The iPhone is 10 years old, which means, if I am being totally honest with you, that I do not remember a time in which it didn’t exist. However, I do remember a time in which I didn’t have one! In the summer of 2014, I moved to New York City for an internship at a now-defunct literary magazine run out of an apartment in Washington Heights, and I still had a generic, sliding camera phone. I looked up directions to any place that I needed to go on Google Maps on my laptop before I left the house and took photos of them.
To be honest, my life was fine. Who cares? If you get a little lost in New York City, whatever. It’s like being in a Lorde song or a 30-minute dramedy, and afterwards maybe you have a good story. My life now — iPhone included — doesn’t involve extreme time-wasters such as walking 45 blocks to get on a train, but it does involve something worse: a lot more passive-aggression. It’s hard to believe I used to wander around this city, subway map in hand, completely unaware that people were using sleek little rectangles to absolutely bludgeon each other with subtle but pointed cruelties.
Passive-aggression is horrible to experience and a constant temptation to dole out, and the little device that’s 10 years old this week is responsible for many of the ways we do both in the modern age.
Perhaps the most trivially controversial invention of this generation, aside from the selfie stick, which only truly offends people who are innately miserable and rude, is iMessage’s automatically enabled “read receipts.” If you don’t disable read receipts on your iPhone, as you know, it allows any person who sends you a text to see exactly when you read it. If human beings were basically good and generally respected each other, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. You would read the text and then you would respond to the text and the receipt would be useless anyway because your response would signal that you had read the text. But human beings are not basically good and, they have no respect at all, so now we have the term “leaving me on read,” which means someone is ignoring you and wants you to know it. It doesn’t feel good.
Even in relationships and friendships that are comfortable and secure, it’s easy to make the mental leap from “they didn’t respond because they’re doing something” to “they didn’t respond because they’re sick of me.”
Last summer, psychotherapist and “relationship expert” Lisa Brateman told Broadly that the decision about whether to turn on read receipts reflects on you as a person, as it’s an indication of how much control you need to have over your interactions.
That explains all of the unsettling and scary blog posts I was able to find, written by college students, laying out the ways in which they use read receipts as a weapon of passive-aggression and thereby manipulate their friends and lovers.
On the blog Total Frat Move last spring, one young man wrote “If a girl says she can’t meet at 2 a.m. and suggests Saturday night at 8, the ‘Read’ is me telling her exactly what I’m looking for in a relationship. Turning on the read receipt lets you say everything you want with no words at all.” This entire post made me want to cry.
For Odyssey Online, two college students wrote similar, if less horrifying posts. In 2015: “Read-receipting someone’s message is equivalent to the silent treatment… I even know people who normally don’t have their read receipts on, but still turn them on when they are in an argument with someone just so they can read-receipt them.” In 2016: “I’m not going to be that childish person who is going to ignore someone and torture them by making them wonder if I am actually ignoring them or if I simply havent read the message. If I am going to ignore you, I want it to be blatantly clear that I am[.]”
Somehow, this is socially acceptable behavior. I said “somehow,” but I know how — the iPhone. A game-changing device, to be sure.
“Just saw your text”
The iPhone, as the device that introduced the concept of relying on your cellphone for everything you do — listening to music, checking the weather, ordering food, making appointments, scanning Twitter for train delays, logging workouts, tracking your period, picking out a digital baseball card of a stranger and going on dates with it — has guaranteed that everyone has their phones on them at all times.
This is related to the read receipt, which is in some ways irrelevant now that we assume every text is read instantly. It is not plausible, in the age of the iPhone, to say that you “just saw” someone’s text 18 hours later, or argue that you managed to go three days without noticing that they left you a voicemail. Did you take eight consecutive acid trips? Did you get stuck on a chairlift just as the ski resort was closing for several days? Get real!
When someone says “just saw your text,” do you ever believe them? Do you ever think, “This person probably doesn’t really care that I know they’re lying, and that makes me a little sad?” It is meaner to respond to a text days later than it is to ignore it completely, and for that we have only the omnipresent gadget to thank.
The typing bubble
Apple’s “typing awareness indicator,” better known as the “typing bubbles,” serve essentially the same function as a read receipt but are endlessly more complicated. There are byzantine rules as to when they appear and for how long, and it was only today that I learned that the typing bubbles appear for a full 60 seconds after you stop typing, so long as you leave the text there and don’t hit send.
One of the never-fail ways to communicate complicated feelings in movies of old — for example, movies from before 2007 — was to show a character picking up a phone, dialing a number, puffing out their lips, then hanging up. It was such torture for that one person, and no one else except the audience.
Now, if you’re toying with the idea of speaking to somebody, and typing out a message to them, they will see those little bubbles pop up and know and it will be a fraught time for both of you. And if you’re in the mood to twist the knife you can read a high-stakes text, consider it, start typing a response — knowing full well that the bubbles are being monitored closely — then stop, put your phone down, walk away, and drink a seltzer. The cold, carbonated tingle on your tongue will be an appropriate parallel to the brief flutter of your icy, vindictive heart.
All the other tiny, terrible things
You can also send a text that’s just the word “k” if you want someone to guess that you’re mad. Or you can end a sentence in a period. Or you can refuse to respond with anything but emoji, and none of these things are explicitly the fault of the iPhone itself, but it’s hard to argue that we’d be where we are without it. iMessage, and its touchscreen keyboard, made texting easier and faster and made one-letter responses sharper and colder. The emoji keyboard made sending a premade little face a cop-out instead of something that took time and creativity to make happen with the standard signs and symbols on your device. Ending a sentence with a period became a more obviously deliberate choice after punctuation was relocated from directly under your thumbs to a separate on-screen menu.
Apple is also a leading innovator in sarcastic trolling. And with the introduction of iOS 10 last year, I discovered the quiet thrill of shouting “congrats!” at anybody I was annoyed with, then watching animated confetti rain down over their messages. This is almost too passive to qualify as passive-aggression, and functions solely to add one more candle to the shrine I have built to my own bitterness. Isn’t it amazing how many ways there are to feel shitty and make others feel shitty in the modern age?
You can also do nice things: text a Spotify or Apple Music embed as a bedtime tune for someone. FaceTime a distant friend. Send your sister a Zayn Malik iMessage sticker every 20 minutes. But I bet a lot of what you do is the bad stuff.