When theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he inspired a profusion of ideas and dialogue surrounding the impact of new media on mankind. He conceived of media technologies as “extensions of ourselves,” prosthetic-like in their ability to facilitate our completion of basic tasks, like communicating, in ways that far surpassed that of our natural bodies. As cell phones and the internet enable us to communicate instantaneously over time and space, to contact another person anywhere in the world so long as they have access to the proper device and a wireless network—qualifications which as of 2012 accounted for a growing three quarters of the world’s population—McLuhan’s conception of a “Global Village” is increasingly lauded for its prescience. Undeniably, the digital has altered how we connect to one another; new methods of delivering a message and the ability to contact almost anyone at all times shape new dynamics and expectations in conversation. As iMessage, for example, becomes nearly ubiquitous on both smartphones and computers, the uncertainty about whether a written message has been delivered and read has nearly dissipated. Nevertheless, texting retains a sense of temporal ambiguity as it does not necessitate immediate response, which is why, perhaps, it continues to be so popular even as technology that incorporates audio and video elements, like Skype and Facetime, in McLuhan’s words, “hotter” media, become more accessible.
Before I begin a closer look into the temporal uncertainty of texting and its social implications, it will be helpful to recall, briefly, the history of communicating with another individual through the written word. Time and uncertainty played monumental roles in traditional letter writing—one would write a letter, send it, and then wait an undetermined length of time for a response. Only upon receiving such a response, if a response were sent at all, would the sender be able to verify whether his message had been properly communicated and interpreted by the receiver. The introduction of the telegraph in 1844 radically changed this process, launching the potential for faster communication and reduced uncertainty in correspondence. Fast-forwarding a century and a half, the development and proliferation of instant messaging and texting seem to have stuck as the most popular modes of informal communication, even though instant video messaging technology, which eradicates any uncertainty dynamics about receipt-time that arise when communicating with the written word, also exists. Unlike a video call, text offers the possibility of splitting attention, of carrying on several simultaneous conversations, and of waiting to respond. Texting seems to be so popular because it allows for instantaneous conversation and response, and thus recuperates elements of the oral, while still allowing the individual the potential for “wait time,” the freedom of waiting to check one’s phone or of waiting to respond to a text message.
Here lies some of the tension that texting as a primary form of communication brings about—texting at once seems to eliminate the uncertainty characteristic of written long-distance communication in addition to adding new ambiguities regarding the delivery and receipt of written messages. It is reasonable to assume that, given both the technological instantaneousness and the cultural practice of constantly checking for new text messages on one’s phone, a message sent is read promptly after its delivery. With well-established group chats (threads of conversation with multiple participants) and texting relationships, people can learn the typical texting habits of others—what constitutes a normal response time, for example. It is normal, in most instances, to expect an immediate response from a friend known to always have her phone on her and to be a quick responder. When texting a new person, however, or having a more sensitive, less scripted conversation even within an established texting relationship (anything that breaks the tone of the typical, often low stakes conversation of the text thread), expectations guiding response time breakdown—a challenging or probing message may be read and responded to later, after one has had time to think of the appropriate response or even to develop an excuse about not being able to check one’s phone during that time frame. The temporality of such texting dynamics has thus formed a new space for communication in the absence of text communication, the lingering “wait time,” which facilitates the reading of time in such digital conversations as a legitimate signifier of meaning.
One technological feature in place, aimed at correcting this ambiguity about whether the recipient has read the text, is “read receipts,” in which a line saying “delivered” appears next to one’s most recently sent message and then “read,” with a timestamp, to mark when the recipient has opened the message. Every iPhone owner has the choice whether or not to turn on read receipts, whether or not to add this additional signposting to their conversation for the sake of clarity and transparency, as once a message is declared “read,” it would likely be interpreted as inconsiderate or rude to not respond promptly. In this way, read receipts in theory hold people accountable to their conversation partners, reduce the weird uncertainties and ambiguities surrounding texts that are likely read and received instantaneously almost all of the time, but responded to immediately not nearly as often. There are obvious benefits, however, to keeping read receipts turned off. It can be appropriate and necessary to withhold from responding to read texts immediately. While adding clarity to texting in the form of a little cyber tag declaring that your message has indeed been viewed, such a technology also limits the freedom inherent in “wait time.” Such freedom can be used to play mind games with texting partners, to make someone wait ridiculously long for a response or to make the recipient seem busier and less engaged in the conversation than he in fact is. As I suggested earlier, however, “wait time” can also be used to liberate oneself from the responsibility of being constantly contactable, of being ready at any waking moment, anywhere in the world, to make an immediate decision, even one as simple as typing a response to “how are you?” Keeping read receipts turned off frees oneself from the judgment that comes when “wait time” is utilized after a message is definitely declared as “read.”
Essentially, read receipts are a nod of the head, a gesture affirming that the message one sent into the void of the digital has been processed. Once more, such signposting reintroduces elements of the oral into one of literate society’s standard methods of communicating. Another feature in iMessage that carries similar tidbits of knowledge about the person one is communing with is the ellipsis that appears on the screen when the other person in the conversation is typing. Unlike read receipts, this feature cannot be turned off. The ellipsis is ephemeral—one can only view this signposting if she has her phone open to the iMessage conversation at the exact moment the other person is typing, for the ellipsis disappears as soon as the typing stops. Such signage constitutes another nuance of texting ripe for reading and interpreting—it allows the receiver to infer the sender’s composition process: if the ellipsis appears for a bit, disappears, then reappears, the sender likely paused to contemplate, to check the wording, and then perhaps resumes to revise, to wordsmith, to edit. Watching these supposed edits happen via the presence of three dots on a screen feels almost like spying on an intimate, personal moment of the respondent crafting precisely what he wants to communicate. And so, if the product of this stopping and starting, the resultant text, is not something clever, poetic, or lengthy, but pithy and simple like “okay” or “what’s up?” the receiver is left to imagine a sort of turmoil that went into crafting this final, basic message, a dramatic considering and reconsidering. Of course, this signposting has no definitive meaning, but based on the context of the conversation, one cannot help but read and judge and predict what might be occurring at the other end of the line, where fingers type, stop, and resume.
Texting has become one of the most popular forms of communicating in a literate society, insofar as it recuperates elements of the oral in its colloquialism and instantaneousness, while reserving an individual’s freedom to exercise “wait time,” to not be on call constantly by everyone in her address book. Read receipts and ellipses offer interesting additions to texting dynamics by removing ambiguities surrounding the temporality of message receipt and response time that exist despite, or perhaps because, of a culture that encourages people to constantly be checking for new messages. These forms of signposting have introduced a type of reading in texting analogous to a form of body language insofar as they contribute, consciously or not, to the interpretation of the message by the recipient. Such temporal cues may grant some insight into the dynamics of the text conversation, but remain fundamentally indiscernible, unlike facial expressions, which have nuances and forms that more reliably betray specific meaning. One cannot know with any certainty, for example, why a message was marked “read” but not responded to immediately, or why ellipsis appeared momentarily, but then quickly disappeared without a resultant text. Nevertheless, such features have become integrated into the process of reading and interpreting a text—we cannot help but observe these signs and use them to frame our judgments about a specific conversation, person, or relationship, and as such, they have changed the way in which we communicate.