The Smart Logic Of Chat's Annoying Typing Indicator

One of the typing indicator's original designers defends his invention (and he's pretty convincing).

Among the more awkward features of online chatting is the little bubble that tells you when someone is typing. It can make typers feel weirdly exposed and rushed, like someone’s waiting for you to get dressed. Or if you’re the one awaiting a response, it can ramp up anxious anticipation of some kind of big chat bomb. Plus, it kind of ruins one thing many of us secretly like about e-communication—that it lets us hide. Without the ellipsis, you could spend a minute or so polishing a beautiful response, then hit enter, playing it off like it was all smooth and spontaneous. But the bubble makes our drafting process visible, exposing just how much time we’re spending mulling over words. Who the hell invented this thing?

In a recent piece for Slate, one of the inventors, software developer David Auerbach, defends the typing indicator. And his rationale is actually pretty convincing.

In the late '90s, Auerbach worked as a software developer for ye olde MSN Messenger Service, one of the first real-time chat programs. “During that time one of the issues that the team discussed was Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to know whether or not the other person is responding, or waiting for you to say something?” he writes. The lack of a typing indicator sometimes led to chat partners tripping over one another and jinx-ing each other; other times, it killed conversational momentum. So Auerbach and his coworkers invented a feature that sent updates about when someone was typing—robot messages that assured you were about to get a human message. While it was a spammy system, the majority of users and software developers seemed to find it better than nothing, and AOL and Yahoo also picked it up. Soon enough, it was streamlined into the various typing indicators we know today.

The designer defends his invention for its ability to foster more natural turn-taking in e-conversation, but admits it's not without problems.

“For me as a user, if there’s any unease associated with the typing indicator, it’s not from the added immediacy per se, but a lack of enough immediacy,” Auerbach writes. “It tells you that something is going on, but leaves you to wonder what it is. It builds up the anticipation for a profound response only to disappoint you with the inevitable banality of what your friend actually says. I’d rather know what the other person were typing as she typed it.”

Read the full piece here.

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