Just because you can text someone at 3am doesn’t mean you should

Do you ever have that nagging urge to send someone a text message late at night, but you look over at the clock and worry about waking them? Technology is making it easier than ever to answer that age old question: “Are you still up?”

Software developer Nicola Greco aims to take availability one step further—creating isawake, the “(eventually) biggest crowdsourced database of when people are awake.” It allows users to log in, plug in their waking hours, and send a link to friends and family, who can use the service to check in before sending a message or calling. While assuming everyone actually adheres to a schedule, this software poses an interesting question: Is being awake the only requirement for receiving communication?

The platform was most likely created with the best intentions. By letting your friends and family know when you’re awake, they are less likely to wake you up with a call, preventing an instance of rudeness or an interruption to a good night’s sleep. But perhaps the answer lies not in knowing everyone’s sleeping schedule, but in not needing to know their sleeping schedule.

Chances are, it’s happened to you. It’s late at night, say 11pm. You’re on Facebook. You see that a friend—let’s call her “Jill”—is online and you send her a message. The little “seen” check mark appears. Jill does not respond. Minutes pass. Still no response from Jill. Jill tweets something about Scandal, so you know she’s not asleep.

Still no response. Jill is pretty rude. (This whole thing could have been avoided through the use of this app, but that is not the point.)

Or is she? Though you have physical proof that Jill is ignoring your message, is it really rude to not respond to a late night message immediately (or wait until the morning)? Is she actually being rude by ignoring you, or are you being rude by initiating a conversation so late in the evening?

The now seemingly old-fashioned “Don’t Call (or, in the case of the Internet, iMessage, Skype, GChat) Before 9am and After 9pm” convention of etiquette wasn’t put in place because people slept from 9 pm to 9 am every day. It was assumed that sleep might be occurring during these times, but it also took into account that people might be doing things that they did not want interrupted. Since it was common courtesy for no one to call after 9, people experienced at least an hour or two every day that was free from social interaction. The Internet appears to be breaking down this personal boundary.

The Internet and the smartphone alike make it both easy to stay connected and difficult to fully disconnect. Given that the first thing 80 percent of 18-44-year-olds do upon waking is “check their smartphone,” it’s no wonder that we have become accustomed to the idea of people being “always on.” As long as someone is awake, they’re probably reachable through text, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other social networking apps. New features such as “read receipts” seem to only exacerbate the problem. According to Alison P. Davis of New York magazine’s the Cut, “the ‘Read Receipt’ has become the gestapo of smartphone communication: It acts as an etiquette enforcer, making sure we’re all available all of the time.”

In this environment, should we be expected to be available every waking moment, though? Whether or not we should be, it seems that we are, both socially and professionally. In an article for the New York Times, Cliff Oxford describes some of the modern pressures of living and working in the Internet age. “In this age of social media and instantaneous, global communications, there is tremendous pressure to many of us to be ‘on’ 24/7,” Oxford writes. “It’s as if the Internet is making the concept of after-work hours as much of a relic as the right to privacy.”

Part of this is due to how convenient it is to reach someone, but the other half is the effect of the Internet on the business world. “But if the boss calls at 9 p.m., don’t think you can turn off your phone and put off the conversation until Monday morning,” Oxford continues. “My gosh, with the speed of social media, revolutions can break out and change countries in a matter of hours. Major events that redefine companies can happen in a matter of minutes or even seconds—and that is why most employees have to be on call, almost like firefighters, even when they leave the office.”

For certain lines of work, that sounds fairly reasonable, but it seems unfair to expect a friend to respond to a Facebook message in the same way a fireman would respond to a fire. Though it’s easy to think of many logical reasons why someone may not respond to a communication right away, seeing the read receipt on an iMessage followed by no response seems to trigger anxiety in otherwise calm individuals. Millennials are affected the most.

According to an Bucknell University’s Ronald Alsop, “the millennial generation—born during the 1980s and 1990s—grew up on technology and feels the pull of instant gratification more intensely than older generations.” Alsop further explains, “About 60 percent of 18-to-34-year-old respondents to a Pew Research Center survey said they sleep next to their cell phones so they don’t miss calls, texts or updates during the night.”

Millennials have never known a world without the Internet. (Or if they did, they barely remember it.) “The Internet, at least the modern version we know, turned 25 this year,” says Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite. That’s a quarter of a century. That might be why Holmes (who is almost 40) has a hard time remembering his “pre-Internet self,” explaining that “it’s actually a tough thing wrap your mind around, and I had to really stop and think to remember my life pre-Internet.”

Millennials might understand “the old days” in theory, but growing up online has taught them that information can—and should—move at lightning speed. It’s understandable that they should have these reactions. In terms of entertainment, they rarely have to wait for anything. Albums are downloaded the moment they’re released. Commercials are skipped with DVRs. Books aren’t bought at stores; they’re downloaded from the cloud. Tower Records, Blockbuster, and Moviefone—childhood staples of mine—have been rendered obsolete.

This change of culture isn’t just affecting entertainment and the job market, but education as well. According to David Brooks of the New York Times, the overall goals and attitudes towards a college education have shifted dramatically. “In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important,” he explains.

This increased level of competitiveness may be why manners and empathy seem to matter less. Brooks isn’t “sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives, but is has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.”

With entertainment, work, and education all being streamlined and maximized for the most efficient and “rewarding” experience, it’s no wonder we expect human interaction to follow the same rules. When Jill sees your message and doesn’t immediately reply, she’s not conforming to the rules of the Internet; Jill is an anomaly.

How do we combat the need for instant gratification cultivated by the Internet? How do millennials fight the effects of the culture they were born into? Like any addiction, behavior modification is key. Setting aside time for activities that take place firmly offline is important. Going for a run or taking a fitness class is not only good for you physically, it forces you to “unplug” for a while. Make time for your “IRL” friends and set aside time for face to face interaction. If you feel that the urge to check your phone at an inappropriate time may be too strong, try leaving it in the car, as suggested by EmilyPost.com.

By putting more emphasis on the quality of the conversation, and less emphasis on the speed at which it takes place, we swap “instant gratification” and surface-level communication for deeper, more meaningful talks and stronger bonds.

Jill may be ignoring you. It’s entirely possible that she is being rude and snubbing you intentionally. It’s also entirely possible that she just doesn’t feel like having another surface-level interaction at 11 pm. By expecting Jill—and everyone else—to be receptive to communication simply because they are conscious, we are feeding our societal addiction to instant gratification.

The problem isn’t that people aren’t responding to your messages immediately; the problem is that you expect them to.

Photo via Marjan Lazarevski/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)