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The Problematic Rise of Read Receipts in Social Media

The final presenter at "Compromised Data" is Kamilla Pietrzyk, whose interest is in the user experience of social media platforms which provide read receipts - as in Facebook chat, iMessage, or Snapchat. Very little research has been done about this so far, but there is growing unease about this functionality, which notifies the sender of a message that the message was opened and (presumably) read.

Email offers this functionality as well, but here the read receipt is a per-case opt-in facility; recipients can choose not to send read receipts as they read the email. Underlying this, though, there are also message delivery notifications in email, which confirm that the email was delivered to the recipient's mailserver, although this does not guarantee that the recipient themself will have read the message.

On Blackberry Messenger, this has been transformed into an always-on read receipt indicator, known by its distractions as the "Dirty R". What's more, Jailbreak functionality which enabled users to bypass this functionality in previous BBM versions has now been disabled in the latest versions, including the new iOS app. A variety of other email tracking applications also exist as add-ones to existing email platforms; these track when emails are opened or links in emails are clicked on (mainly by including invisible fingerprinted images that are downloaded from an external server as the email is being viewed).

In other platforms, like iMessage, delivery and read receipts are built in by default, but read receipts can be disabled in the settings (the feature used to be opt-in in previous versions). There is also a selective read receipt jailbreak. Snapchat, by contrast, is a photosharing application whose major feature is that sent pictures disappear automatically a set number of second after they are viewed (this can be circumvented with screenshots, however, and the app alerts senders when screenshots are being taken). Snapchat now serves 28% of all photo uploads, apparently.

Facebook groups also offer read receipt functionality, which is seen as making group administration and content design more efficient; Facebook messenger similarly offers such functionality. This creates expectations and anxieties around the obligations to respond, and some browser extensions now disable this kind of automatic read receipt creation.

Such functionality can be linked to the drive towards greater efficiency and speed of information exchange in contemporary capitalism; it decentralises surveillance to the level of individual users, and thus puts additional pressure on users to reciprocate as they receive incoming messages. This is also in the interests of the platform providers, whose business models are built around increasing user impressions.

Facebook's developers say they merely model their tech development after how human communication has always operated - so in spite of significant resistance from users, they claim that this experience is more lifelike.