Read Receipts Considered Harmful

Let us envision a scenario:

  • You send an important message to someone, a message that requires a response.
  • Your chat application indicates that the recipient has ‘read’ the message.
  • The recipient does not respond after having ‘read’ the message.

Why did they not respond?

Were they perhaps distracted by something else before they could respond? Were they still thinking up a response? Did their phone lose connectivity? Was it something you said? Do they hate you now and never want to talk to you again?

Bad UX and Context Collapse

Using the above scenario as an example, I would like to posit that the UX pattern of chat applications using so-called read receipts is in fact a dark pattern that causes anxiety due a lack of information and context.

Read receipts cause something called context collapse, albeit on a much smaller scale.

In social media, face work does not have the same currency or value because we don’t see the expressions of those with whom we are communicating. Further, there is context collapse, or homogenization of context, because all of the micro-calculations we used to make by evaluating a situation are gone, removed and collapsed in social media.

Replace social media here with chat application and I think the quote applies albeit on smaller scale. Read receipts simply tell us that the person has supposedly read the message. They do not impart any further information and or context to the supposed reading of the message.

This lack of information creates a sense of anxiety on the part of the sender as envisioned in the aforementioned scenario. The information and contexts that are provided by face-to-face communications are simply not present in the confines of a chat application’s read receipt functionality. This is amplified even more if you are having a chat conversation with someone who you are not very familiar with, in that sort of situation you are lacking even the background context that comes with knowing a person.

Can we solve this?

I don’t think this problem is solvable. Read receipts are essentially a half-assed technical solution to a social problem.

There is no technical way for read receipts to provide the sort of context and information needed to assess what is happening in a scenario like the one I have mentioned previously.

Some may argue that read receipts were never intended or designed to provide that sort of context, to which I argue that whether it was intended or not, the effect is still happening and is something that needs to be considered when designing a chat application.

What *can* we do?

If you insist on putting read receipt functionality in your chat application, please consider making them default to off instead of on and also have more granular per-conversation thread options for read receipts (iMessage does this).

Also consider not implementing the feature. The chat application Wire does not, and I have never missed it in my daily use of the application.

Say no to the double blue checkmark, it isn’t worth it.