Many social media apps and websites share information about whether a person is online with their network (e.g. friends list), which are known as online status indicators. Importantly, these online status indicators convey our availability to others. They inform them about whether we are online or offline, and often even indicate the last time we were logged on. Recently, my friend told me that he has to limit his use of WhatsApp because otherwise his ex will see that he is online and try to initiate a conversation. If you’ve ever suspected that you’re being ghosted after a second date after getting no reply to your several messages or impatiently waited for a response from your friend who is online but not replying to you amidst an argument, then you would be painfully aware of just how much anxiety that little online indicator is capable of causing.
I recently came across a new research paper by Cobb et al. (2020), which investigated online status indicators and found that users frequently misinterpret what their online status indicators convey, but nevertheless adjust their behaviour subsequently. Their findings are interesting due to the novel area of research, so I thought I would share them with you. Thus, in this article I will discuss their findings and the implications of these results for us social media users. These results are especially intriguing given the heightened use of social media due to social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
The team of researchers recruited 200 smartphone users between the ages of 19 and 64 to complete an online survey using Amazon Mechanical Turk. A majority (over 90%) of the participants were from the United States. The use of apps with online status indicators was reported by 99% of the participants, with Facebook Messenger being one of the most widely used. It was found that over half of the participants believed that someone had noticed their online status. Checking on others was also prevalent, as more than half of the participants said that they have logged in just to check someone else’s online status before. This consequently led to inferences about the person’s real world behaviour, along with feelings of being ignored.
Additionally, the researchers also investigated why people wanted to appear offline: with reasons such as being busy, not wanting to be distracted, avoiding people that they had a conflict with in ‘real life’ and trying to avoid being caught in a lie being reported. 43% of the participants described changing their settings or behaviour in pursuit of avoiding a specific person. Many participants reported that they avoided opening an app or quickly signed out to avoid a former or current partner. On the other hand, 25% of participants stated that they were trying to avoid people in general. Numerous participants stated that online status indicators made them feel as though they were under social surveillance. These patterns highlight that people frequently adjust their behaviour to meet the demands of technology. Co-author Lucy Simko suggested that this means that people are often going online not because they necessarily want to do something there, but because they want their status indicator to project the right thing at the right time.
When asked to identify the apps they use from a list of 44 apps that have online status indicators, participants were often unsure or wrong about the presence of an online indicator. For instance, 23% of participants mistakenly thought they had turned off the ‘online’ setting in apps such as WhatsApp, which do not actually have an option for such settings. Thus, these results suggest that people regularly think they are not broadcasting information, but in actuality they are. This highlights the importance of practicing good online privacy and security, while considering the effects of our online presence. Cobb et al. (2020) encourages a shift towards online status indicator designs that are more enabling for the users, as it is clear that we value the ability to manage what our online activity conveys to others.
This paper has been successful in highlighting key aspects and consequences of online activity and has paved the way for future research in this vital area. Further studies using a more demographically representative sample or additional variants of online status indicators seems promising. Cobb et al. (2020) has showcased how behaviour relating to online status indicators was especially altered because of current or former partners. This has important implications for romantic relationships (e.g. it can indentify unhealthy patterns of communication), as well as for interpersonal relationships in general, and would be an interesting avenue to explore in future research.
The results of Cobb et al. (2020) are especially fascinating given the current situation of the coronavirus pandemic, since several people are working from home and socializing solely through the internet. Online status indicators can be useful as they indicate to us that our friend is available for us to check up on and chat with. This is beneficial as it can help us to maintain and strengthen interpersonal connections during this tough time. However, this research has also highlighted that there can be a dark side, where people vigilantly view others’ online status indicators, which can lead to negative feelings such as anxiety.
You can find the research paper here: https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3313831.3376240
News on the paper prior to publishing can be found here: https://www.washington.edu/news/2020/04/13/how-online-status-indicators-shape-our-behavior/