Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Decline of the Declarative Online Status Indicator

I like this simple but profound observation from Casey Johnston, of the Outline, regarding Instagram’s online status indicator in its messaging section:

When status indicators were originally introduced — the listing of screen names and opening- and slamming-of-door sounds by people signing on and off and posting of away messages on AOL Instant Messenger, may it rest — and continued to proliferate on services like Gchat and Facebook’s chat feature, we were all still using computers. Sometimes we were on those computers; sometimes, we were living our lives and not on computers.

Smartphones do not, and have never, faced this dichotomy of existence. Anyone who has Instagram, by definition, has a smartphone. If you have a smartphone, you are online no matter where you are or what you are doing.

Johnston indicates that the online status indicator is dead, but I think that’s an exaggeration. Perhaps the declarative online status indicator is on the wane, but I think the inferred status indicator is on the rise. I grew up with IRC, AIM, and MSN Messenger, and explicitly declaring your online status — and, often, your mood and chat readiness — was a hallmark of those platforms and protocols. Facebook retained that format even before the site had chat functionality. And declarative status indicators still exist, to an extent — Slack has several defaults to choose from, like “out sick”, “in a meeting”, or “commuting”.1

These kinds of statuses have largely been replaced by a more inferred or suggested status, by way of things like read receipts. This isn’t entirely new; answering machines and voicemail have long played the role of a passive status indicator. Read receipts are a subtle indicator to the sender that the recipient is or has been online. But they aren’t perceived in the same way — users often report feeling ignored if they see that a message they’ve sent has been read, but not responded to, even if it’s likely that the recipient is simply busy.


  1. Statuses like these are how you know Slack is a serious business tool, not some goofy IRC-like chat room. ↩︎