Turn off your read receipts


Why read receipts are on my mind

A recent piece on email productivity app SuperHuman spurred some thoughts for me. Background: Superhuman is an email app targeted at "power users" that is full of hype in the startup world. The piece (and most recent coverage of Superhuman) focuses on the company auto-enabling email “open” or "read" tracking.

The default for users of the app is to receive data about when message recipients open their messages, and their rough geographic location. Weird stuff - and the article is definitely a worthwhile read. One quote in particular caught my attention: 

“The real value of read statuses may just be a feeling: being privy to other people’s data, consensually or otherwise, can create a sense of power or control. There’s a certain satisfaction to surveillance. Data isn’t necessarily knowledge, but it can feel like it.” Anna Wiener

Thinking more broadly than email "read" tracking, what impact does the ubiquity of information like read receipts and “active recently” have on us? I know I like knowing these things on some very innate level. More information is better. I like feeling smart. Knowing someone I’m messaging is online is cool. But despite finding this information interesting, and occasionally useful, I have a hunch it’s bad for our collective mental health. And, to go a little further, I think we should opt out of telling people we’ve read their messages where possible. 

Full disclosure: I’ve never been one to keep read receipts on in iMessage. It gives me a nice privacy bubble that my introverted side enjoys. So, this argument may just be me justifying my own hermit-like tendencies. 

Read receipts are weird

Caveats aside, I think there is a two sided nature to this type of “read” or “active” data. Grabbing it from people without asking permission is clearly unethical. A personal bubble of privacy is something to protect. But there’s a weirdness to giving this data to everyone as well. If every time we read something, people are automatically informed, it forces the original message sender to construct a narrative. It may seem like we’re giving them the information they’re looking for - and perhaps in some circumstances, we are. But far more often, I think it gives someone just enough of a story to get their imagination working. But, not enough of a story to provide any valuable information. Providing read receipts seems like the open and transparent thing to do. The reality is, it often adds yet another layer of opacity to communication. 

The same goes for active statuses - a feature enabled by default on most social networks. There was a time where I could see the logic behind active statuses. When “logged in” was the exception, not the rule, it was good to know if you should expect a response. 

But in an age where most have the capability to view anything you send them within moments, what are active statuses doing? At best, they’re providing a facade of “logged off” that might give someone more breathing room. At worst, they’re creating an unmet expectation of a quick response. 

All these “features” create communication with both more data and more ambiguity. Communication is ambiguous enough without any technology in the mix. Technology to enable communication shouldn’t create its own confusion and narrative. We manage to do enough of that just by being, well, human.

A modest (feature) proposal

I get that these features are sometimes valuable. Especially with read receipts, there are solid use cases. So, rather than doing away with them entirely, I’d propose some design changes that could alter behavior.

The option to send read receipts on a per-message basis may solve many of these problems. Certain messages don’t need more than an acknowledgement they’ve been received - and it saves time for both sender and recipient. Adding an option for a recipient to mark a message as read and a sender to see this information sans notification could be interesting to explore. Below is a mockup of what that might look like. Perhaps a three finger tap on a message could act as a quick shortcut [mid 2020 edit: iOS 13 & 14 use this gesture for "undo" – probably would need to pick something else]

Changing some defaults could also help encourage positive use of these features. The default setting in any communication app should be to not send read receipts. Why isn’t this the case? I’d venture a guess that having read receipts increases engagement enough it’s hard for messaging providers to resist. 

On the “active now” side, making “active / inactive” switch quicker and easier to flip would be a simple step. And status should default to inactive, not returning to an active state unless a user decides they want their activity shown.

But for now, my thinking on this is simple: Turn off all this stuff. Why do you need it? Simplify your life, and the lives of others.