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Awkward teens to awkward seens

Momoko Metham is frustrated by how complicated instant messaging has become.

Collage of Facebook reacts: thumbs up, wow, angry, love and 'seen' message Collage credit: Millie Roberts

1. SEEN

You’re making plans with a friend, throwing around ideas about where to eat and when to meet, only to be hit with the ‘seen’. In most cases, seening is a result of the sender having nothing to add to the conversation. But other times, the seen is almost sinister, interpreted as a rude and inconsiderate way to indicate disinterest or avoidance.

2. THUMBS UP

You send a long message to your friend and anticipate an equally thorough reply. They hit you with a giant thumbs up, the most inflated thumbs up. Although they may be agreeing with your message, there’s still an inkling feeling that you’ve been dismissed. To all who use thumbs, know it’s equivalent to a “cool”, “good for you” and “idc”.

3. REACTS

Reacts can be interpreted as the tamer form of the thumbs up, comforting the recipient with some form of emoji rather than a confronting, half-arsed thumbs up. The most well intentioned of those include the ‘heart eyes react’ and ‘small thumbs up’, perfect for showing some love when you genuinely mean it, or masking your  disinterest.

If it wasn’t already hard enough to properly express ourselves through the English language, Facebook Messenger has made communication even more impossible with the introduction of features like ‘seen’, ‘thumbs up’ and ‘reacts’. All the possible meanings associated with a single action ensures an absence of certainty in our online interactions. Amidst this confusion, our blindsided selves can only speculate as to where we went wrong (or right).

“I was talking to a girl for a bit […] we’d been on a few dates and everything was going well,” says my friend Brandon via some hurried texts. “And then one day I got left on ‘seen’ and never heard from her again.”

He tells me he spent the next three months being ghosted and wondering what he did wrong.

“I found out that someone had told her that they thought we looked like brother and sister and that freaked her out. I see her around campus all the time and it’s excruciatingly awkward”.

We carefully navigate our Messenger app to to avoid the awkward ‘seen’-ing of messages, the ballooned ‘thumbs ups’ and the triggering green bulb of an ‘active’ status when attempting to appear offline.

It’s a social media minefield that makes us nostalgic for the days of  MSN, where we could escape any conversation with a “That was my friend LOL”, an abrupt “g2g” or an ‘appear offline’, where there was no way to tell if someone had deleted you off their contacts or ignored your message altogether.

“Once in grade five, I’d [sic] had a massive crush on a girl for like a year and word was getting around, so I decided to send her a long message confessing my love for her,” said Theo, a first year Media and Communications student at the University of Sydney.

“But [I did it] while she was offline, so I wouldn’t have to face her straight away. I think every one of my letters was a gif. She never replied.” Without a ‘seen’ feature on MSN, Theo’s dignity was salvaged from romantic heartbreak—as far as he knew, the girl could have stayed offline for the remainder of her MSN days.

It’s been hard to approach responses to our messages with the same level of nonchalance as we had back in the days of MSN. How did maintaining online friendships get so complex? We went from collecting  emoticons on MSN, personalising our font and colour combo and exchanging cringey hotmail addresses that consisted of at least one underscore and some form of “xoxo”, to interpreting ‘seens’, questioning the ‘thumbs ups’ and being ignored.

We are left to interpret these features that have diverse meanings and effects, but is it all really worth it? We face new anxieties of feeling rejected, ignored and frustrated from over-analysing an online interaction which holds little significance in real life relationships. We now face two options: adapt and make social media speak our second language, or perish in miscommunication.