AIM away messages provided a way for users to show that they were not available:
Sometimes you had to step away. So you threw up an Away Message: I’m not here. I’m in class/at the game/my dad needs to use the comp. I’ve left you with an emo quote that demonstrates how deep I am. Or, here’s a song lyric that signals I am so over you. Never mind that my Away Message is aimed at you.
I miss Away Messages. This nostalgia is layered in abstraction; I probably miss the newness of the internet of the 1990s, and I also miss just being … away. But this is about Away Messages themselves—the bits of code that constructed Maginot Lines around our availability. An Away Message was a text box full of possibilities, a mini-MySpace profile or a Facebook status update years before either existed. It was also a boundary: An Away Message not only popped up as a response after someone IM’d you, it was wholly visible to that person before they IM’d you.
Messaging today, whether through texting or apps, does not work the same way:
Catapulting even further back into the past for a moment: Old-fashioned phone calls used to, and sometimes still do, start with “Hey, you free?” Santamaria points out. “You were going to tell me if you could talk before we started the conversation.” There’s a version of this today—someone might preface their message with “Not urgent, respond when you can,” for example—but for the most part, we just send the text message without consideration, Santamaria says. Interruption is the default.
The ability to walk away from communication and the demands it makes on a person struck me as similar to one of the three “basic forms of social liberty” humans had before settling in cities and large societies. Anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow say the second form was “the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others.” Text messages, emails, and messages in apps create a pressure for someone to respond. To not have these digital “commands,” one practically not use apps and devices.
Is this the freedom we have traded to use social media, the Internet, and smartphones? People can unplug but it is difficult to do that and still participate in regular social life today. Saying no to messages or refusing to respond will likely not garner many friends or close connections. And related to the first form of freedom, “the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings,” the messages and apps can follow us anywhere there is Internet access or cell coverage.
These platforms succeed by encouraging messaging and connections. But, what if a basic human freedom is the one to say no to that interaction when desired?