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Why do you turn on read receipts?

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The second episode of Why'd You Push That Button? is live!

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Animation by Garret Beard / The Verge

Here it is! The second episode of a new Verge podcast called Why’d You Push That Button. On this show, my colleague, Circuit Breaker’s Ashley Carman, and me, the Culture section’s most self-indulgent blogger, talk about all the tiny decisions your gadgets and apps force you to make every day. All day, every day, we’re pushing buttons and thinking about the intended or unintended consequences. We’re interviewing consumers — including friends, co-workers, loved ones, and some strangers — and then we’re talking to product designers and experts who built the tech or have studied it professionally.

Last week, we started things off with Tinder’s Super Like feature. This week, we’re talking about read receipts — the timestamp that’s optional in iMessage and mandatory in Facebook Messenger, that lets anyone who’s trying to correspond with you know exactly when you saw their words and chose not to respond.

Why do you leave them on? Why do you turn them off? Why must you insist on subtly manipulating every person in your life? We heard from our friends who have made these choices, and then we took their responses to Lujayn Alhddad, who studied human-computer interaction while obtaining her master's degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She wrote a paper on this exact topic, and she knows what’s up.

Listen to the full podcast and check out the transcription of Lujayn’s interview below.

You can also find us everywhere you find podcasts: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, and our RSS feed.

I’m talking to Lujayn Alhddad about a research paper she wrote while she was in grad school about read receipts and the effects they have on people. Hi, Lujayn!

Hi, Ashley!

Thanks for being on this call. I know you’re all the way in Saudi Arabia right now.

It’s nice to be here.

Can you tell us about your research project and what you were looking into?

Sure. So my research was about the desire of using read receipts in [mobile apps]. And I was studying the factors that affect the desire [to use] this feature. I had two factors [I considered]: the relationship between the sender and receiver, and also the role of the user and the messaging log. Do I want to know when you read your message? And as a receiver, do I want you to know if I read your message or not?

What did you eventually conclude about how people use read receipts and how they react to them?

The two factors proved that people have different opinions on using the feature. It depends on the relationship between the receiver and sender. So people in romantic relationships, or closer relationships — we call [this] in our research a strong tie or strong relationship — are more likely to want to use the feature. They are less likely to use it with someone who they have a weak relationship [with]. They aren’t really close with each other.

People also want to receive the read receipts, but don’t want to send it with everyone.

So they want to see that their friend saw it, but they don’t want their friend to know they saw it?

Exactly.

You were looking at applications other than iMessage, correct?

I was looking at WhatsApp, iMessage, Facebook Messenger. So all these applications, not just iMessage.

Why do you think people don’t mind having read receipts on with people who they know personally, like romantic relationships, versus people they’re acquaintances with?

People freak out about read receipts in general because there’s a social pressure. They feel like they have to respond immediately. So to avoid this pressure, they avoid opening the message until they have the reply prepared. There’s an expectation, like people say they saw [the recipient] online a minute or two minutes ago, or [that they] read the first message, [but] didn’t reply to the second message. So this is too much pressure. So people feel more comfortable using this feature with people who are close to them because they don’t feel that pressure with them. Let’s say you have a close friend, or boyfriend, or girlfriend, they usually know where we are and when. We feel comfortable and don’t feel the pressure to reply because they know our availability.

So people who we don’t mind knowing where we are at all times, we feel okay with letting them see read receipts. We know we’ll get back to them eventually. Whereas someone who doesn’t know our daily schedule, there might be more pressure. What are the benefits of read receipts? Do you see any?

I do see some benefits. Back when we only had SMS, messages were sent in multiple messages, so we didn’t know the order. And now we can see the order they arrive in. If I sent you something important, I don’t need to resend it if I know you got it. Sometimes, if we have a meeting, we can send [those details.] [That they read the message means they got it.]

Some people say there’s no harm to being honest, [especially] when I don’t reply to someone I’m ignoring. They say, “I’m happy they know I’m ignoring them.” Honestly sometimes I do that.

Do you have read receipts on?

Yes, because I like being honest with everyone. I like the benefits of read receipts, and I don’t care if I come off as harsh or something for not replying. I want you to know that I read you message. I just won’t reply.

It’s business.

Exactly.

Finally, obviously a lot of apps and software have read receipts as an option. Have you thought about features companies could incorporate to improve the product?

Yes, [read receipts] shouldn’t be mandatory for users. They should be able to turn it on or off. People want to use it with some people and not others, so it’s good to have controls [so everyone isn’t receiving them.] WhatsApp is all on or all off. Facebook Messenger has no controls.

Do you have anything else?

Yes, 56 percent of my teens group didn’t know about read receipts. They were the higher percentage group using the application, but they had no idea if the feature was on or off. This is a privacy concern because these features are sharing an actual time and date.

Yeah, that happened to one of my friends who had accidentally turned them on, and he wasn’t aware until someone called him out on it.

The thing is that it’s on by default. It shouldn’t be on default on. It’s a feature for people to choose.