Social Media & the Anxiety of "Seen" (Part 2)
Updated: Mar 7, 2020
This ended up being a lot more substantial than I had planned, so I have split this entry into two parts. Make sure you read the first part before proceeding with this one.
Okay, so I spent a lot of the first part of this talking about the history of social media and smartphones, and my experiences with it. What I want to focus on in this entry is the greater impact that modern social media, internet and smartphone usage is having on our culture, and the way that it affects our emotions. Let's break it down.
Before the internet, emails, telephones and even before letters - you were pretty much limited to face-to-face conversation. In a typical conversation with someone, it is considered incredibly odd, and rude, for someone to simply decide that they have had enough of the conversation and not respond. Social etiquette dictates that simply ignoring someone halfway through a conversation is disrespectful. Sure, you might want to get away from the conversation if it is going on too long, or it might reach a subject that you're not comfortable with, but the etiquette and subsequent "social consequences" of straight-up ignoring someone are in place to prevent that from happening. In order to avoid rudeness, you may find a reason to change the topic or to bring the conversation to a natural end. Either way, it rarely results in someone feeling slighted.
There is a similar, yet subtly different scenario when it comes to phone calls. Staying on the line but choosing not to respond to the person on the other end is indeed considered bizarre and rude. Although with phone calls, we do see a degree of separation - you're not physically next to the person you're calling so you can ultimately choose to hang up at any moment. They will likely attempt to call you back, but you have the power to choose not to. Whilst this is maybe not quite as rude as ignoring someone face-to-face, it's still a pretty obnoxious thing to do.
And then this brings us onto messaging. Sending someone a WhatsApp message, a Facebook message or a "DM" (which stands for direct message, by the way. Yep - I'm down with the kids) introduces another degree of separation. Not only are you now physically apart from the person, but you are no longer required to speak in real time. You can type out a message, taking as long as you like to formulate your response. In this way, I suppose messaging has more in common with writing a letter than it does to having a physical conversation. Anyway - when you send a message, most apps will now display a "seen" or "read" indicator at the bottom of the screen. This feature didn't always exist, especially back in the MSN days, but it is supported by most apps on mobile devices now. And let me tell you, I bloody hate it.
As someone who tends to overthink their own actions and replay awkward encounters in their head, messaging can be a nightmare. Not only have you been told when someone has seen your reply and elected not to respond, but your whole conversation history is there; a permanent record of your entire correspondence thus far. A Hansard report of your every quip and every comment, there to be overanalysed to the point where you've convinced yourself that something you said caused the other person to lose interest in talking to you altogether. Of course, they do usually respond, and you feel stupid for ever doubting yourself. But, that is not to say that there are times where they don't respond.
I had a conversation recently with a friend (shout-out to Tom) about this, and the imbalance of power caused by this. As mentioned earlier, if you choose to ignore someone face-to-face, you're the bad guy. You're being a dick. But when you're messaging someone, especially someone you may not see in person that often, they can choose to never reply to you and all of a sudden, you've convinced yourself that you're the bad guy because of something you said that ruined the conversation.
All of these new forms of communication have come to be within the last hundred or so years of human existence - a relatively minuscule amount of time. I don't believe that we as human beings are psychologically prepared for this bizarre "game" that is played when you're messaging someone. Never before in our social history as a species have we had to sit around in this awkward anxiety-inducing limbo, unsure that we are going to get a response to a simple conversation beat.
I guess what I'm saying, if I'm saying anything, is that if you suffer from what I am dubbing the anxiety of "seen", that's completely fine. Our brains weren't designed to wallow in limbo while we wonder whether the person we're talking to is ever going to reply. The social etiquette in this uncharted digital territory is vague and undefined, and there are currently no ramifications for anyone who leaves you on "seen". They get away scott-free.
So next time you're worrying about whether someone is going to reply, try not to be too hard on yourself. They may genuinely be busy, or have forgotten to reply. Don't be too pushy, and just take it easy. Do something else instead of reading through your entire conversation thread, and if they don't reply - hey, it's their loss.