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Read receipts, presence and typing notifications should be disabled by default

9 April 2021 by Neil Alexander

In a world where so many of our interactions now take place online, it feels strange that we build in so many features into messaging platforms that serve to apply pressure or stress to one user just for the mild convenience of another. Read receipts, typing notifications, online presence status all feel as if they fit under this category—they are blatantly user-hostile. Worse, they are often enabled by default. Perhaps users do not even realise that they can be controlled or switched off on some platforms. Other platforms just don’t provide such controls at all.

iMessage, for example, doesn’t show online status but it does send read receipts by default. You can even control this on a per-contact basis so that you can opt to send or not to send read receipts to specific people, although it’s not terribly obvious to novice users how to do this (you have to open the contact card within the Messages app specifically). Typing notifications are sent always - they can’t be switched off either on a per-contact basis or globally.

WhatsApp and Telegram both reveal online status by default, showing your contacts when you have the app open. They also both send read receipts and typing by default. In the case of WhatsApp, you can disable read receipts for individual one-to-one messages but not for group chats. You seemingly can’t disable typing notifications on either.

Even the majority of Matrix clients, Element included, default to enabling these features. The “Show read receipts sent by other users” option in Element, confusingly named, doesn’t even promise to stop read receipts being sent to other users, even though such options are available for typing notifications. Third party clients all have their own unique options and behaviours, none of them guaranteed to have sane defaults either.

At some point we’ve just grown to expect that these features will be there in any modern messaging platform and we have had to adjust our behaviours accordingly.

There are, arguably, some cases where these features may be useful or desirable. You may feel comfortable with family or certain friends knowing that you have read a message or that you are in the process of writing back to them. On the contrary, these features are practically modern social cues and they come with expectations.

A good friend or family member probably wouldn’t misinterpret one of their messages being left on read for a while. Someone who knows you well enough to know when you are likely to be busy or that you will reply later will accept these markers much more willingly. In these cases it is quite possible that you would feel comfortable enabling these features with specific individuals.

In many other cases though, with acquaintances, colleagues or strangers, leaving a message read for an extended period of time without responding to it may be considered hostile or rude. Likewise with noticing that another user has been opening and closing the app but still not acting on your message, or that they got half way through typing a message before abandoning it.

Knowing these things places an unfair burden on us and often creates subconscious pressure. If someone messages you that you don’t want to deal with right now, is it better just to ignore a push notification for a message and not open the app for as long as it can be avoided? What about opening a specific chat, all the while accepting the risk that they still see that you are online? If you get interrupted midway through typing a message and the other party sees the typing notification disappear, does that come across as passive-aggressive? Will it prompt the other user to send even more messages or to chase up why you have not answered?

This is a complete mental health minefield. Instant messaging was born out of the need for convenient communications but these extra features make the experience of using instant messaging much more stressful, especially now that it’s very commonplace to walk around with a device in your pocket at all times.

These features might be commonplace but they are certainly not essential. It would be nice to not feel bullied by read receipts and other “rich” features, but instead just allow people to read messages in peace without worrying that a read receipt or online status notification may send the wrong message to the other party.

So I propose that these user-hostile features should be disabled by default. Make it easy and obvious for users to control when these markers are sent and only do so if the user has specifically opted in. Don’t send signals on a user’s behalf otherwise. We can do away with an entire class of misunderstandings, pressures and expectations without them.