Sunday, 16 November 2014

Saw it, Read it: New WhatsApp feature changed the way we participated in a conversation


whatsapp-mainThe world changed overnight for you, if you are a WhatsApp user. One of the most used instant messaging application in the world, last week it introduced a new feature. If you now send a message on WhatsApp, you can see when the recipient reads your message. Moving from its two-tick interface, where the first tick was to indicate that the message has successfully been composed and the second to show that it has been delivered, WhatsApp now also tells you when your message gets read, by offering two blue tick marks. Ironically, the feature was introduced silently, without much fanfare, while you were sleeping, and without any upgrade announcements.

For those of us who have been using Facebook Messenger and can put two and two together, this should not have been that surprising. Now that WhatsApp belongs to Facebook’s social networking empire, it was only a matter of time that this feature, which has been around on Facebook Messenger, would be integrated into WhatsApp as well. And yet, the social media world did rise in fury, surprise, and jocular dismay at the implementation of this feature. Tweets about how this would only encourage more stalkerish behaviour flooded Tweetosphere. Facebook updates showed creative ways of overcoming this integration. One of my friends suggested that you can still read the messages in the notification bar and avoid opening it through the app, thus not giving the sender the pleasure of a blue-tick. Social media experts set out to create new hacks which would allow you to opt out of this particular system.
In all this, you have to wonder why such a simple additional feature would cause so much anxiety. The answers might be many, and all of them wrong, but it is a telling tale of the nature of our conversations online. While applications like WhatsApp are fantastic for the world of social connectivity they produce, it is fair to admit that most of the information exchanged is banal. Pictures of cute cats, the never-ending state of juvenile humour, viral memes, embarrassing personal pictures and videos, scandalous gossip, unfounded rumours, and furious late-night sexting would sum up about 90 per cent of the traffic on it. Or, in other words, WhatsApp follows the same logic that all social media does — it proves to us that at the pinnacle of our informational evolution, what we have really mastered is the art of being boring.
And it is the uselessness and futility of information that comes to us from friends we care for, family members we love, communities and groups we belong to, that increases the anxiety around the blue tick marks. Till now, we could either just delete the noise that enters our WhatsApp inbox and pretend that it never existed. Or when at lunch, your next door colleague asks you about the hilarity he forwarded to you — the message involving two bottles of cream and a hippo — you could just put on your “I am very important and busy” face and pretend that you had never seen that message, thus avoiding the cringe-worthy conversation that was sure to ensue.
The blue ticks are now a glaring indictment that you have seen. It is a confirmation of our participation in conversations that we would much rather avoid. We cannot stop people from sending us messages that they think might interest us. Out of love, respect, or the fear of social confrontation, we might keep on binning them, and never reply. But the blue ticks are a conversation trigger. It tells that we have read, and thus, almost expects an answer. A fake LOL, a stock sticker, or even a polite “please stop sending me this stuff” is now expected. They generate so much anxiety because it now marks us as people who join the bandwagon of banality that we silently suffer on social media, but have had the joy of pretending that we do not actively participate. However, our act of reading is now recognised as an activity, marked, traced, remembered and time-stamped, and there is no more escaping the social media pressure of joining the madness. Give in. Make that video. Share that meme. Stalk your pet and children to get that one crazy picture. Resistance is futile.