Read Receipts: The Bane of Modern Love

Love and Sex

Read Receipts: The Bane of Modern Love

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When time was young, my grandmother, aged 17, used to send letters filled with hopes and dreams to my grandfather. Once, when he was travelling for work and couldn’t reply to her in time, she pondered for months over the contents of her last letter. She went through every word she had written in painstaking detail. He eventually replied, they were soon married, and they lived happily ever after (until her death six years ago).

I often imagine what their initial conversation on a modern-day messaging platform would have unfolded. It might have gone something like this:

Grandma: I sent you a letter!!

Grandma: Did you get it, yo?

Grandma: Dude, I can see that you were online 30 minutes ago. Why aren’t you reading my messages?

Grandma: Dude, you’ve read them and still not replied. This is so over! I’m dumping your ass! </3

Read receipts and last-seen statuses are the bane of modern relationships and they’re everywhere: as blue ticks on WhatsApp, “Seen” messages on Facebook and “Opened” on Snapchat. As if relationships weren’t already complicated enough, loaded with simple questions freighted with meaning, our phones have really gone and really fucked things up. For instance, imagine receiving a WhatsApp request to go out for a drink. Is it a spontaneous display of the requester’s attraction? Is it an elaborate, if well-established, mating dance? Is it just an attempt to hang for a spare evening without any deeper motive? Or just a stab at networking? In this already fecund ground, read receipts timestamps come and sow the fertiliser of doubt.

In our highly digitised world, the reply time to a text is emblematic of the power dynamic in every relationship.

A read receipt is the closest – and least invasive – method that science has devised for us to gauge another human’s evaluation of our awesomeness or the lack of it. It’s the clearest indication, a litmus test of whether a person wants to deal with us or not. After all, a late or non-reply is the difference between whether or not you’ll end up making babies with your Tinder match. And the time between a read receipt and a reply from the other person allows us to indulge in some low-key masochism.

If things are going right, read-receipt symbols are a comforting space like a lover’s embrace. But when things are going wrong, these notifications become a mental evaluation of your self-worth, an analysis of your character, every life decision you’ve ever made and every emoji you’ve sent. The highs and lows of a relationship in these technology-addled times are dizzying – and at the end of it, both parties realise they’ve spent most of their time breathing into a paper bag.

In our highly digitised world, the reply time to a text is emblematic of the power dynamic in every relationship. Sometimes it even defines them, making it the perfect metric to study the balance in a relationship. Those who hold the power in a relationship know what to do with the read receipt. Simply ignore it. For immensely powerful species with balls of steel, not responding to seen messages is a personal power trip. It lets people know their communication has been received but that the recipient is too busy to respond, or that their communication does not deserve a response (Sir/Lady, whoever you are, you deserve a standing ovation).

And then there are those who succeed in switching off read receipts. They’re the savants, the dreamers of dreams. The round pegs in square holes. The noble souls who never joined the blatant exhibitionism of techno muscle-flexing. People who efficiently slide in-and-out of our DMs.

To them, I doff my miserable hat. In this world of rampant unhappiness, they are the only happy ones. They are also probably the only reason we’re still cruising ahead as a species, a full five years after the invention of read receipts. The rest of us might not live long enough – we’ll likely die of anxiety.