If you’ve ever used iMessage, the proprietary messaging platform for Apple devices such as the iPhone, you’ve probably developed an opinion (or a refined lack of opinion) about its “read receipts” feature. They’re based on a simple idea—what if you could automatically notify people that you had seen their messages?—yet have slowly become iMessage’s most controversial and divisive function. The app’s read receipts are the inspiration for unending teenage drama, the subject of ongoing public debate among professional writers, and the not-so-secret source of anxiety for many Millennial adults.
How did this happen, exactly? Is iMessage broken? Can it be fixed? To answer these questions, you have to consider not only the seemingly small decisions that went into Apple’s implementation of read receipts, but how Apple’s main competitor came to a very different conclusion about their purpose.
After all, read receipts are not unique to iMessage. As Lifehacker’s Thorin Klosowski noted last year, apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Kik, and Line all have some kind of read receipt (or “seen”) function. “Snapchat,” Klosowski said of the ephemeral image-sharing app, “is built around the idea of read receipts. If someone sees your message, it’s deleted.” Read receipts are not exactly new inventions, either: They’ve been a fixture of corporate email clients such as Microsoft Outlook since at least 2000. They’ve also turned into a source of revenue for dating websites like OKCupid, whose members can pay to see whether whether other members have read their messages.
Yet iMessage differs from its competitors and predecessors in the fact that its users can easily enable and disable read receipts whenever they want to. On other platforms, by contrast, read receipts are essentially mandatory. Indeed, as the aforementioned Lifehacker article documented, iMessage was one of the few apps in its category that, in November 2014, did not require jailbreaking your phone, installing a special browser plugin, or performing some other inconvenient workaround to prevent others from seeing that you had read their messages.
That all changed when WhatsApp, the largest messaging platform on the planet (and, by extension, iMessage’s most formidable competitor), slowly updated the various versions of its app with a new option, located in the “Privacy” menu, that permitted users to toggle whether or not they sent read receipts. Unlike Apple, however, WhatsApp tied this option to the ability of users to receive read receipts. “If you turn off read receipts,” a disclaimer under the option reads, “you won’t be able to see read receipts from other people.”
Now, this was hardly an innovation for the messaging app industry: A much smaller app called Viber had been dealing with read receipts in the same way since at least February 2014. WhatsApp simply brought this feature to a much larger audience. iMessage, meanwhile, would remain unchanged: You can still receive an unlimited number of read receipts without having to send a single one.
This may seem like a small difference. But if you really look at the arguments that read receipts reliably incite, it’s actually a seismic change. At the bottom of all the hand-wringing and drama is the pervasive sense that iMessage’s read receipts, by virtue of a user’s ability to turn them on and off (while still being able to receive them), introduces an imbalance of power where there was none before. After all, why should you notify a person that you’ve seen their message when that person refuses to perform the same gesture? Every single day, multiple people will tweet something along the lines of, “I don’t trust people who don’t have their read receipts on.”
It’s true, of course, that some people simply dislike read receipts, such as when a friend or acquaintance sends one in lieu of an actual response. (Especially if the initial message was a question.) To these people, read receipts are a form of rudeness. As Gizmodo’s Adam Clark Estes argued earlier this year, “If that read receipt appears and there’s not an immediate reply, you’re gonna look like an asshole.” This is not an argument against read receipts per se, though. It’s an argument for the ability not to see or receive read receipts.
And that’s what makes WhatsApp’s (and Viber’s) implementation so obvious and appealing: If you don’t want to receive others’ read receipts, you probably don’t want to be sending them, either. At the same time, if you don’t trust people who refuse to send read receipts, you probably don’t want to be sending read receipts to those very people.
iMessage’s read receipts, by contrast, are essentially broken. It doesn’t make that much sense, after all, for Apple to allow a person to turn off read receipts while still allowing that person to receive them from others. Nor does it make sense for a person to send read receipts to all of their contacts and receive few, or none, in return.
So here is what Apple should do, what it should have done a long time ago: Make iMessage’s read receipts exactly like Viber’s and WhatsApp’s read receipts. Otherwise turn them them off, or on, for everyone.