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Typing Awareness Indicators and a Certain Kind of Chat App Hell

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Getty Images

Look, maybe you’re a person who feels infinitely secure in all your interpersonal relationships. You are awash in confidence and know exactly where you stand with everyone you encounter at all times. You are Leonardo DiCaprio and the world is your 18- to 24-year-old models. You can stop reading now.

For the rest of us, it’s time for an intervention. In many chat services (iMessage, Facebook Messenger) when someone starts typing, the other person in the conversation sees ellipses, sometimes in little thought bubbles. In Slack and Gchat, the dots are replaced by something even worse. When someone is typing, it says “X is typing.” These are called typing awareness indicators. They must be stopped.

David Auerbach, the man who introduced typing notifications for MSN Messenger, shows no remorse about forcing typing awareness indicators into existence. Software engineering’s Ramsay Bolton explained, in a 2014 Slate article headlined “I Built That ‘So-and-So Is Typing’ Feature in Chat” (subhed: And I’m not sorry), that it was an attempt to impose etiquette on a new form of communication. “If your chat partner’s gone silent, it might be hard to know whether they were typing some huge message or if she was waiting for you to say something. We couldn’t enforce any particular etiquette among users, hence the typing indicator,” he wrote.

The typing indicator doesn’t make people more polite, though. People still wait hours or even days to reply to messages they’ve obviously seen; we’re witnessing Funny Games levels of sociopathy with things as they are. When typing indicators appear and disappear, they can provoke the socially anxious among us into frenzied self-doubt: “What the FUCK did the person typing decide not to send?” It’s an incredibly effective way to add an element of devastating insecurity into a conversation.

I find it particularly distressing on Slack, the chat app I use for work, because Slack is where my bosses say things. Here is my typical thought pattern when I see a typing notification from a boss or intimidating coworker appear and disappear in Slack:

  1. I am about to be chastised.
  2. The person who is typing is agonizing over which sick burn to deploy during the chastisement, hence the indefinite “typing.”
  3. Or maybe the person typing was about to give me a compliment but thought better of it? No, a sick burn.
  4. The person typing had just written a collection of brutal owns, and then decided to save it for later, so they cut it and pasted it into some folder, where it sits, waiting.
  5. Or maybe they have a huge CRUSH ON ME!
  6. They’re probably trying to figure out how to impress me via witty conversation and they don’t want to sound stupid, because they think I am extremely smart, so that’s why they’re hemming and hawing: Out of love. Love for me. I am perfect, a jewel of the blogging world.
  7. WHAT HUBRIS IS THIS THEY HATE ME AND WANT ME GONE.

This is made all the more frustrating because there is another way. The other main source of chat anxiety, read receipts, is optional on most platforms. Why not make that floating dot dot dot bubble opt-in? I am not alone in my neurotic loathing of this chat feature. Back in 2014, a New York Times writer described getting so anxious about the dots that she talked to her therapist about it.

I realize, though, that this is perhaps the thought pattern of someone addled with self-doubt and paranoia, so I talked to Naomi S. Baron, a linguistics professor at American University. Baron wrote Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. I asked her if she saw the point of typing indicators, or whether she agreed that they are a vile scourge. Turns out, we’ve had completely different experiences with typing indicators, because she thinks they can be “interpersonally soothing.”

“The ability to let the other person know something’s coming can be extremely useful,” she told me, adding that she likes to see the dots when she’s texting with her son, so she knows not to put her phone down or worry. “As soon as I see those three dots, because we’re using iPhones, I know he’s got it, just be patient, I’m going to hear back soon.”

I described my Slack anxiety to Professor Baron. “The issue of whether the ellipses or ‘X is typing’ matters depends an awful lot of your relationship with the other person,” Baron said. “What are the relationships that you have to these people, and what are the suppositions they make when they don’t get something coming.”

Maybe if I do enough trust falls with my co-workers I’ll start to love typing indicators. Until then, those demonic dots need to go.