In basic terms, online status indicators convey availability: whether someone is on or offline, or when they last logged into a particular app. But if you’ve ever anxiously awaited a response from a prospective partner or suspected your friend might be ignoring you, you’ll be painfully aware of just how much weight that indicator can actually hold.
Now a new study has found that many users are not only aware of all that online status indicators can convey, but also change their behaviour accordingly. The research is due to be published in the Proceedings of the 2020 ACM conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
Previous research has already shown that such indicators can inadvertently reveal a lot about our lives: one 2014 study found that online status on WhatsApp was enough to identify daily routines, unusual messaging patterns, or even who users were talking to.
To investigate this further, Camille Cobb and her team recruited 200 participants to answer questions about their experiences with online status indicators. First, participants were presented with a list of 38 apps and asked to select those they use at least once a week. They were then asked a series of questions to gauge their familiarity with the design of status indicators and knowledge of how to control their visibility in apps.
Finally, participants were asked questions about their own experiences adjusting their visibility online (“is there anyone who would notice if you were offline for longer than usual?” or “have you ever changed your behaviour because you didn’t want to appear online?”) and behaviour towards others (“have you ever been surprised to notice that someone was online?” or “have you ever opened an app specifically to check if someone was online?”).
Use of apps with online status indicators was hugely common: 99% of participants reported regular use of at least one app with the feature, with Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger the most widely used.
Many participants wanted to control their online status, and had changed behaviour in order to do so: 23% had changed settings, 37% had avoided opening an app or quickly signed out to avoid a specific person, and three participants deleted an app from their phone altogether so that they didn’t appear “online”. This behaviour was usually aimed at a specific person: 43% had changed settings to avoid a particular person — often a current or former partner — versus just 25% who were trying to avoid people in general. Many stated that online status indicators had led them to feel under surveillance, aware that friends, partners or family members would be watching to see if or when they had signed in.
Checking for others’ online status was also prevalent: over half of participants said they had signed into or opened an app just to check somebody else’s status, and 41% said they had been “surprised” to see someone online, which in turn led to inferences about real-world behaviour and well-being and feelings around being ignored.
Online status indicators can be useful: as participants noted, they can be handy for working out when somebody might be available to chat or play a game, or knowing whether it might be better to message someone or call them instead. But the frequency with which participants anxiously checked others’ online status or sought to hide their own suggests that platforms should be offering better ways to meet user needs. Settings could be more transparent, for a start, or users could select not to appear online altogether — an option which many apps don’t yet offer.
Running into someone you really don’t want to see or speak to is an unfortunate fact of life, both on and offline: eliminating that altogether is probably unlikely to happen. But ensuring that users are able to adequately manage their online status may be something apps or messaging platforms could improve upon. Until then, it’s likely that online statuses will be a source of both community and anxiety.