Using Whatsapp and other similar messengers on my phone has been making me anxious for a long time now, but I could never quite figure out exactly what the problem was. Until now.
Due to being sick, I had a lot of free time these past few days, and out of nostalgia I started playing around with setting up an ICQ server, so I could use the old ICQ clients of my youth again (only to find out that nobody I know cares about using ICQ anymore, and so the only person I can connect with is myself… but that’s maybe a story for another day).
Anyway, that got me thinking about messengers in general, both then and now, on desktop and mobile, and how they have changed over the years. And there’s one key difference between the messengers on desktop vs the ones on mobile.
In the desktop messengers you can be offline.
All the messengers I’ve used (and still use) on the PC, whether it’s the old ones from the past like ICQ or MSN, but also Skype and even the equally terrible and ubiquitous Microsoft Teams allow the user to set their status to one of a few predetermined statuses (available, away, busy…) that is visible to their contact list. And all these programs naturally have the option to just be offline, either by disconnecting from the server or simply closing the application. And that’s visible to everyone else of course, so people know that texting someone won’t produce an immediate response, because that person is currently offline. Obviously.
But their mobile counterparts, the Whatsapps, Signals, Threemas, Telegrams etc. of the world don’t have this feature.
They are always connected, always online, always ready to receive messages. And there is no way to let the people in your contact list know that you are currently not available or that the app isn’t even online. There is simply no option for this. They are not designed to work in this way.
And that’s what’s causing me anxiety.
The fact that whether or not I’m currently using my phone, whether or not I have the phone with me, whether or not it is even turned on, my Whatsapp account always looks exactly the same to the people who have me in their contact list. There is simply no way to tell my contacts that I’m currently not available, that I’m busy, or that I’m disconnected. This functionality is not available, it’s not implemented and these messengers are not intended to be used in this way. They’re supposed to be always connected, always available and always listening for incoming messages.
And by implication, I am expected to always be available to read messages whenever they arrive, and to respond as soon as possible.
I would love to say that this is all in my head, that nobody expects me to immediatly respond to each and every message, but people do. Not out of malice of course, but I often get messages like “hey, I’m going for a walk right now, want to join me?” of “hey, you alright?” if I haven’t responded within a few hours, which shows me that the person on the other end does indeed expect an immediate response or at least would like to have one (and actually gets anxious and worried if they don’t receive one!). And subcousciously, this is having an effect on me because I feel obligated to constantly watch the phone for incoming messages and to respond as soon as I can.
A lot, if not all, of this anxiety would disappear or at least significantly diminish if Whatsapp gave me the option to let my contacts know that I’m not availably right now and that they shouldn’t expect an immediate response. Of course I can turn the phone off and then messages don’t get delivered, but that’s only evident to the other person after they texted me, because only one of the check marks shows up for the message, not two. But that would require people to actively monitor the state of the message they sent me, and at that point they already sent the message.
So what to do about this? I truly don’t know at this point. I wish I could just stop using Whatsapp, but I’m kind of trapped in there because a lot of people I know are on Whatsapp and just disappearing from there isn’t as easy as I would like it to be.
But at least now I know exactly where the problem lies, so I can start thinking about how to deal with it.
Post 014/100 of the 100DaysToOffload-Challenge