In the early ’90s, five Israeli developers realized that most non-Unix users had no easy way to send instant messages to one another. The terminal was reserved for power users, and well-designed software applications with a user-friendly GUI were still rare. They got together and started working on a cross-platform messaging client for Windows and Mac and gave it the catchy name ICQ (“I seek you”).

It didn’t take long before early versions of ICQ had most of the features we take for granted in today’s instant messaging apps:

ICQ Version 99a

With ICQ 99a, the platform featured conversation history, user search, contact list grouping, and the iconic “uh-uh” sound that played whenever you received a message. Within a very short time, ICQ amassed millions of users during a time when global internet traffic was a fraction of what it is today.

One of the critical challenges during this period was that users weren’t online at all times. During the age of 56K dial-in modems, chat rooms could feel like hanging out at an empty bar. The team came up with an ingenious and deceptively simple concept for users to let others know when they were available to chat: the online status.

The online status was the first widespread instance in digital communication of users giving up a tiny bit of privacy to make a service more engaging and useful. It all started as a seemingly win-win situation: By turning your online status into something that’s shared and visible to everyone in your contacts, it made your computer a less lonely place.

When you signed on to the service, your friends would immediately get notified. As a result, most users found themselves chatting to someone within minutes. The product’s engagement increased, and the issue of lonely chat rooms soon became a thing of the past.

While ICQ was taking the internet by storm, others quickly took notice and an array of messaging platforms started popping up.

MSN Messenger on Windows XP

The most infamous alternative to ICQ was MSN Messenger. Microsoft Messenger included all the features that defined ICQ’s success. The press release even emphasized the online status as one of its key features: “MSN Messenger Service tells consumers when their friends, family, and colleagues are online and enables them to exchange online messages and email with more than 40 million users.”

In 2001, Messenger became the single most used online messaging service in the world. With over 230 million unique users, the platform’s quick rise soon led to new challenges.

As the MSN user base increased, more users lamented that they didn’t feel like they were in control. Upon logging on to the service, they immediately got pinged by people they didn’t necessarily want to talk to. The problem of lonely chat rooms was effectively replaced with a new problem: How can users be in control of who they want to talk to?

For many, not replying wasn’t a viable option as they felt guilty about ignoring incoming texts. It soon became clear that the automatic sign-in and public online status wasn’t without its flaws.

Microsoft’s response was to introduce a new feature that enabled users to “appear” offline. With this small change, users gained back some level of control over how openly they shared their online activity. It wasn’t all perfect, though.

Every change involving micro-privacy has a counter-reaction that can go from barely noticeable, to harmful, to downright problematic.

In its wake, the offline status left behind a trail of paranoia that gave rise to tools that allowed users to screen whether friends had blocked them. These third-party tools encouraged anyone to become a cyberspace Sherlock Holmes and check in on their contacts’ statuses.

As we will see, this is a common chain of events in the realm of messaging. Every change involving micro-privacy has a counterreaction that can go from barely noticeable, to harmful, to downright problematic. So what is micro-privacy?

When I say micro-privacy, I’m referring to the small nuggets of information that reveal something about a user’s online activity.

What characterizes micro-privacy is that a minimal amount of information can have huge repercussions on product engagement, user behavior, and well-being.

In simple terms, design teams can build more engaging products by reducing privacy on two ends: either between the provider and its users or among the users themselves. We spend a lot of time worrying about the former, but almost completely neglect the latter.

Let’s have a closer look through another example that might feel strangely familiar.

Microsoft was in trouble. Their platform gained a lot of traction but one of the things that kept plaguing the early versions of MSN was flaky internet connections. When two users talked to one another, you could never tell whether the person you were talking to was still there, whether they went away, or whether their connection had simply timed out. Sometimes sending a message felt like sending it into a vortex. You never knew whether you were going to get something back.

In order to better set expectations, the chat community developed a linguistic toolbox to let others know when they might not respond immediately. As a result, chat rooms of the early 2000s were full of acronyms like AFK (away from keyboard) and BRB (be right back).

Then a team of engineers at Microsoft came up with a genius micro-interaction that would redefine the psychology of messaging as we know it forever.

In order to set expectations and make conversations feel more engaging, the team introduced what they called the typing indicator. Every time users started writing a message, it sent a signal to the server that would in turn inform the person on the other end that the user was typing. This was a massive technical bet considering the cost of server space. Around 95% of all MSN traffic was not the content of the messages itself, but simple bits of data that would trigger the iconic dots to show up and disappear!

Karen is typing…

From an engagement model perspective, the typing indicator flipped all the right behavioral switches that got people hooked. Every time someone started typing, it created anticipation followed by a variable reward. Today, this is a well-researched area in psychology that serves as a foundation for anyone attempting to build addictive products.

The typing indicator elegantly solved what the team had set out to solve. But it also did a bit more than that. Apart from increased engagement, it also single-handedly introduced a whole new level of emotional nuance to online communication. This seemingly small detail inadvertently conveyed things no message by itself ever could. Picture this scenario:

Bob: “Hey Anna! It was so great to meet you. Would you like to go out for a drink tonight?”

Anna: Starts typing…

Anna: Stops typing…

Anna: Starts typing again…

Anna: “Sure!”

How convinced is Anna really? You might have experienced it yourself: The angst of prolonged typing indicators followed by a short response or even worse—nothing! Bob might have been happier if he hadn’t observed Anna’s typing pattern. But he did. And now he wonders how such a tiny animation can have such a profound impact on how he feels.

It turns out, Bob isn’t alone. It didn’t take long before users started coming up with strategies and hacks to regain control over their micro-privacy and online activity, from typing their message into a document and then copy/pasting it over, to first thinking hard before even attempting to write something.

This problem gets further exacerbated in modern applications that involve group chat, always-on messaging services, and dating apps. But this was still before the iPhone came along to change the internet as we know it.

Today, typing indicators are ubiquitous. And while we can’t argue that it made messaging more useful, it also made it more addictive by playing an innocent but powerful sleight of hand: We were handed an exciting pair of cards, at the cost of someone observing us from the other side.

Of course, this wasn’t the last time we happily played along.

Divorce lawyers in Italy know something that you and I don’t. But it first took a shift in technology for them to get to that insight. That shift kicked off in late 2007, when we went from a type of internet we used at home and at the office to the type of internet that was with us at all times.

The introduction of the iPhone marked a technical leap that affected every aspect imaginable in computing and with it, every aspect of society.

When former Yahoo! engineers Brian Acton and Jan Koum tried the iPhone for the first time, they immediately saw huge potential in the device and its App Store model. They started working on a new type of messaging app that included an online status as part of the core messaging experience. They gave it a catchy and memorable name — WhatsApp — to sound like the colloquial “what’s up?” everyone is familiar with.

Growth was relatively slow and the two almost decided to give up on their venture. That changed when Apple introduced a new service that almost instantly catapulted their brainchild to the top of the App Store: the push notification system. With that, their user base shot up to 250,000 in no time.

There were a couple of things that made WhatsApp different and attractive. First, it sent messages over the internet so users no longer had to pay for every single SMS. Second, it reintroduced the online status that had originally been developed during a time of chat rooms and flaky internet connections over a decade earlier. And third, it featured the infamous typing indicator we’ve all come to love. All these things combined made WhatsApp feel lightyears ahead of any traditional SMS application of its time.

Today, WhatsApp has more than a billion users and it’s the preferred way of sending messages in many countries all around the world. One of those countries is — you guessed it — Italy!

According to Gian Ettore Gassani — president of the Italian Association of Matrimonial Lawyers — WhatsApp messages sent by cheating spouses play an integral role in 40% of Italian divorce cases citing adultery, writes Rachel Thompson from Mashable.

The thing that often led to those deeply troublesome insights? The “last seen online” indicator. Unlike the traditional online status of the early 2000s, “last seen” added a new level of insight to written chat: The exact time someone last used WhatsApp.

Last seen online indicator (WhatsApp illustration)

Like any service that turned the knob on micro-privacy, the outcome was predictable—high user engagement at the cost of reduced user-to-user privacy.

What does it mean when your spouse was last seen online at 4:30 in the morning? Why would someone not pick up the phone minutes after they had just been seen online? How come your secret crush and your best friend always seem to be online at the same time—coincidence?

Coincidence or not, users decided to start doing something about it to get their micro-privacy back. In very little time, the internet lit up with tons of articles and tutorials both through written and step-by-step video instructions. These tutorials ranged from creating a fake last-seen status, to freezing the time display, to disabling it altogether.

The last seen “feature” had such strong psychological impact on users that some started referring to it as Last Seen Syndrome (LSS). In her research about how WhatsApp impacts youth, Anshu Bhatt notes “This app has been found to be highly addictive, which leaves a trace that becomes difficult to control.” The myriad of articles offering advice on how to control privacy, limit time spent in the app, and outsmart the last seen indicator further offers a glimpse into the challenges many users are facing today.

And just when it seemed there wasn’t any more micro-privacy we would willingly disclose, there was still one tiny area that went largely overlooked…

Replying late to incoming texts or emails used to be simple: A short “only saw this now” was good enough to get back to someone without any feeling of guilt or fear of retaliation. Today, we’re all in need of a better alibi.

It was again a seemingly small “detail” that deeply reshaped our experience and expectations toward one another. Like many of the ideas we’ve discussed so far, this one too can be understood as loosely inspired by technology that was invented decades earlier. In this case, it was email.

Manually entering an email address was (and still is) an error-prone process. The idea of sending messages digitally was both novel and hard to grasp. Upon hitting the send button, users had very little information as to whether their message was delivered, pending, or aborted. To offer more transparency and make email more understandable, Delivery Status Notifications (DSN) were introduced. Through DSN, users gained more insight into what happened to their message after hitting the send button.

Fast forward 30 years and the industry keeps solving similar problems, but in a slightly different context and a slightly different moment in computing history.

In 2011, Apple introduced iMessage. What made iMessage different from its predecessor was that it seamlessly migrated users from sending messages through the traditional SMS protocol, to sending them over the web. This set the foundation needed for iMessage to evolve beyond a simple text messaging app.

Among the many newly introduced changes was an inconspicuous “feature” that quickly became known as one of the most contentious and controversial moves in the messaging space: read receipts.

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