Facebook started rolling out this feature last summer, and it has since become more irritating than receiving persistent invitations to start a new life on “Farmville” and seeing fifty hashtags attached to one status update.
The glory of asynchronous messaging is that you can respond at your own convenience. You aren’t granted this luxury in face-to-face interaction and Skype. Read receipts work so that once a Facebook message is opened, a check mark with the word “seen” and a timestamp appears at the bottom of the message. A Facebook spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that this feature is a “lightweight way to make your messages more conversational.” And that it has — but not in a positive way. In person, you can tell by eye contact or facial expression whether or not someone has heard you, even if that person doesn’t audibly respond. It’s also obvious when someone is actively trying to tune you out. Now, you have an impersonal timestamp to give out those backhanded snubs — intentional or not — which might lead to some awkward situations.
Not knowing the receiver’s circumstances, the sender could easily take offense if he or she saw that the message was read, but not replied to. Shorter messages call for immediate replies, which would be easier for someone on a computer, but harder for someone on a smartphone. Lengthier messages, on the other hand, merit longer replies. Someone reading on a cell phone would best leave it to reply later when on a computer, but Facebook chatters may not always take this into account. You also would not want people to egotistically believe that their messages were thought-provoking enough for you to spend hours thinking of a response.
Whenever you log onto Facebook chat, the people you don’t want to talk to are always, regrettably, the first to IM you. Sometimes you just don’t want to spend your procrastination time making small talk, or be guilted into inviting the annoying kid from your discussion section to partake in your weekend plans. Unfortunately, having read receipts means that you can no longer view a message and casually pretend that you didn’t see it. This is especially a problem when you receive a message while “offline” on Facebook: You want to check it, but you don’t feel like striking up a conversation because you know that person is currently online. When this happens, I resort to inferring as much as I can from the few words of preview text I can get by clicking on the Messages tab without actually opening the message.
I could only imagine the ruckus such a feature would create if it were enabled for texts or, worse — business email. To avoid fostering uncomfortable situations, here’s hoping that Facebook will release an option for users to disable read receipts in the near future.