"I want him to know that I'm online, but specifically not talking to him."
*signs out* *signs in*
"That should do it."
I recline with a smug smile, satisfied that my MSN manipulation will have rendered my target emotionally perplexed.
It was passive aggression 101 for teenagers of the instant messaging age. Whether Blackberry Messenger, MSN, AIM or Skype (listen, some of us did use Skype okay, don't take the piss), signing in and signing out was the equivalent of walking past the guy you were linking in the hallway and purposefully saying hello to his best mate, instead of him.
I'd like to say we've grown up, but really, we haven't. Instead of the classic sign in/sign out - or his aggy brother in the year above, the block/unblock - we now have read receipts. Two little blue ticks of public acknowledgement, trailed by the assumed intent to respond. Or even worse - iMessage read receipts with timestamps, not only announcing your opening of said message, but also initiating the countdown to when it's beyond socially acceptable to respond (note: forgetting to reply for two weeks and then saying 'sorry, I was in the shower' tends not to work out).
The timer ticks on. Okay, my boss has asked me to go to a networking event on Friday night, but I would rather gauge my eyes out and pickle them in time for next Christmas. What do I say? With every hesitation, the timer ticks forth. You open your calendar and pray for some other hideous event to have dug its ugly roots into an otherwise hopeful time. Nope, no Friday night plans. It's been a good few minutes now. She knows you've seen it, for Christ's sake. Think. THINK. Suddenly, a spanner in the works. She sends a solitary '?', instantly cranking the dial to hotter than hell and sending that countdown timer straight to nil. If in doubt, fake date... 'Sorry! It's date night Friday and we have a table booked at [insert restaurant which is moderately more fancy than your standard Wednesday night at Zizzi]. Would love to have gone though! Sounds amazing!'. Aaaand send, with a quiet prayer to God that nobody you know visits said restaurant so you don't have to lie about a spontaneous bout of flu.
Read receipts are an unnecessary social burden, which is why I don't have them on. I used to turn them on in moments of intense dickheaded-ness whilst arguing with boyfriends, just to inch that hot poker in one centimeter deeper and let them know that I was actively withdrawing my right to respond, and with that, the satisfaction of a counter-argument. Even then, however, I'd turn them straight off again once we'd both agreed that I was right all along (or when they top-trumped me by having the audacity to fall asleep at 3am, despite the fact I wasn't quite finished saying nothing at all, ffs). Unless I was using the time stamps to inform my recipient of the exact moment I decided not to reply, they always felt like more of a hindrance than a help.
Despite flirting with them on a few occasions to see if the grass was indeed greener, I have yet to change my opinion. Perhaps living my life on a semi-public platform motivates me to keep these extra pockets of privacy to myself, or perhaps I know that immortalising my inability to reply in the form of a timestamp won't help to speed up the response anyway. Either way, this additional acknowledgement that I've read and received a message feels all too intrusive. Yes, okay, I am watching Jeremy Kyle whilst wrapped up in a burrito blanket, but I could be sunning myself on a yacht in Cannes, with Keiran rubbing my feet and feeding me grapes. I'm not, but without an instant read receipt, I could be.
Here's the thing, though: defenders of the read receipt exist, and they're everywhere. With every iMessage and every WhatsApp exchange, they brandish their timestamp as a badge of honour, crusading through the conventions of digital conversation with the clear indication that yes, they have read your message, and they'll reply if and when they decide to. But why do they choose to have them on?
Last year, Harling Ross of ManRepeller wrote a piece investigating exactly that. Amongst the reasons were an increased personal motivation to reply, a decisive statement that not all conversations need to be continued, and the ability to keep your Ma's numerous question marks at bay (thank God we no longer have the 'nudge' feature, am I right?). I wasn't satisfied with that, however. I needed to hear it from the horse's mouth: what on earth would possess an otherwise balanced human being to actively opt in to read receipts?
Turns out most people are just as passive aggressive as me (and if this is you, you need to read this post). A lot admitted to using them as a way of informing partners that they're not fucking replying, or to visually reinforce the decided lack of a response. I respect that, although I do acknowledge that, if this is you, we both need to go to behavioural rehab, STAT. Others agreed that, sometimes, there's no need to draw out an iMessage exchange which has already began to descend into death. If the chat is tailing off, why prolong the inevitable with a 'haha 🙂 x'? With the timestamp on show, an unspoken agreement is formed that neither party is obliged to go down with the ship - it's done, dusted, and tidied away, ready for the next 'Coffee? xx' that inevitably goes unplanned. The most interesting of the responses was those who declared it helped them take ownership of their time; yes, they have read your message, but if they don't want to reply or don't have the time, they won't. It isn't personal - we're just busy people - and at least you know you've been heard.
And I get it. All of the above reasons make sense - a lot of sense - but still, I can't bring myself to turn my receipts on. I recently enabled them for mine and Keiran's conversation only, but it took him a few weeks to notice and even then, he approached me with some mistrust. 'You know you've got your read receipts on, right?' 'Yeah, I turned them on just for you! Isn't that cute!' '...Yeah, that is cute...' *suspiciously watches from the other side of the room*. It hasn't made a shred of difference to the way we interact via text, and if anything, it just reinforces how hopelessly forgetful I am to not only myself, but Keir too. Since 90% of my voicemails are just my Mum shouting 'REMEMBER TO CALLL MEEEE' from the inside of her car, I'm not sure a timestamp would help.
I'm also trying to protect my time. I want to keep something private, even if it's something so small as when I'm alone and on my phone or flicking through messages whilst taking a toilet break from an important meeting. It helps me draw boundaries between me time and work time, and also takes away the guilt of having read something and completely forgotten to respond. I'd rather people thought I'd never seen their message than to know I'd been distracted by a gif of a happy cow on Reddit.
When it comes down to it, read receipt preferences are just as personal as our caffeine-fix of choice. To let the other person know they've been heard; to motivate themselves to reply; to navigate the murky waters of digital exchange as a pioneer of intention - the reasons are diverse and abundant for actively choosing to keep them on, but what about the Golden-Retreiever-esque man that I love? I decided to ask Keiran, eager to pick through the complexities of his motivation.
"Urm, so people know I've read it?"
Something thin and delicate; something expensive and rare; something respected or revered; these are all descriptions for the word ‘fine’....