I don’t like texting. It feels like a chore, a tiny job I need to maintain. I already have to answer calls from my mom, Facebook messages from my dad and love notes from the simps in my Instagram DMs — how can I be expected to reply to every text at the same time?
As a result, my text inbox has long sat in shambles, racking up dozens of messages that await my attention. But though I almost always have my phone in my hand — and I see them almost immediately — I often take days to respond, if I remember to at all. This has become a source of anxiety for me. The longer I wait, the worse I feel. With each day that passes, the likelihood of me giving a proper response deteriorates, and with it, my capacity for human interaction as well.
At least that was the case until last week when I fucking grew up and turned my iMessage read receipts back on. When a friend of mine tweeted (and subsequently deleted) that having read receipts on was “hot girl shit,” I simply couldn’t resist — I exited Twitter and opened my iPhone settings, practically in the same breath.
Before I did this, I’d had my read receipts off for so long that I’d nearly forgotten they were an option. For myself and many others, having them on felt like an invasion of privacy, and a challenge to the etiquette of digital conversation. It showed someone that texting them back wasn’t necessarily a priority for you (and perhaps suggested a lack of desire to do it at all). Most significantly, read receipts called our bluff — without them, you could maintain the illusion that you’re answering messages as soon as you get them (it just might take several days — or years — to do so).
But maybe that’s not an illusion we need to maintain. Rather than procrastinate and dread the task, read receipts have already started pressuring me to get it over with. This has become particularly useful in the context of my texting fatigue, something many of us have dealt with during the pandemic. I’m finding myself more likely to respond to someone within the same day than I was before, and as a result, conversations are progressing in new, seemingly healthier ways. It hasn’t been revelatory, but I never expected it to be. Rather, I just wanted to feel less burdened by my own social incapacities, and turning my read receipts on has offered that.
For others, having read receipts on is more of a social flex. “Why should I have to tell people how I feel about them when read receipts do it for me?” Twitter user @SMelhc tells me. “It’s like a bouncer for your feelings.”
Of course, living this life requires a certain level of confidence. It says you’re not about to bend over backward for someone else — your schedule matters just as much as theirs. And frankly, that’s fine with me. I don’t feel guilty about making someone wait for my response, even if they know I’ve already read, then ignored their message. In the event that I do hesitate to respond, I accept full responsibility for any repercussions my slowness may incur.
But if a universal read-receipt text policy is too frightening for you, never fear — iMessage offers the option of turning them on and off for specific people. For example, you can set read receipts on for everyone except your boss, or have them off for everyone except your closest friends or the person you’re trying to seduce. You don’t necessarily have to keep them on for everyone, but it conveys something self-assured to those you do.
“I have always had read receipts on and I love it,” says Nolan, another guy on Twitter. “My friends think I’m insane. I will never turn them off. I just like the honesty of it. I have nothing to hide. Also, in dating scenarios, it kind of cuts down on that instinct to stress about how quickly to reply and what to say.”
Most of the people Nolan texts with don’t have their read receipts on, but he keeps up with it for himself just the same. As for whomever I’m texting with, I don’t actually care if they have their read receipts on or not. It’s gauche to expect or ask them to follow my lead — the point is to maintain a social etiquette for yourself, not surveil other people. Transparency is sexy, you just can’t expect it of anyone else.
That said, read receipts do force you to confront your communication habits, and change or accept them accordingly. They allow you to respond when you can, and to give the same courtesy to everyone else. In other words, they make you act like an adult.
So, go forth and confront the reality that much of technology has obfuscated: That you’re a real person, in real time, engaging with the world before you. The little timestamp of your consciousness is a mark that you were here.