You Are the Product | Lillian Fishman | Granta

You Are the Product

Lillian Fishman

What is the read receipt for?

Let’s leave aside the simple suggestion that read receipts are a neutral confirmation that information has been received. One of my read-receipts-on friends is also the friend who most frequently writes me late to say that she had not, in fact, seen the message which read receipts assured me had. I don’t think she’s lying to me; rather, it seems as if a premise of the read receipt is the aspirational belief that a passive technological function can assure us that we’ve been heard the way a direct answer can. The read receipt can’t guarantee us anything, but it’s interesting that we wish it would. Like any technology which we constantly use, and which attempts to translate our inarticulable emotions, the read receipt is a language, a contract, and a power play.

At one time – a decade ago – we were collectively alarmed by read receipts. They had arrived quietly, rather than as a default setting, in the native iPhone messaging app. We did not adopt them. The desire not to automatically reveal that we knew when someone was trying to reach us was why our forebears had embraced caller ID. Sometimes, we would turn on read receipts accidentally. This was such a calamity, akin to sending a nude to the wrong person or mistakenly dialing the very friend we were gossiping about, that any recipient of a read receipt was obligated to immediately inform the ignorant sender of her mistake. How could we not feel horror at the revelation that the little flickers of our eyeballs had been recorded as promises and, when we hesitated, moral failings? It was as if we had been seen at a party, speaking to five or six people in the course of an hour, and above our heads an arrow had pointed at the one person who had attempted to say hello, and whose overture we had been too preoccupied to return.

In the realm of dating, the read receipt was occasionally used cruelly, as a means of conveying disinterest. The very fact that it constituted such a powerful rejection tool speaks to the impossibility of incorporating information in any neutral or passive way into the language of flirtation. What could be less native to flirtation, one of the most subtle and delicate languages we have? Aware of this, we would sometimes, as needed, reconfigure this tool which had been designed for passive use to communicate even more intentionally and delicately: to show someone, by turning on read receipts for them alone, not only that we had read their message but that we would not be dignifying it with a response.

Yet something happened. Over time, we began to develop an uncritical passion for something called ‘transparency’. Read receipts appeared in some apps as a default mode (WhatsApp) or a mandatory mode (Instagram, until recently). I knew things were dire when a friend of mine not only turned on her iMessage read receipts, but conceived of her commitment to them as part of a crusade of honesty and ethical relating. It was a kind of game-playing, she said, to conceal whether you’d read your messages. To refuse to opt in had become a kind of sneaky, hollow behavior. It was to refuse a sincere relationship. What did I have to hide? After all, when she spoke to me face-to-face, was I not obligated to register what she said with a word, with a gesture or an expression, at the very least?

The accusation of game-playing has a certain subversive accuracy. Although iMessage allows a single-sided read-receipt function – as well as the ability to send read receipts to some contacts and not to others – some messaging apps, WhatsApp primary among them, require a mutual opting in: if you choose to see them, you will also send them, or you can opt out of both sending and receiving. There’s a delicious, revealing anxiety about fairness in this, as if the developers are sitting behind their screens, muttering to themselves that we shouldn’t dish out what we can’t take, or, perhaps equally, that we don’t get to glut ourselves on the details of other people’s attention while we’re being miserly with our own. (The WhatsApp design nixes the targeted use of the read receipt in dating, for example.) The mutuality requirement betrays the non-neutrality and the general stakes of the read receipt, which are obscured by the more laissez-faire rules of iMessage. Yes, communication is a kind of game, and each theater of communication has its own assumptions and rules of play. To opt into my friends’ read-receipts commitment would be to opt into a communication game premised, to my mind, on a general atmosphere of anxiety. That we should want as much information about our friends’ attention as possible implies that what we need is not to be answered, but merely to have our existence and the periodic howls we release continually confirmed. If our friends, or our partners, find out that we consider the privacy of our attention at least slightly sacred, to the extent that it still belongs to us, so much the better.

As this last decade on the internet has made clear, whatever we have the chance to refuse is hardly threatening, and rather what degrades us is being continually inundated with information we would be much happier without: ads integrated into our email clients, 24/7 access to WebMD, or knowledge of the fact that someone has read our message but neglected to respond to it. I admit I have an unusually low bar for what I conceive of as too much information. I was once pissed off with a friend, to her shock and confusion, when she told me my ex had started dating someone new. Not being the recipient of emotional information which does not immediately concern me is, as my brother would call it, a life-hack. And read receipts are a subtle, vicious form of emotional information: even if we only want to hear from our friend when she addresses us directly, still we can’t help but glimpse that little ‘read’ annotation or that blue tick, the record of some momentary dismissal. What is being extracted from us is our ignorance and equanimity – our good faith in our friends.

What is the read receipt for? As a confirmation one does or doesn’t send, it’s a test of what we consider the bedrock of trust: frankness or faith. As a confirmation one receives, it’s a test that determines whether we wish to know what might unnerve us, or whether we would rather sail along undisturbed.


Image © USGS

Lillian Fishman

Lillian Fishman was born in 1994 and lives in New York. She received her MFA from NYU, where she was a Jill Davis Fellow. Acts of Service is her first novel.

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