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How Constant Connectivity Killed the “Online Now” Status

Instagram is set to add an online designation to its app—about a decade too late

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s beginning to feel customary for Instagram to release a new feature or update every week, usually an unnecessary functionality that users concede is fun. On Friday, Instagram announced it would be adding an “online” designation. This is not one of those fun features.

When the update rolls out, users who are active on Instagram will have a familiar green dot next to their profile picture in the messaging inbox and in the friend list when sharing a post. “You will only see status for friends who follow you or people who you have talked to in Direct,” Instagram promises. “You can easily hide your own status and turn off the ability to see when your friends are active in your settings.” Instagram even offers a screenshot of how and where users can turn off this unsettling setting, though it also says: “This update gives you the ability to have more of those realtime conversations while giving you the control to hide your status altogether.” The latter was already true without the update, and the former is something the internet at large is growing increasingly weary of.

Once upon a time, being online was fun, and it was an activity unto itself. And even when someone wasn’t online, they could signify their quick return, thanks to the away message. The away message is a now-defunct feature made obsolete by constant mobile connectivity, but at a certain point in time, it was a useful digital accessory. The new Instagram feature doesn’t include the option of posting an away message (thankfully); still, it seems like it’s trying to recreate some of that early, web 2.0 joyfulness of being online—and of simply being “away.”

My fellow old millennials might remember the thrill of racing home from some compulsory real-world interaction at their family’s behest (an unwelcome interruption from internet time) to see what messages had arrived while their AOL Instant Messenger away message autoresponded. Sometimes, the Away Message would be deployed as a precaution, allowing users to browse the buddy list of who was and wasn’t online, eyes ticking down a list of screen names, seeing if anyone worth talking to was available. But away messages were more than just signals of availability. They were messages written in code.

I asked some of my Ringer colleagues about their own away message and online status habits. “When I was a sophomore, I used to write very cryptic poems in my status messages,” says Ringer colleague Alyssa Bereznak. “This one junior would always chat me about them, and our whole online relationship was built on him analyzing my very bad poetry. Then one time we hung out and we had nothing to say to each other, so we went back to only communicating online.”

AIM even featured alerts to tell users when someone important signed on, or stopped being “away” (a feature modern social apps should avoid, as it flirted with obsessive tendencies). “I had this sort of on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again situation with a fellow that I was extremely infatuated with, even and especially during the off-again spells,” The Ringer’s Katie Baker tells me. “His online presence was infrequent and his appearances were often brief. So I set up one of those AIM alerts—I remember the sound was this sort of triumphant trumpet. … it was accompanied by a little pop-up box bringing glad tidings of my crush’s arrival.” One night, when he visited her dorm room, he asked to check his email. “Checking his email on my computer meant signing into AOL. Signing into AOL meant triggering the joyous, loud, obsessive alert that he had signed on!—right up in his face. It all happened so fast. Not many people know this, but I died at that moment, and have been committed to haunting the internet ever since.”

During the reign of AOL, there was something precious about declaring (and being alerted to) a person’s online status. Today, the notification dots next to social apps trigger a rush of dopamine, but back then, the sounds of the money register, the creaky door, and that gentle trill sent rushes of social acceptance coursing through the veins of young internet users. “When my high school boyfriend went to Europe with his family for two weeks, I set an alert for when he signed on and would turn my computer’s volume all the way up so it would wake me up in the middle of the night,” says Claire McNear. That was how important it was to be online: It was sleep-interruption-worthy. Today, McNear has chat turned off everywhere, with one exception. “Gchat, where I will continue to re-create the AIM experience until Google pries it from my cold, dead hands.” Still, she says she definitely does not have an alert set up for her boyfriend.

The novelty of being online (and knowing who’s online) wore thin as “online” became the default status. The mobile web allowed users to put the internet in their pockets and walk away; the away message is meaningless, because no one with a smartphone is ever truly away. That status used to indicate (or fabricate) physical “away-ness,” and now it simply means “I’m ignoring you.” Bereznak also recounted to me one classmate from high school who incessantly contacted people via AIM, away messages be damned. “If you didn’t respond in less than a minute, he would go, ‘ARE U THERE???’ over and over again until you answered,” she says. That’s how modern internet messaging feels—like the person you used to hide from online is always there, watching and waiting to see when you sign on. Instead of nighttime online alerts, users switch on do not disturb. The away message was eliminated entirely because no one is ever away.

“I despise being available, at least the idea of it,” Bereznak says now of online statuses. “The dots are kind of meaningless to me because I’m either looking at my laptop or not, and even if it says I’m online, that doesn’t mean I’m free enough to answer a message.” She says any of her online status indicators are rarely accurate depictions of her availability. (With the exception being Slack, of course.) “I get more dread from [online statuses and messaging], to be honest,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh no, another communication, another thing I am behind at responding to.’”

Being unreachable now has more cachet than being reachable, and the green dot is not a badge of honor but a scarlet letter; the away message undone entirely. It’s difficult to determine how much of this evolution is tied to a generation reaching maturity and how much it’s a consequence of the ways the internet changed. The desperate need to talk to your friends fades with adulthood, but part of the reason it’s less fun to be online now is certainly because online is a very difficult place, and people aren’t sure how much and how obviously they want to be a part of it.