Future Tense

Bring Back the AIM Away Message

If you step away from social media for a little while, you risk looking like a ghosting jerk.

Away message notification reading "The away message is away right now."
Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

“Just so you don’t think I’m not your friend anymore, I just wanted you all to know I’m taking a break from Facebook for the holidays,” read a recent post from a friend.

My friend’s post about taking a break from Facebook is just a futile effort at an away message. In a few hours, her post will disappear from view, thanks to Facebook’s algorithm, and there’s a solid chance that the majority of her Facebook contacts will not notice that she’s declared her intention to avoid actively participating on the platform. Because really—who goes to a person’s profile page anymore?

While many of us will use the quiet time in December as a nice excuse for an “out of office” autoreply in our email, there is no such function for our personal lives when it comes to social media. None of the major social media companies has options to let you easily set up an autoreply, even on chat, to say “I’m taking a break” or “I’m away for the holidays.”

We used to be able to mute our digital social lives easily. Maybe you remember the agony of coming up with a quippy “away” message on AOL Instant Messenger, or perhaps you still put something up in your Google chat that’s more creative than the little red dot option (Gchat lives on Gmail, an email service you can step away from).

If you’re thinking about a New Year’s resolution to cut back on your social media use, or if you feel the need to step away from platforms after the news this week about the latest data privacy violations, the inability to set a social media away message may not have occurred to you just yet—but as you prepare to cut back on these platforms, the limitation becomes all the more frustrating.

You may be able to control your own social media habits, but you can’t control the social media habits of your friends and professional contacts who might be tagging you, mentioning you, inviting you to parties, or asking for recommendations. You’re still on even if you, yourself, are not active—unless you delete or disable your account—and there’s no autoreply or away message to let those people know that you’ve done it.

And so my friend was not too far off in trying to warn people that she wasn’t being a jerk and ignoring them, because there is a decent chance that someone might well think if she doesn’t reply to a Facebook message, yes, indeed she’s gone into ghosting mode.

Therein lies the genius of the present era of social media: Stepping away, once you’ve stepped into the fray, is nearly impossible. The away message on AIM has given way to the new, always-on status message.

You can digitally disconnect from work, and in fact, some companies that want you to use their technology for work have used their presumptive respect for work-life balance as marketing. In 2015, Microsoft even went so far as to set up the “Center for Out of Office Excellence,” a short-lived meme-generating site for holiday away messages.

Sure, on Facebook, you can disable your account, but you can still be tagged in photos, and Facebook will try to lure you back in with notifications and automated messages about how you’re missed—and again, there’s no way to let anyone know that you’ve disabled your account.

In addition to pissing off your friends, you can get into trouble for stepping away from social media in other ways, sometimes with even potentially harmful consequences that go beyond your own digital sanity.

A disinformation research team at the University of Southern California has suggested that Twitter and Facebook accounts, for instance, are more vulnerable to being hacked or taken over by bad actors if they are left idle. In fact, someone might take over your account and even go so far as to use it to spread disinformation on the platform.

Since these are real accounts attached to real names, it might take the platform too long to flag that there is a problem—not to mention that since it was your account, this impersonation is not immediately clear to friends either. It’s unclear whether idle account activity played a role in the vulnerability of Russian takeovers of Instagram accounts, but one can presume that hackers are extending their logic from one platform to another.

In other cases, it seems like the platform itself is just designed to foster the kind of emotional manipulation that can be devastating for teenagers and young adults. Snapchat has a particularly cruel feature, the “Snapstreak,” a tally of consecutive days you have chatted with a specific person.

Taylor Lorenz, in reporting on Snapstreaks for Mic, quotes one teen as saying, “If you lose the streak you lose the friendship.” Snap is configured not to let its users take a break—stay away, lose a friend. When I ask my undergraduates to take a 24-hour social media fast, the Snapstreak is what ultimately dooms their efforts—and in fact, the smart ones will strategize to time their 24-hour fast so that they sign on again just in time to keep the streak going. Consider how this inability to sign off the platform for a single day might play into the hands of miscreants engaging in online bullying.

Twitter is a slightly different example of a social media platform where work and social life blend and signing off might be OK for social contacts. But your work contacts continue to mention you, and if you don’t reply, you’ve just violated that “you mention me, I mention you” norm of reciprocity that happens on the platform.

Consider your options on Twitter, for example. Maybe you can pin a tweet to announce your intentions to take a break or, if you’re super sophisticated, set up a Twitter bot away message and hope that you don’t violate the terms of service (there are outdated articles that explain how to do such a thing, but no clarity from Twitter about whether you’d be classified as a bad bot under today’s regime).

Twitter itself stopped individual autoreplies in March. Even if it were OK, I’m not about to set up a Twitter bot at the moment I’m trying to de-Twitter my life. On the other hand, the pinned tweet only works insofar as someone is actively going to my Twitter page to look at my profile. Otherwise, they’ve got no way of knowing that I’m offline.

Tauntingly, Twitter greets you when you sign back on with a message about suggested tweets “while you were away.” But decreasing your own tweet output might cost you followers and even harm your chances to show up in Twitter’s “while you were away” recommendations.

The rise of in-platform chat apps—by some measures even more popular than social media platforms in terms of user base—reinforce how particularly infuriating the lack of an away message is. It’s a reminder that once, one could reasonably step away, and now, there’s no easy way to do so.

In the extreme case, recall that even when you die, your account still lives, your survivors must ask to turn it off, and on Facebook, even if your account has become a memorial, there is still no good automated response that can be set up saying that well, this person is, um, deceased.

Of course, there are suggestions about how you might set up an away message, but none of these methods is actually the autoreply away message of old. For example, on Facebook, you can turn off chat, which pretty much just means that Facebook now shows you aren’t online to your chat friends. To a contact, that could just mean that you’ve turned off your phone, not that you’re taking a break from the platform—or worse, it could even suggest that you’re deliberately blocking them.

So given that there’s no easy way to step away without real costs, how do you do it? Perhaps the resolution we should make is to be more aware of how social media influence the patterns of our interpersonal interactions. In resolving to be more conscious about this, just know that if someone ghosts you on Facebook Messenger, it may be a more of an illusion than a ghoul.

Relax, then, when it comes to social media silence. And for text messages? Well, that’s a whole other matter.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.