t’s Sunday morning, and I’ve awoken to a grand total of 393 red notification badges invading my impeccably organized iPhone home screen. In other words, my day is already weighed down by anxiety and feelings of social guilt, and I haven’t even made it out of bed yet.
To be clear, the absurd number of notifications I have is not a result of my popularity (the most exciting thing I did this weekend was visit my housemate’s office to borrow her keys after locking myself out of our house again). Around 300 of them are likely emails from Net-A-Porter reminding me not to forget the items I abandoned in my basket during a fantasy shopping spree. But still, 93 messages from friends, family and various group chats remain, and it’s making me feel a bit sick.
Many a meme about what it feels like to be temporarily ghosted by an unresponsive friend populates the internet. The dreaded blue WhatsApp ticks that confirm a message has apparently been ignored are now regarded as one of the worst social media snubs to endure. But while the desire to receive a response to messages instantly seems widespread, so does the growing urge to use technology mindfully. These are conflicting interests. How can we learn to disentangle our lives from notifications if we can’t let it slide when our friends attempt to do exactly the same thing?
In 2014, an average of 18.7 billion texts were sent each day according to Text Request, while the daily amount of messages sent on other apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp accumulated to more than 60 billion. I can hardly imagine how much those numbers have skyrocketed in the past four years. Meanwhile, a recent survey published by the American Psychiatric Association reveals that 39 percent of adults believe they are more anxious than they were last year, and another study by NCBI found that people feel more addicted to their phones every year. But does any of this come as a surprise when many of us are expected to drop everything to reply to a work email on a Saturday morning, answer an Instagram DM the moment we’ve read it, or respond to a meme a friend texted at whatever odd hour? “OMG, hahahahaha, so me!” I frantically type back, straight-faced, robotically fulfilling my duty as a virtual friend.
In-app features like read receipts and bubbles that indicate someone’s typing are no doubt meant to aid technology in mimicking real-time conversation. But thanks to the sheer volume of messages that people send and receive and the unbridled accessibility smartphones now permit, it’s important to remember the difference between the two. It may be human nature to both want and expect a response straight away — that’s how conversations have historically always worked — but being glued to our phones all day to ensure that happens isn’t a tenable solution.
Over drinks the other day, my friend began to experience what I can only describe as mild panic at the thought of replying to someone who’d just sent him a text. He really didn’t want to talk to the person at the time, but he knew if he took too long to reply, the person would be angry. I watched him approach tears over the hypothetical exchange, and I was unable to convince him that a response could wait until the next morning. That’s when I realized that, for many people, social lives moderated through screens have usurped the conversations often happening right in front of them. And it’s not due to a lack of courtesy or a disinterest in reality; it’s down to fear.
My personal response window can stretch from around two minutes to two weeks, and up until recently, I translated this as my own inadequacy to stay on top of social demands. But when almost everyone I know feels exactly the same way, isn’t that a sign of a larger problem? The more I appreciate how much modern life expects of us, the more I believe that showing the people in our lives patience and understanding when they seemingly drop off the radar for a while should be the standard, empathetic practice.
In the days following my conversation with my panicked friend, I decided I wasn’t going to feel guilty anymore. If I received a message when I was engaged in something else, or simply wanted to be alone, I would no longer give a half-hearted response just for the sake of it, or make myself feel bad for waiting to reply at a time when I felt more practically or emotionally available. There are times when I just want to get through an entire chapter of a book without having to pause every few paragraphs to respond to my friend who wants to know if she should buy the dress she just saw at Zara. Or just laze around my house without constantly picking up my phone to make sure I’m not letting anyone down by simply existing without being available to chat. Can’t I just be in peace?
As we learn to navigate the increasingly hyper-augmented social world that we live in, I think it’s worth recognizing the value in reclaiming real, genuine alone time. Enjoying quiet Sundays undisturbed by the demands of DMs doesn’t make me a criminal, nor should it make me feel like one. The messages will still be there when I’m feeling more social, so until then, I’d like to reserve the right to put my chats on mute, and grant others the same privilege. If we don’t start rewriting the rules and redrawing the boundaries now, when will we?
Gif by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.