Representative image
Representative image

Pain points: Text messaging is cool. But where are its boundaries?

Google’s messaging app has a so-called Smart Reply tool, which automatically generates possible responses to a text message, including one that says you are busy.

NEW YORK: The text-messaging app has always been the most-used app on my phone. It’s fun and efficient, and it’s often a quicker way to get a response than sending an email or making a phone call.

Yet, even as Apple delivered a slew of new text-messaging features in a software update this week — and as Google has made improvements to its Android messenger app over the years, like adding colorful emojis — texting still leaves much to be desired.

Apple’s latest software system, iOS 16, which was released on Monday, includes enhancements to its iMessage app.

Texts can now be edited after they are sent to scrub out embarrassing typos; a message can also be retracted. Google’s Messages app for Android has tools that automatically generate responses to texts.

These changes help us sidestep awkward situations and save time, but they don’t address a larger societal problem: Texting is distracting, demanding and, at least at times, stressful. The pros of text messaging can easily turn into cons.

Since texting typically takes only a few seconds and is widely considered the most urgent, attention-grabbing form of digital communication, it’s difficult to set boundaries around texting with our colleagues and friends. Texting invites us to intrude on other people’s time.

“Where does your work end, and where does your personal life begin?” said Justin Santamaria, one of the iPhone engineers who developed the iMessage app more than a decade ago. “That’s something over the past three years everybody has struggled with, and it’s playing out on your home screen.”

Texting is also not the most secure form of communication, especially in a post-Roe era when privacy is more important than ever, said Caitlin George, a managing director at Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group.

“It should be something that everybody should have and not have to worry or think about,” she said of the need for a universal private texting service.

The new messaging features are simple to use. On iPhones running iOS 16, holding down on a sent message opens options to edit or retract it.

Android users can open Google’s Messages app, enter the settings and toggle on “Enable chat features” to use the new texting technology, called Rich Communication Services.

To minimize the likelihood that we will be bombarded by texts, Apple and Google have added layers of settings to tell others when we are busy. Yet the tools are ineffective.

Apple’s iOS includes Focus, a tool released last year to manage how phone notifications appear in various aspects of our lives, including at work, at home, when we’re driving or heading to bed. In a work profile, for example, Focus can be set up to let text and phone notifications arrive only from colleagues; anyone not on the approved list gets a message that notifications aren’t being received.

Google’s messaging app has a so-called Smart Reply tool, which automatically generates possible responses to a text message, including one that says you are busy.

But you still have to manually select a response. Apple’s and Google’s text messaging apps would benefit from a much simpler tool: the away message.

America Online Instant Messenger, one of the earliest online messaging services, from the 1990s, had a simple autoresponder with a memo that users could use to tell people why they were unavailable.

Slack, the chat app for workplace collaboration, has the ability to display an away status like “on vacation until Monday.” It’s effective at stopping people from sending a message.

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