Now Is the Time to Bring Back Away Messages

Life is totally online — we need ways to politely disconnect

Photo: mikroman6/Getty Images

I spend most Thursdays heads down writing. The task is one that, at least for me, requires absolute focus, a quality that I have to essentially beg some corner of my brain to extend to me for a few hours. This usually fails, making the draft take twice as long as it has to. Even now, my phone is lighting up with a text; several Twitter direct messages are awaiting my response; I have an email open in another tab that I actually want to answer.

There are a number of things I could do, some of which I’ve suggested in other columns, like turning off notifications (off for everything but texts, at the moment) and setting an alarm that dictates when I can look at any social media (I usually do this by the hour). Both methods help, but there’s a tool that, if more readily available and widely used, would make perhaps the biggest difference of all: away messages.

In the glory days of online communication (2002 to 2009, in my rough, highly personal estimation), away messages were popular on AOL’s instant messaging service and acted a bit like digital Post-it notes stuck to a door: messages that would pop up next to a user’s handle indicating that a person was unavailable to chat. Yet they’ve largely fallen to the wayside, foregone in favor of constant connectivity that’s distracting and stressful. If I could easily apply away messages to iMessage, Twitter, and any other form of messaging app or social network, I’d rest easy while drafting, comforted by the fact that anyone trying to reach me will know by my away message that it’ll be some time before I respond.

“If you think about that over the span of even just a day, if we’re getting distracted even five or six times, that’s a couple hours of lost productivity.”

Anything that makes it easier to disconnect and focus on work will help ensure that you’re able to accomplish tasks in a more efficient manner and, ideally, get done earlier. As it stands, every distraction — a text message, checking your email, whatever — comes at a high cost, causing you to lose time that you could have spent on getting your shit done instead.

Notifications and quick message checks can be highly distracting, because it takes time for your brain to fully focus on a task. “On average, if we’re sitting there writing an article, and then we get a notification ding, the act of going to check that notification and coming back, we’re basically losing 20 to 30 minutes worth of time,” says Laura Bright, PhD, an associate professor of media analytics at the University of Texas at Austin whose research focuses on consumer behavior and new media environments (like social media). “If you think about that over the span of even just a day, if we’re getting distracted even five or six times, that’s a couple hours of lost productivity.” When we get overwhelmed with information, Bright says, our processing capabilities go down. It’s a bit like having a conversation with a friend in a restaurant (remember doing that?): As the noise level in the restaurant goes up, you have to strain harder and harder to understand what your friend says, forcing you to either ask her to repeat herself as words get swallowed by the restaurant’s cacophony or, conversely, give up and get only half of what she’s telling you.

The expectation of constant connectivity might have a psychological impact as well. A 2019 study found that the presence of a smartphone in a social situation causes us to enjoy our socializing less and diminishes some of the psychological benefits we might have reaped from the interaction. The impact is subtle, meaning you are less likely to notice it while it’s happening. You just didn’t have quite as much fun picnicking with your friend than you might have otherwise.

Turning your phone off entirely, turning off your notifications, or going on airplane mode are all good options for focusing more fully on whatever it is you’re doing, whether that’s having a conversation with a friend or hunkering down on a project. But they’re not complete solutions. Having your phone on do not disturb doesn’t mean your friends and family can’t send you messages; it just stops your phone from alerting you about it. The people trying to get in touch with you don’t know that your phone is on do not disturb or even off. They just know you’re not responding or, if your phone is off entirely, that you’re not in a spot where there’s service.

An away message takes care of this for you. It communicates to your friends, family, or fans that, hey, I’m not going to be reachable until 6 p.m. I’ll read my messages then. This alleviates stress for the people sending you messages — you’re not ignoring them, you’re not dead or in some dire situation that’s preventing you from using your phone. Whether you’re working on a project for a few hours or on a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods, an away message alerts your contacts that it isn’t a good time to chat. It also saves you, the away message user, from feeling the urge to check your phone in the first place, since it’s less likely that people will be anxiously trying to get in touch with you.

There’s clearly a desire, at least on some scale, for away message functions, whether it’s via text message or some kind of version you could apply to your social media accounts. “I very much wish that Facebook and Instagram and Twitter have them so that we can just be out of office or deep-dive on a project,” says Courtney Maum, an author based in Connecticut. She goes on airplane mode when she’s working, she says, pointing out that others go on self-proclaimed “social media hiatuses.” These can often be found announced in a Twitter user’s display name, like so:

It’s one of a number of away workarounds people rely on that theoretically do the job but aren’t as helpful as if the social and messaging platforms had away message functionality built in. Another method, for incoming text messages, is to manually turn on and customize your Do Not Disturb While Driving setting if you have an iPhone. Android users need to download a separate app that sends auto-replies when activated. None of these solutions are very elegant or easy — and tech features need to involve as little friction as possible if they’re to become widely adopted.

Nick Bowman, PhD, an associate professor of creative media industries at Texas Tech whose research focuses on the psychology of communication technology, isn’t convinced that away messages would be widely used if they were available because of how ingrained that always-on mentality is — or, at least, that’s what he thought pre-coronavirus. The dismantling of boundaries and the merging of our public and private life has changed that. For people who work in office-type environments, “for the last eight months, we’ve been living in a very blended reality, where our work and our social life have combined in ways we never expected,” Bowman says. “I wonder if there could be sort of a newfound appreciation for not only unplugging, but telling people you’re unplugging… I would be curious to see if there was a newfound appreciation for something like an away message.”

The always-on mentality has clearly been ramping up as smartphones have become more ubiquitous. Now your boss, your friend group, your parents, and countless others maintain the assumption that as long as you are awake and alive, you’re more or less available. As we spend more and more time at home, the assumption of availability has only grown stronger. But this has massive consequences — for your ability to concentrate; for your emotional well-being and that of the people trying to get in touch with you; for your literal safety while walking, distracted, down the street — that could be easily remedied with a simple feature like an away message.

For iPhone, at least, I picture it as something you can easily toggle on and off when you open your message app, like so:

An auto-reply could be sent to new contacts or manually set as the default for everyone, but for iMessage users, the away message would appear next to the name and avatar. For Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, it’d be simple and easy to include an “edit away message” option when you edit your profile; turning it on could even grayscale your profile info to make it super clear to people that you’re away.

Will platforms ever hear our pleas and add easy away messages? Both Bright and Bowman think that’s unlikely. “There’s probably some truth to the idea that if we start telling people they can form these away messages, they’ll start actually going away. And if they actually go away, they won’t interface with the platforms,” Bowman says.

“The whole point of social media channels is to drive engagement. And being away from them decreases engagement,” Bright says. “The idea of providing something as simple as an ‘I’m going to check out for a week’ message — that’s probably like the last thing on their feature list.”

Over the past 20 years, technology companies have effectively made us almost entirely dependent on their products. Email is practically nonnegotiable; for many industries and in many families, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are essential to maintaining a presence and reminding people that, well, you exist. As these platforms have become more entrenched in our communication practices, the methods by which we can easily unplug — like away messages — have been wrenched from our grasp. Your best bet now for stepping away involves a series of half-measures like do not disturb that don’t fix the essential issue: You’re not available right now to chat, and the many people in your life deserve to know this. But if you’re not on the platform, you’re not consuming and engaging, and if you’re not consuming and engaging, you’re not making them money. So. Here we are. Forever.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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