Blue tick

I’ve been thinking recently about my use of the bright handheld glass window to the Internets that I reflexively reach for, especially during moments where nothing’s happening. That’s an unhealthy instinct to have, because it means I spend less time present and engaged in the real world around me.

I go the gym with a friend almost every day. It’s a short journey, maybe five minutes at most. I often spend those five minutes talking to him, but also while staring into the abyss through the bright handheld glass window. Our conversation is basic at best a lot of the time as a result, and I struggle to help it.

I’ll catch myself thinking that I’m not paying enough attention and put the phone down, just to subconsciously pick it up again a short time later. I’m a crap friend for those few minutes because I’m addicted to the handheld glass window’s short-term dopamine generating abilities. That means I’m also addicted to the empty feeling and anxiety that drives me to pick it up again for the next hit, as a by-product.

So I’ve been thinking about how to change that, and find a usage pattern for it that means my phone is not my go-to filler activity, where my subconscious wants me to look at it to see if anything new has happened.

Social media apps were the first to go, since they sunk the most time. I’m not on Facebook — and haven’t been for almost a decade now, which is nicely fortuitous given the data access scandal happening at the time of writing — so I said goodbye to Instagram and Tweetbot and decided it was problem solved.

Surprisingly, I guess because my subconscious has the desire to look at the handheld glass window and check something, I just replaced Instagram and Twitter with checking WhatsApp to see if someone had messaged me. Because the notification system on iOS isn’t granular enough for me to express “block all notifications about new messages on WhatsApp except from these people”, a month or so ago I turned off notifications for WhatsApp entirely.

I found that when notified about a message on WhatsApp (and iMessage too), I was drawn in to noodling about on Instagram or Twitter after dealing with the message! With those two social media apps out of the way, instead I found myself picking up my phone and checking WhatsApp because it wouldn’t tell me if new messages were there. My anxiety had shifted to how WhatsApp’s delivery and read message notifications work.

By default, WhatsApp lets you see when someone’s online, when they were last online if they’re not now, when your message makes it to the network, when your message makes it to the recipient’s device, and then when the recipient reads it. The only thing you really need is that it was delivered to the device.

Online but hasn’t read your message? Has read your message but last seen 5 hours ago? Maybe it says more about me than anything else, but there’s nothing good in having to second guess how your recipient is dealing with what you’ve had to say, especially if the conversation is difficult in any way.

The tools you have to deal with it are poor. WhatsApp will let you turn off others being able to see when you were last online, if you’re offline, but they’ll still get instantaneous online/offline visibility. And while you can turn off read receipts (it affects both directions), so you don’t know if they’ve read it or not, you still get to imagine they’re online and might not have.

Don’t get me started on being able to see that someone is typing. My recipients shouldn’t be able to see that I am, and I don’t want to see if someone is, and there’s no way to disable that in both iMessage and WhatsApp.

So as it stands, I can’t get the combination of features that would remove my anxiety about looking at my preferred messaging app to see what’s going on. I just want to know if I got a message, controlled per-user.

I’d like to be able to control if people can see whether I’m online and typing, and I’d like that aforementioned per-user control over incoming message notifications, along with those being able to contribute to the unread messages count badge on the home screen. That way I’d get to hide everything that stresses me out, stay invisible on the network, and still let through notifications of new messages from the users I care most about.

I know it’s up to me when I pick up the bright handheld glass window, how I interact with it, and how long I spend doing so. I’m a human being with free will. It’s just the way the glass window toys with that interaction that feels unfair and causes usage anxiety, at least for me. Better controls over that would be very well received.