The effect of “seen” and double blue ticks on messaging

Since Facebook introduced the “seen-function” in 2012, our chatting behavior has changed for good. 

Lisa Maria Mai and Rainer Freudenthaler, Department of Media and Communication Studies from the University of Mannheim published the study: “I know you’ve seen it!” Individual and social factors for users’ chatting behavior on Facebook.” We speak with them about how knowing whether the recipient has seen your message – or not – influences how we chat.

ResearchGate: What was your study about?

Lisa Maria Mai and Rainer Freudenthaler: Our study was about the so-called Facebook messenger “seen-function” that provides more transparency over the course of a chat conversation. Through this cue, users can see if and when a chat partner has read their message (e.g. “seen 7:15 PM”). In turn, the recipient of the message is aware of the fact that the sender can see when exactly they read the message.

We hypothesized that users’ behavior is influenced by their “need to belong” and “fear of ostracism.”  By that we mean they have a strong need to be a part of their peer group and a strong fear of being left out. Also, we wanted to know whether there are different groups of users who perceive these norms differently.

RG: How did you come to study this?

LM & RF: The study is based on Rainer Freudenthaler’s and my graduate student’s class project in Media in Communication Studies. The “seen-function” had been introduced not long before we started our program and we noticed that it had started to change the way people communicate online. After talking about our own behavior, we felt that the “seen-function” had some influence on how we chatted that we could not explain or even put into words. Therefore, we wanted to explore this further and find out how exactly users reacted to the chat situation.

RG: What were your results? How did it change messaging?

LM & RF: We found that the participants of our online survey felt more or less uncomfortable when their message had been read but not answered yet depending on their individual need to belong and fear of ostracism. We could also observe that the “seen-function” led to new expectations towards chat partners as well as perceived obligations to answer as soon as a new message was read – both were also influenced by users’ need to belong and fear of ostracism. Perceived obligations however were higher than answering expectations towards others: You don’t know whether your chat partner expects an instant response, but you know that he can see when you’ve read a message and can therefore sanction a slow answer. This leads to users playing it safe by overestimating their obligation towards others.

Varying expectations and perceived obligations indicated that chat norms with regard to the “seen-function” are only developing. However, we could identify three groups of chatters that place more or less value on chat synchronicity. There was a group we called “face-to-face chatters,” due to their high expectations (and perceived obligations) towards others to respond right away. They used the chat to have real-time conversations. Then there were “asynchronous chatters” with lower expectations (and perceived obligations) towards others, who still used the chat more like a mailbox. The third group, who had on average slightly lower expectations and perceived obligations, we called “role dependent chatters.” They responded differently depending on who they were chatting with – friends, partners, family, or colleagues.

Our survey took place when the feature was still relatively new. It would be interesting to see whether such preferences, over time, lead to stable social norms and if there is already a certain online etiquette that users follow.

RG: In your opinion, what do you think motivated Facebook to implement this “seen” feature?

LM & RF: From a social-scientific point of view, the chat interface is a communication environment with very few social cues compared to a face-to-face situation. The “seen-function” as an awareness cue can help to compensate this lack of social information and support the chat conversation. Beyond that, we can of course only assume why Facebook implemented this feature. Maybe one idea was to get more people to use the chat synchronously and not just as a mail program.

RG: How do you personally feel about the feature? Was it a good idea? Should it be optional?

LM & RF: The “seen-function” can cut both ways. On one side it can enhance chat communication; on the other side awareness cues are a sensitive issue not only for our media-related behavior but also in our public discourse about technologies and their use. The critical user response to the double blue checks on WhatsApp messages (a feature similar to the “seen-function”) suggests that it might be advisable to make seen-notifications optional and give users the ability to decide whether or not they want to include this information in their chat. This is what WhatsApp ultimately did after some users’ unfavorable response to the feature.

RG: Was there a particular aspect of a person’s social life that was affected more than others? Dating?

LM & RF: We found that only in loose relationships and in conversations with socially superior chat partners perceived obligations were higher than answering expectations, while in close relationships, the opposite was the case. Beyond that, we didn’t inquire if and how the “seen-function” or any seen-notification in general might affect dating.

This was a question that I was really interested in so my classmate Judith Wilhelm and I explored the meaning of the WhatsApp seen-notifications (“typing…”, “online” and “last seen”) in couples’ communication***. At that time the double check marks were only grey and not blue, so there was no way of knowing if your message had been read. However, that made our findings even more distinctive. We did a conversational analysis of twelve problem-centered interviews with six people in “normal” and six people in long distance relationships. Although they could only see when the recipient was last active on WhatsApp, most of our participants incorrectly interpreted this as a delivery confirmation. Accordingly, they tended to believe that they can draw conclusions as to what their partner is up to on its basis. Furthermore, when the partner had been online but didn’t respond to a message, the “last seen”-status provoked emotions such as anger, relational uncertainty or even jealousy. Our results also showed that especially people in long-distance relationships take their partners’ “last seen”-status as a clue for potential availability. Due to the spatial distance to their partners (as well as time difference), they depend on the “last seen”-status stronger in order to coordinate their communication.

RG: What are the advantages of this feature?

LM & RF: Any additional cue in text based communication lends itself to being interpreted by users. So, if your chat partner sees you have read his message, and you pause, that carries additional meaning – the same way that smileys and other emoticons can be used to get across how you feel. In that way additional cues give users the ability to enhance their everyday communication. At the same time this of course complicates things. Now your pause, while you wonder what to write, suddenly is itself a statement.


***Mai, L., & Wilhelm, J. (2015). Ich weiß, wann du online warst Schatz. Die Bedeutung der WhatsApp-Statusanzeigen für die Paarkommunikation in Nah- und Fernbeziehungen. Marburg: Tectum Verlag.