Then suddenly those tiny four letters starting appearing alongside the even more incriminating timestamp, and all of this was thrown into disarray.
If you want to, you can add a "read receipt" to emails, or if you use iMessage, switch on a similar "seen" function. But all of this is optional, and how many of us can say we’ve ever opted for either? Since 2012, I can’t tell you how many blue boxes at the bottom of my Facebook page I’ve had to leave untouched, and be careful not to accidentally open.
If the "seen" feature was introduced to make more people reply, then what it’s really done is force people to come up with evasive tactics, like only reading the preview you get when you click on your inbox at the top-right of the page (you know what I'm talking about). Or even crazier, having the chat box open before they send the message, but your browser window unselected (not that I've ever tried that).
We’ve reached a stage where we’re supposed to be instantly contactable all the time. We’re reproached if we leave our phones in another room because we don’t want to be distracted, or frowned at if we switch on airplane mode. Although part of me loves the fact that I can reach my friends all around the world almost immediately, there are times when I long for silence.
Part of me wants to say “I long for the simplicity of the past” - when you had to arrange an exact time to meet someone, or rely on phone booths - but as a technology-addled, Generation Y millennial and digital native, just thinking about that gives me a mild panic attack. My heart is actually racing. Message me by all means, but I’ll reply when I want to.