Meet the Man Who Created the Dreaded “Is Typing…” Feature, Our Collective Messaging Anxiety

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Young working with his laptop

You made a joke. You asked a question. You worked up your courage and kind of Gchat-propositioned that girl you emailed with about a sofa on Craigslist once three years ago. And now that person is typing. Which you know, because Gchat tells you that person is typing. What are they typing? Why is it taking them so long to type? Have they stopped typing? Now they’re typing again. This was a yes-or-no question what is taking so long? As we’ve lamented before, the “[Person] is typing…” feature on Gchat can be agonizing.

And the person to thank is David Auerbach. At Slate, the man who pioneered the feature/is responsible for our collective crippling anxiety explains how and why he ruined our lives. Or didn’t, depending on your perspective — as a person who is constantly anxious, knowing whether or not someone is typing is just a drop in the bucket. According to Auerbach, the whole thing got started back when he was working on Microsoft’s MSN Messenger Service. At the time, chat was just getting started. People needed some indicator of when it was their turn to talk, and “[Person] is typing” did that. Also, he points out, internet connections were iffier then, and knowing someone was typing was, if nothing else, an indicator that they were still online. And people liked it. It was popular enough that other messaging services picked it up, too. It became the standard.

These days, Gchat does it. iMessage does it. Facebook does it hardcore, letting you know when someone has seen your message. There’s even a new-ish Gmail app called Streak that will inform your nearest and dearest when you’ve opened their emails. There are now so many ways to know in exactly what phase of responding to you someone is in — Reading? Typing? Ignoring?

Auerbach gets it. He understands the anxiety he’s caused — in his own words, his feature lets you know “something is going on, but leaves you to wonder what it is. It builds up the anticipation for a profound response only to disappoint you with the inevitable banality of what your friend actually says.” Yes! And that’s not even addressing the very concerning point that if you can see when your friend/boss/crush is typing, then they can also see when you are typing. Really, it took you 45 seconds to produce “haha k”?

He longs for the halcyon days of a Unix program called “talk,” where you and your chatting partner could talk simultaneously — and also see each other typing simultaneously, in real time. According to him, that was great, since it was “more like an actual conversation, except even more efficient.” And it took focus — mostly, it seems, to decipher the huge and confusing blocks of mixed-up text. As a bad speller and easily confused person, I personally find this horrifying, but I get where he’s coming from.

That said: I am a big fan of the “[Person] is typing” feature and its ilk. I like knowing that the person exists and that, probably, they will eventually laugh at my joke. I like knowing that my message was read, because then I know whether I can justifiably be mad at someone. Also, some things — like “I bought limes, so we don’t need more” and “I’m five minutes away!” — don’t require a response. A notification of receipt does just fine. I will obsess pretty much whatever I do, so for me, more info to worry about is just another good activity for Saturday.

If you’re more in the rather-not-know camp, though, there are solutions — sort of. While there’s no way out of Gchat’s “[Person] is typing” feature and Facebook is hopeless, you can take steps to block both Streak (by turning off remote image loading, the means by which Streak knows if you read your mail) and iMessage (by turning off read receipts). I’ll resent you for it, but you might be happier.