It’s called the “typing awareness indicator,” and a few months ago, my therapist ordered me to disable it on my phone. “It’s causing you too much anxiety,” she said, pointing to the iPhone I had in a white-knuckle grip. “It’s giving monumental weight to matters of a text message.”
But we weren’t even talking about text messages … exactly. We were talking about the time between text messages. Specifically that little gray bubble with the ellipses that pops up on your iPhone while the person on the other end of your text message is writing a response.
Or, in my case — in the particularly high-stakes conversation at hand — it was the bubble that popped up to indicate typing, then disappeared to show he had stopped. Then came back up to show typing, then went away again. Then returned for what seemed like an eternity (he must be writing something deep, right?) only to produce a response so benign (you know, like “cool” or “ya”) that it could only be topped by the humiliation of the bubble never returning at all (meaning he was flat-out ignoring me). Which I would know, of course, because I could see that he had read my message (that’s called a “read receipt”).
“The three dots shown while someone is drafting a message in iMessage is quite possibly the most important source of eternal hope and ultimate letdown in our daily lives,” said Maryam Abolfazli, a writer in Washington who has tackled the topic. “It’s the modern-day version of watching paint dry, except you might be broken up with by the time the dots deliver.”
For some time, sociologists have studied the way that new technology affects the brain; the way that constant updates prime us to fear we’re missing out, or the way we crave the adrenaline rush brought on by a constant stream of digital micro-communications.
But what about the tyranny of the text bubble? Indeed, there are real problems in the world. But this was the kind of modern-day technological minutiae that had the ability to jail me in a very specific cognitive hell.
“The awareness indicator as implemented on the iPhone is a curious beast — it conveys that something is being done, but it won’t say what,” said Paul Dourish, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the intersection of technology and society. “It’s curiously coy.”
I’ve taken to calling this the “so and so is typing” feature, as does the man who invented it for the iPhone — a close relative of, but not to be confused with, the “delivered” status and “read receipt,” also staples of modern texting.
The specifics of the feature vary slightly based on the platform. On an iPhone, the bubble appears when you’re messaging another iPhone user; on desktop clients like Google Chat or Facebook Messenger, you’ll receive a “Jessica is typing … ” blurb. But whatever form it takes, it remains, as my friend Ben Crair put it in a recent essay in the New Republic, “the most awkward part of online chat.”
The roots of the typing awareness indicator go back to the 1990s, when people used dial-up (the horror!). But back then, it had a practical purpose: It let you know when a person was online, or that a message was delivered. Remember the old AOL Buddy List? As the Wired columnist Clive Thompson reminded me, it was perhaps the first popular iteration of this system: a creaking door noise to notify you when a friend signed on, and a door slamming when he or she left.
But it wasn’t until 2005 that BlackBerry became the first big company to bring the “delivered,” “read” and “so and so is typing” features to mobile with BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM. Two years later, Apple introduced the iPhone with SMS, and four years after that, iMessage, which added a real-time element to otherwise jilted conversations.
As technologists describe it, the typing feature rests somewhere between real-life speech, with tone and pacing — what linguists call “synchronous” communication — and text-based communication (“asynchronous”), which occurs in spurts, out of sync, like email. “It’s like eye contact in a conversation: You know if they’re paying attention,” said Gary Klassen, the principal architect at BlackBerry and the lead developer of BBM.
And yet, while desktop communication still comes with the question “Are you there?” on mobile, presence isn’t just expected — it’s mandatory. So the typing indicator has become a message in and of itself, “the equivalent of saying, ‘Hold on, I’m responding,’ ” said Ron Palmeri, the founder of a communications start-up called Layer that specializes in chat technology.
Or … “I’m not responding.”
Which brings us back to text-bubble anxiety, of which there are many forms.
There’s the text bubble of the highly charged emotional conversation (also known “Aaaah, this next could dictate everything!”) that really shouldn’t be happening over text message in the first place but is because, well, that’s the way we communicate these days.
There’s the giving-away-too-much-without-actually-saying-anything pause, when you start to type and then decide to edit your response. (“You know I can see you typing, right?” a friend recently said to me, as I fumbled over an answer for whether I was mad at her.)
There are the times when the iPhone has actually malfunctioned and you have just worked yourself into a rage for no reason, or the times you blindly convince yourself that it has. “I’ve found this self-delusion quite helpful,” said Sally Kohn, a political commentator.
Or there’s the text you want to pretend you haven’t read yet — but then find that your pocket has pressed against the cursor, which is now in the response tab and, damn, now he knows that you’ve seen it and your whole plan is foiled.
Laura Barganier, a public relations manager in New York, told me recently, “Sometimes I don’t want someone — O.K., likely a boy — to know I’m taking so long to write a text that I start a brand-new blank text and then copy and paste it in the original chain,”
“But don’t you wonder if he wonders how you typed so quickly?” I asked.
“I fake type for a few seconds,” she responded.
As Neal Bledsoe, an actor in Los Angeles, put it (over text message, naturally): “This is the new human condition. We’re all desperate for human connection, and all we get — after all that typing — is a paper-clip emoji.”