How the "Typing Awareness Indicator" Makes Online Chat More Awkward...And Better

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Until today, I was not aware that the "typing awareness indicator" had an official name. I would have described it as "that annoying thing where your friends on Gchat can see when you're typing." Facebook messages and iPhone texts also feature this inexplicable service. Why? Under what circumstances can typing awareness ever amount to any good? 

I'll tell you when it can't: When you're in the midst of a super serious or sexually-charged conversation. Maybe you start typing, get distracted by your dog, start typing again, have to change the terrible song that just came on Pandora, start typing again, get messaged by another friend... Meanwhile, all the person you're chatting with can see is that you "are typing" ... and typing ... and typing. Before you know it, it looks like you are seriously contemplating your words, writing a lengthy opus, or feeling unsure how to respond. "Was that the wrong thing to say????" a (cute, male) friend asked me the other day, after one such inadvertently hesitant typing spell. Awkward, Gchat. And what if I had been deliberately revising my response? Can't my own computer give me the courtesy of not broadcasting that? 

Though I've never much considered it before today, I think I hate the typing awareness indicator. And I am not alone. Drake Baer at Fast Company complains that it can turn a pregnant pause into something insidious. Because textual communication lacks in-person texture, "this forces us to read deeper into the scarcer information available," Baer writes. Suddenly "that ellipsis floating on your iMessage starts to feel even weirder" and more loaded. 

Ben Crair at New Republic calls the typing awareness indicator the most awkward part of online chat. "One of writing’s traditional advantages over speech is the time it affords you to collect your thoughts," Crair writes. "Text and instant messages, however, are eroding this advantage. We don’t correspond over text and instant messages, like we do in letters; we chat in quick informal exchanges, like we do face-to-face." 

Of course, in face-to-face communication it's easy to tell when someone is done speaking. Simply staring at a screen, however, makes it hard to know if the person you're chatting with is done with a sentence/story/line-of-thought. Are they still "talking," or waiting for you to say something? "If we eliminated the typing awareness indicator, we would struggle with online conversational turn-taking," Crair warns. 

So maybe, just maybe, typing awareness isn't all bad. But about that feature where friends can tell whether you've seen/read their messages yet ... 

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