[Image via Boy Genius Report]

As Gander progresses, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time thinking about virtual communications. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the subtexts that embed themselves in our communication behaviors—subtexts that describe both our own current state (busy, traveling, lonely, bored…), and our relationship to and feelings about the recipient. For most email clients, response lag is the sole gauge. If I always respond to you immediately, it’s likely that I consider my relationship with you to be important and/or I’ve got time to spare. If I tend to take a few days to respond, perhaps I don’t find our relationship as important—or perhaps I feel it’s sturdy enough to weather patchy communication.

Read receipts provide a deeper and perhaps more accurate gauge of personal and interpersonal stati than plain response time. In email, read receipts are requested by the sender on a per-message basis, but in iMessage, the recipient elects to enable them across-the-board, though they can be toggled off at any time in the message settings menu. Given that iMessage user Betsy has her read receipt turned on, any iMessage users who iMessage Betsy will be able to see if and when she’s read their messages.

This results in six basic communication patterns:

If Betsy does not have read receipts on:

1. Arnie sends Betsy a message, Betsy reads it, Arnie does not know if she’s read it until Betsy replies.

2. Arnie sends Betsy a message, Betsy reads it, Arnie does not know if she’s read it as she never replies.

3. Arnie sends Betsy a message, Betsy doesn’t read it, Arnie does not know if she’s read it as she never replies.

If Betsy has read receipts on:

4. Arnie sends Betsy a message, Betsy reads it, Arnie sees that she has read it, Betsy replies.

5. Arnie sends Betsy a message, Betsy reads it, Arnie sees that she has read it, Betsy does not reply.

6. Arnie sends Betsy a message, Betsy doesn’t read it.

The implications in the first three are fairly straightforward, save Arnie knowing whether or not Betsy has read receipts enabled and may thus be ignoring his messages. Numbers 4-6 are more interesting:

In the first scenario, Betsy either replies because of some combination of wanting to reply/having time to reply, or she replies because she knows that Arnie knows she’s read his message.

In the second scenario, Betsy’s lack of reply could be deliberate—she wants Arnie to see she’s read his iMessage and hasn’t responded—or it could be because she forgets.

In the third scenario, Betsy might not have noticed Arnie’s message, or she may have seen it flash across her home or lock screen and decided she didn’t want to open it. Going off that, since read receipts can be toggled on or off at any time, there is also the possibility that, after seeing Arnie’s message flash (or merely seeing that Arnie had messaged her), Betsy went straight to settings to disable read receipts, and then went back and read Arnie’s message.

And these are just the recipient's possible behaviors. If the sender sees that his message has been read and not responded to, he may be more likely to send a follow up. Or he may assume something is wrong, or he may confirm his original suspicion that something is wrong and so on...

These cases are purely theoretical, of course ;) But here’s the thing—of my friends with iMessage who knew about read receipts (since read receipts are turned off by default, many people do not know about them), nearly all of them said they deliberately did not use them because they did not want the senders knowing their messages had been read. A few people I asked said they would use read receipts if they were able to easily do so on either a per-message or per-sender basis.

Now that sort of behavioral data could be incredibly useful, hmm?

So much depends upon four letters and a time stamp!

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