Why the "Seen" feature is good for products but bad for people.
-Bijay Gurung

We misinterpret. We are misunderstood. I am guessing (and hoping) it’s not just me when I say that online conversations are sometimes downright awkward.

In fact, the human race as a whole is trying to figure out the norms and values of this new medium that’s barely a couple of decades old and how it fits in with something that’s been around for thousands of years. And for most of us, it’s been a weird transition as we are increasingly choosing or being forced to replace face-to-face interaction with digital conversations. Today, we don’t speak; we chat.

There are no real rules in chatting, yet the “rules” — the unwritten, unsaid ones that crop up in our collective minds — change constantly.

One such “rule” is that you have to reply right then and there if you have “seen” a message. It has surfaced over the past few years as many messaging services have started including a feature to let the sender know that the receiver has read the message. Facebook added it in 2012 as “a lightweight way to make your messages more conversational”. It has worked — for them.

In a brilliant and eye-opening piece, Tristan Harris, an ex-Design Ethicist at Google, goes over how for tech giants like Facebook or any online company for that matter, it’s in their best interest to make sure users spend as much time as possible on their platform. He mentions one way they do so: heighten the sense of urgency and social reciprocity. The “seen” feature is a tool to make sure you reply to that message without delay. It makes you perceive the act of replying to be an urgent task. You also feel that you need to reciprocate the sending of the message, that you have to give a message back, so to speak. And so you keep chatting. They’ve trapped you!

I don't usually do this. Trust me. :D

It seems like such a useful feature though. And well, it is — to some extent — but only for the sender. As a sender, it allows you to extort a response, implicitly by default, or you could even do so explicitly.

But what if you don’t get one? We have all been in that situation where we don’t get a reply and after waiting for a minute, conclude that we have offended them, that they hate us and don’t want to talk to us anymore. Soon enough, we are the ones hating them. It’s a transition from irritation to sadness to finally, anger. How rude of them to not reply! We start entertaining the thought of kidnapping them and torturing them in a dark room. And as they shout for help, we will flash a light on the wall that has “Seen” written in red paint! An evil smile permeates our face; the thought is strangely satisfying.

I digress.

A study on the effect of “seen” and double blue ticks on messaging, conducted in the early days of the feature, found that users “felt more or less uncomfortable when their message had been read but not answered yet depending on their individual need to belong and fear of ostracism.” It is hard being a sender of an ignored message.

Receivers have it harder.

In the same research, the researchers found that “perceived obligations to respond were higher than answering expectations”. So, receivers feel obligated to respond even in cases when the sender isn’t expecting a reply. This can lead to a lot of awkward messages being sent back and forth even when the main conversation is already over as both parties don’t want to be the one to not reply after having “seen” a message.

No wonder some people hate it with passion.

The top reply on this thread sums it up perfectly:

“Hate it (the feature) when I’m reading a message, because now I have to answer. Hate it when sending because if I see that prompt it kills a bit on the inside.”

There are ways to get around the feature but the majority of us (including myself) have come to accept it as a part of our daily chatting life. It’s shocking how we have gotten used to it.

In fact, we have now been accustomed to only see its useful side or at least wave away all the complications it introduces. After all, on the surface it looks like something that adds value to the user when in fact, it’s a tool to benefit the tech companies, feeding on our time. That is fine. Every company looks to do what’s best for them. Still, as Harris says in this TED talk, the world would be a better place if — instead of time spent — they designed with the goal of maximizing time well spent.

Last month, we were emailing a lot of people (for LOCUS related tasks), and we constantly lamented the fact that e-mails don’t have a “seen” feature. I take that back. A “seen” feature for emails would be terrible; it would force us to send back a hurried reply instead of a well-crafted and thought out answer. We would be afraid to open up the mail.

I now see the dark side of the feature; it fails to respect the fact that we, the users, should have the right to choose our visibility. It fails to consider the possibility that sometimes, we don’t want to be “seen”.

A version of this article appears on our Medium Page.
First published on Jul 20, 2016.