Love in the Time of iMessage

How Apple changed the way we date.

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Jun 29 2017, 1:00pm

Image: Chris Kindred/Motherboard

Motherboard staff is exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along.

Dating these days kind of sucks. There's ghosting, negging, juggling five different apps. It's a hard life.

But this isn't about those things, exactly. It's about the medium that so many of us rely on to date—iMessage. The ever-evolving messaging app from Apple has long been one of the best we have. And iMessage's design has had a significant impact on the way we communicate, and build (or destroy), relationships.

Like many subtle parts of dating—choice of liquor, deciding who pays the bill—iMessage has become a status symbol. You might've heard the horror stories of people getting bullied, or ignored because they have the lowly green bubbles of a non-Apple phone, instead of the nice, rounded blue iMessages.

Last year, technology reporter Michael Nunez even said that he was switching phones because he felt he needed iMessage. "You don't know what if feels like to question your digital identity over something so minute," he wrote, partly in jest. "Sorry, Android. But after about a decade, our love affair is over. I'm single, I'm ready to mingle, and I'm a green bubble no more."

It's not just Apple snobbery that makes iMessaging, and the people who use it, more desirable. I asked my friend Pavani Yalla, a leader experience designer at Second Story, to describe why the design elements that Apple employs here are so addictive.

She pointed to bubble effects, full screen animations and digital touch, geared toward younger users. The ability to react to messages with hearts and thumbs up signs are similar to the social media platforms we spend hours on already—similar to Facebook likes.

"What I love about iMessage is that the interface keeps the most important feature front and center: the text messages," Yalla told me. "No matter how many updates the app has undergone over the years, this remains true."

While much of iMessage looks like other messaging platforms, several features have had a particular impact on the way we date. Like the animated dots ("...") that indicate that someone is typing, and the optional (and insane, in my opinion) read receipts, which confirm that somebody has seen your message.

It's these elements that often take a simple conversation and inject it with incredible amounts of anxiety, frustration and self doubt in the dating realm. And that happens in part because text messaging leaves lots of room for misunderstanding.

"Particularly when one person or the other wants it to be more than friendship, you don't have much information to go on other than response time," said Jeremy Birnholtz, a researcher who studies human-computer interaction issues and text messaging at Northwestern University. "And you're going to read into everything."

Birnholtz walked me through some of the most important issues associated with texting and dating—ones that most of my friends and I have encountered and dissected over the years as we navigate the strange world of technological courtship.

People do things through text messaging that they wouldn't do in person, but the kind of person they are still fuels the way they text.

The "..." for example, might be annoying because you don't want someone to watch you type and edit a text you're sending until the tone is perfect. But it also makes it easier to speak in short bursts, instead of sending a full statement or plan.

Some of the tension is a new manifestation of age-old dating anxiety: waiting for a response, for example, or trying not to seem overeager. But our frustrations with texting seem to come from the inherent contradictions associated with this method of communication: People do things through text messaging that they wouldn't do in person, but the kind of person they are still fuels the way they text.

"We know when people are online, there's some disinhibition that happens, particularly in talking about sex," Birnholtz said. "And people can be very sexual in chat in a way they've never been in real life."

This reminded me of Modern Romance, comedian Aziz Ansari's book on the perils of dating. In it, Ansari describes sites like Straight White Boys Texting, where the inconsistencies and straight up audacity of text message anonymity are on full display.

Meanwhile, ghosting, the infamous phenomenon in which a romantic interest stops responding without explanation, plagues both men and women who are dating. Ghosting, which mental health practitioners say can be traumatic, is not something you can do in person (imagine standing up from your bar stool and walking away when you don't feel like answering a question), but it's become common via text, Birnholtz said. And iMessage features like read receipts can make people particularly upset, since you can see when a crush has read your text and failed to reply.

It's not that hard not to ghost, people. Image: Motherboard

The nature of the texting changes, of course, when dating evolves into a relationship. It's couples, Birnholtz said, that are more likely to use features like read receipts, where urgency might be required or preferred. In these cases, read receipts or the three dots feature that indicates someone is typing, are more helpful than frustrating, because the fear of asymmetry (one person wanting more than the other) is lower.

"Those cues are useful," he said. "A lot of good information can come from them."

But people can still hide behind texts in a way they can't in person or on the phone, and we often use this new shield to our advantage, Birnholtz said, whether to pretend we are busy or to control the pace and intensity of our conversation. "Anytime you have a communication tool people can exploit it," he explained.

With iMessage, communication is elevated. The platform is comprehensive compared to other messaging platforms, and allows additional features like sending photos and GIFs inline. It works so well, in fact, that dating app companies like Tinder have latched on to its power by creating apps for iMessage, like Tinder Stacks, which lets you send a stack of photos to friends via iMessage.

Regardless of what feature Apple adds next, the thing to remember is that someone's character remains the same behind the screen. Texts can accelerate a bad dating experience, or reveal someone's poor intentions. Or they can support a positive conversation, and allow you to cool off and disconnect after a fight. But they can't change the person sending them.

"I have no doubt that relationships are made worse by texting—it's hard to settle some conflicts via texts," Birnholtz said. "But I'm also sure there's some relationships made stronger by text."

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