Read receipts

24th Jan, 2021

When I wrote about exploring Digital Minimalism, I overlooked the practice of turning off read receipts. This is something I was doing before I read Cal Newport’s book.

Turning off read receipts seems like a small thing: “who cares if they know when I read this?”

I started turning messaging read receipts off a couple of years ago: it’s had a positive impact on my experience of messaging apps.

On the occasions I’ve realised read receipts were on, perhaps in a new app, the relief I’ve felt in turning them off has been palpable.

Aside from this, there are the privacy considerations.

On by default

Most popular messaging apps turn read receipts on by default.

I can't stand breakfast. It's just constant eggs. I mean, why? Who decided?

This quote from Killing Eve sums up my feeling on this.

Apps where read receipts are on by default include:

It seems there’s no way to turn read receipts off for Facebook Messenger, Instagram direct messages or Telegram.

I’ll send read receipts if you send yours

One of the most insidious quirks of read receipts in messaging apps is the receipt quid pro quo. To receive read receipts, users normally have to enable read receipts on their own device.

Surely, the only thing that matters is whether a recipient is happy for the sender to know they’ve read the message?

I used to accept this on the basis that it seemed fair. Now I’ve had some distance from read receipts, it seems like a particularly weird ‘trade’.

Surely, the only thing that matters is whether a recipient is happy for the sender to know they’ve read the message? Why does a sender have to opt-in to also share when they’ve read messages?

I’m not interested in when someone reads a message of mine, so this isn’t a strange feature request.

Email can stalk you

Most messaging apps let users turn read receipts off. The same courtesy isn’t extended to email users.

Of course, privacy-focused email services will block read receipts, but there’s no standard method for users to opt-out.

This is an important topic as email read receipts are particularly invasive. Whereas messaging apps will report the read status and possibly time of reading, email tracking might also report the user’s location.

That’s just personal email. Most mailing list software enables all of this by default and often tracks every instance of an email being read and internal links being clicked.

Mike Davison’s writing on Superhuman demonstrated this in action. Superhuman rolled back some of the worst excesses of their email tracking, and they’re not a newsletter service, but this practice is still common in mailing lists and marketing emails.

In most cases, tracking continues even after a user unsubscribes.

Spying is convenient

I remember when I used to think it was convenient to know when a message was read.

Looking back, it was convenient. It was convenient for me as the sender, but not for the recipient.

It’s nosy and with little justification.

The business case

The world of work finds plenty of reasons to justify tracking users without their consent.

Common examples include enabling cookies for analytics or tracking users all over the web under the guise of improving the effectiveness of ads.

Ecommerce businesses in particular make extensive use of tracking in mailing lists. From open rates times and locations to link clicking.

They’re far from the only ones and the use cases can be subtle. For instance, consider accounting software that tells users when a client has seen an invoice.

For years, websites and services have collected all possible data, just because they can.

Opting out

When I start using a new messaging app, read receipts are one of the first things I look to disable. If you find yourself feeling pressure to reply, or you avoid opening messages so you don’t trigger a read receipt, I’d suggest doing the same.

I’d also recommend looking at email services that either block incoming read receipts or disrupt them. One of the ways we can individually effect change is by making the data useless.