The freedom that comes with disabling your read receipts

Last year a good friend sent me a WhatsApp message asking where I wanted to meet for coffee. I sent her a message back with the time and place. Three hours later, I arrived at the coffee shop, a few minutes early. I checked the WhatsApp thread and noticed that the double checkmark had not yet turned blue. I switched to my iPhone’s dialer app and was about to call her to make sure she knew where we were meeting when she suddenly walked through the front door.

After greeting her I said that it looked like she hadn’t gotten my message, so I was surprised she knew where to meet (although it was our normal hangout). She said she had meant to confirm the meeting but got caught up at work and then she added something which fundamentally changed the way I view my digital privacy. “I’ve just disabled my WhatsApp read receipts, by the way.”

I asked why. “Why should people have a right to know when I have or haven’t read something?” she replied.

And like that, I realized that when we talk about digital privacy, we’re usually only talking about one side of the coin: our right to keep our digital activity private from tech companies and data brokers. But the reality is that because of all the digital tools we use–especially messaging apps–we frequently give up our right to privacy from our friends and coworkers, too.

From that day forward I decided to follow in my friend’s footsteps. I began disabling read receipts on all the messaging apps I used. In doing so, I at first only noticed what I had lost. When you disable read receipts in most messaging apps, it’s a reciprocal thing–you can limit someone from seeing when you’ve read a message, but then you also don’t get to see when they’ve read your message. For a few days, this caused some anxiety in me. Had my friends actually received the message? Should I send another message asking them for confirmation?

But after a few days, this pointless uncertainty receded. It’s highly unlikely that any message you send via a modern messaging app won’t be delivered, after all. And by the end of the first week of disabling read receipts, I noticed a fundamental change come over me when it came to the messages I received.

After reading a message, I no longer felt that anxiety or guilt compelling me to reply right away. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. After all, how many times have you gotten a read receipt confirmation that a friend has read your message and been annoyed or even hurt that they didn’t reply right away? By disabling read receipts so my friends and coworkers could no longer see when I’ve read a message, I felt like I had more time to reply to them on my terms and in my own time. This meant my replies could be more thoughtful and detailed, instead of a haphazard shoot-from-the-hip response.

Most importantly, by disabling read receipts I discovered a glorious freedom I’d never had before: the freedom to not have everyone knowing what I’ve seen or done, in an age when technology is designed to encourage us to do the opposite.

Disabling read receipts is nothing short of liberating, breaking us from our digital chains to others. Not only does it alleviate the guilt and anxiety to instantaneously reply, but it also helps set boundaries and manage expectations between me and my friends: I will reply to you, but when I have the time.

One friend even confided in me that she has learned not to take a lack of an instant reply personally. She has also disabled read receipts in her apps and finds it liberating. “It helps quickly jettison the bullshit expectation that you’re due an immediate reply to every message you send,” she told me.

HOW TO DISABLE READ RECEIPTS ON FACEBOOK MESSENGER, APPLE MESSAGES, WHATSAPP, AND TWITTER DMS

Trust me, disabling read receipts will feel odd at first–but once you do it, you will not miss them. Matter of fact, you’ll quickly feel lighter and less burdened. Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to disable read receipts in most major messaging apps (easier to disable than in emails, anyway). Here’s how:

Facebook Messenger: Just joking. Facebook doesn’t allow anyone to disable read receipts, even though people tell Facebook they want this feature. Facebook no doubt frames this inability to disable read receipts as a good thing: It allows your friends to know when their messages are received. But truth be told, Facebook–shocker–isn’t working for the common good here. An engineer on their Messages team recently told me that Facebook could implement the option to toggle read receipts on or off in a weekend. They said the social media giant won’t do that, however, because read receipts in Messenger guilt people into replying right away. This anxiety to reply because you know your Facebook friend has seen that you’ve read their message keeps you engaged with their Messaging platform. In other words, you don’t control Facebook, Facebook controls you.

So since you can’t disable read receipts on Facebook Messenger (both its app and web versions) what are you to do? Simple: just stop using the messaging portion of the service.

Unlike every other major messaging service, your Facebook messages aren’t even encrypted anyway, so there’s already little reason to use Facebook Messenger as your messaging app of choice. But what if people keep messaging you through there? Here’s a trick: While you can’t disable Messenger as long as you have a Facebook account, you can block every single Facebook friend you have from sending you a message on the platform. Until Facebook allows its users to reclaim their personal privacy by disabling read receipts, block your friends on Messenger and tell them to contact you through a more egalitarian messaging service.

Apple Messages: Apple’s Messages app gives you the most control over read receipts. You can enable or disable read receipts for all users in iOS’s Settings > Messages, or enable or disable read receipts on a per-person basis by tapping the “Info” button in a message thread and then toggling your preference on the next screen.

WhatsApp: Thankfully, Facebook-owned WhatsApp gives you control over whether or not you and others can view read receipts. Unlike Apple’s Messages, however, disabling read receipts in WhatsApp is an all-or-nothing option. Either everyone (including you) can see read receipts, or no one can. In WhatsApp’s in-app settings, go to Account > Privacy and toggle read receipts on or off. One bummer: read receipts are always enabled for group chats.

Twitter DMs: While I don’t use Twitter’s direct messaging feature much, I know plenty of people who do. Thankfully, Twitter is one social media platform that allows you to disable read receipts. Simply go to your Twitter account settings and tap “Privacy and safety.” Under “Direct Messages” you’ll see the read receipt toggle to disable or enabled them. Again, this is an all-or-nothing approach. If you disable read receipts, you won’t be able to see when someone has read your DMs. A fair trade-off.

There are of course other messaging services than those on this list. Most of them will also provide users with the ability to disable read receipts. And if they don’t, it’s time to trade up to a different messenger app that gives you more control over your digital privacy, no matter if that’s from the app maker or from your friends.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist, and former screenwriter represented worldwide by Marjacq Scripts Ltd
. His debut novel EPIPHANY JONES is out now from Orenda Books. Contact his agent at Marjacq Scripts Ltd
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