By David Pierce 

I am terrible at texting. I don't mean to be. But too often I'll get a text, start to respond, then get distracted by work or my dog -- and suddenly it's four days later and I forgot all about it. "Sorry, just seeing this" is the lie I tell most often.

Of course, my apps frequently betray me. When I'm in Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and most other popular messaging apps, a small update goes out letting the sender know as soon as I open a message. These are read receipts. I pronounce them "reed" receipts, not "red" receipts, though this is a matter of some debate. However you say them, they're a problem.

They create social pressure inside every thread, demanding that you respond immediately or else be seen as ignoring the chat. They give your contacts a real-time window into your digital activity, the ability to spy on you as you look at your phone.

Texting and email took off in part because they gave people some agency, letting us manage our messaging on our own time rather than leaping every time the phone rings. Read receipts take that away again. They force us to chat on someone else's schedule.

In some cases, you can turn read receipts off or control them more finely -- and you should. In too many places, though, read receipts are simply a fact of messaging life. And as messaging continues to be a crucial part of how we work and socialize, read receipts feel less like a handy feature and more like a gross invasion of my privacy.

Anybody Home?

Read receipts have many forms: In WhatsApp, a check mark that says you've sent a message turns to two checks when it has been delivered -- and both turn blue when it has been read. Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts and other apps actually use tiny icons of your face to indicate how far you've read in a conversation. Apple's Messages app may be the frankest of the bunch, with just a small "Read" underneath your message, along with the time it was seen.

At their core, read receipts create a disconnect: They are good for the sender and terrible for the recipient.

When you send a message, of course you want to know when it has been read! You poured your heart and soul into that email/text/long string of emojis, and you're looking for some immediate acknowledgment -- of not only that your message was transmitted properly and arrived at its destination, but also that it was actually seen. You can breathe a sigh of relief. And wait for a response. Speaking of which, what's taking so long? How rude that they opened your all-important email/text/long string of emojis five minutes ago and still haven't said anything back?

On the receiving end, it's a minefield. Your phone dings with a message. You know that as soon as you look, whoever sent it will know. If it's from your boss, opening the message -- and triggering that receipt -- immediately voids all plausible deniability. "Sorry, it was late and I wasn't checking my phone" doesn't fly when that tiny "Delivered" icon in Apple's Messages app turns to "Read 9:02 PM."

If it's from a friend, you might be expected to drop everything and respond; ditto for that person you've been on two dates with but haven't yet decided about a third. If you don't respond immediately, you're "leaving them on read," akin to intentionally ignoring someone who is trying to talk to you.

Read receipts are particularly pernicious in email, a medium that was never designed for real-time communication. The email app Superhuman recently came under fire for embedding tiny hidden images called "tracking pixels" in messages to show senders every time their messages are opened and where recipients are at the time. This is common practice for many email providers, of course, and is typically used by marketers to track users in their inboxes the same way Facebook and Google follow you around the web.

That's creepy enough. Superhuman made it a default behavior, even for one-on-one communication. Nobody needs to know whether, or when, I read their email. Superhuman responded to the criticism by turning read receipts off by default and deleting all its existing location data.

In a few cases, like fast-moving work conversations where everyone needs to be paying attention, read receipts can be a good thing. A read receipt can also act as a sort of head-nod among close contacts, a quick acknowledgment that you've seen the grocery list or the new meeting spot.

In most cases, though, like algorithmic time lines and never-ending recommendation rabbit holes, read receipts are just another thing to keep us wedded to our apps. Read receipts force you to join the party whether you're ready or not.

How to Turn Them Off

Nearly every messaging app turns read receipts on by default -- or urges you into it when you first start it up. Here's how to take back some control over your read receipts, at least where you can.

In Apple Messages: On your iPhone or iPad, open Settings and go to Messages, then toggle "Send Read Receipts" to off. (This setting appears only if you have iMessage turned on.) Useful bonus tip: Apple is the only service I tested that allows you to control read receipts in individual conversations: Open up a chat window, tap on the person's name, select Info and toggle "Send Read Receipts."

In Android Messages: This mostly isn't a problem, since typical SMS text-message technology doesn't support read receipts, though some newer standards do. Just in case, go to Settings > Chat features, then toggle off "Send read receipts" if you see the option.

In Facebook Messenger and Instagram: You can't turn read receipts off in Instagram. Facebook says it's really important for people to know their messages are being seen. Facebook should change this.

In WhatsApp: Go to Settings > Account > Privacy and toggle off "Read receipts." You'll no longer send or receive receipts. You can't turn them off for group chats, though.

In Twitter: You can turn off read receipts for DMs in Twitter by going to Settings > Privacy and safety, then unchecking the "Show read receipts" box. You won't send out receipts, nor will you receive them from others.

In Email: Every email app is different, but you can often reduce read receipts just by turning off automatic image loading. If your email won't load the tracking pixel, the pixel won't report back. In Gmail, this feature is under Settings > General > Images. Select "Ask before displaying external images."

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(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 21, 2019 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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