No one agrees on what iMessage Tapbacks actually mean

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In September 2016, Apple released iOS 10. With it came the iMessage Tapback, the convenient and highly ambiguous reaction feature that — nearly three years later — no one quite knows how to use.

Tapbacks were created, one assumes, to make texting more convenient. It’s true that they’re nearly effortless to employ: Simply press on a message until you’re presented with the Tapback options — a heart, a thumbs up, a thumbs down, a HAHA, a double exclamation point, and a question mark — and pick the one you want. Easy, right? You didn’t even have to type anything!

Here’s the trouble, though. There’s no practical consensus on what, exactly, Tapbacks are supposed to be, or mean. Thus, no implicit code of etiquette has emerged around their use. In our already anxiety-ridden texting culture, that’s a recipe for chaos.

The main question appears to be whether Tapbacks are meant to function as actual messages or as social media reactions. (Before you ask: Yes, iMessage is a social network.) Apple’s blurb on the subject calls Tapbacks a way to “quickly reply” to texts. But the mechanics and appearance of the feature are more similar to, say, a Twitter like, which is decidedly not a reply. A reply is (generally) meant to move a conversation forward; a reaction, which often marks the end of an exchange, reflects on messages already sent.

So when someone reacts to your question with a thumbs up Tapback, you just don’t know: Are they reacting to the message (“Thanks for asking me to go to the beach”) or are they replying affirmatively to the message’s contents (“Yes, I will go to the beach”)? If someone sends you a heart Tapback in lieu of a reply, are they saying “I’m into that” or “OK, but I would like the conversation to end?”

These questions don’t apply to every conversation. If you’re texting your best friend, for example, one Tapback probably won’t matter to you at all. But if you’re texting a more casual acquaintance — or worse, a crush — each message takes on a lot more weight. 

Let’s say you’re texting a newish friend. You are having a pleasant exchange. You text them that you heard a song on the radio (in this scenario, you listen to the radio) that you think they’d like. You do not name the song. They respond with an exclamation point Tapback. No message. Oh god, what?

Depending on how you’ve metabolized the role of Tapbacks in the texting world, this response is up for a pretty wide range of interpretations. When I asked several people to share their thoughts on Tapbacks, the lack of any clear protocol showed.

Twenty-six-year-old Anna, for instance, would view that heart Tapback — sent without an accompanying message — as passive-aggressive. “It’s the new K bomb,” she told me via text. “It’s kinda signaling, ‘OK cool, I’m done with the convo now.'” If you receive an isolated Tapback from someone, that person wants your conversation to be over, she thinks.

Tara, 31, takes it a step further. She views the Tapback as insulting. “That’s a fuckboy move,” she said. “It’s not like you’re texting [them] for your own health. You’re facilitating a conversation.” To her, a Tapback in lieu of a traditional reply indicates laziness at best and outright rudeness at worst. Typing out a short reply isn’t that much more effort, after all. Even sending a single emoji, while still not super-riveting, feels a bit more personalized.

But not everyone views Tapbacks negatively. Olivia, 26, explained that she utilizes them as a “nonverbal” way to keep conversations going — not as a way to end them.

“I feel like I have so little time for texting these days, so I don’t mind at all if someone responds with a reaction and I do it myself all the time,” she said. “It’s an easy way to say ‘got it,’ but also a way to further a conversation.” 

Here’s an example from her recent memory. “If [a friend] texted me, ‘OK, so I made out with someone last night,’ I might respond with just the [exclamation point Tapback] prompting them to tell me more,” she said. “But also maybe I am a horrible texter.” (She’d probably interpret our hypothetical friend’s exclamation-point Tapback as “Send over the song!”)

“It’s an easy way to say ‘got it,’ but also a way to further a conversation.”

 

It’s important to note that ending a conversation is not bad. We can’t be communicating with every single person we know all the time. In fact, we absolutely should not be, and it’s perfectly defensible to let an exchange end at a natural stopping point. This is where Sam, 24, finds the Tapback useful. 

“I love them as a way to quietly and nicely end a text convo, instead of just like, not responding at all and feeling guilty about it,” she said. “Here’s confirmation that I liked your message but it doesn’t really warrant a response, we’re still friends, I’ll talk to you later.” 

There’s where the confusion comes in. If Sam sent a Tapback meant to convey, “Talk to you later, pal,” Tara or Anna might interpret that Tapback as a slight. No one would be wrong.

A lot of the confusion is likely due to Apple’s lack of clarity around Tapbacks in the first place. (To start with, the term “Tapback” is the least helpful name imaginable.) On the support page, even the example used to explain Tapbacks is deeply confusing: The recipient responds to “Are you ready for the party?” with a heart Tapback. I’m sorry — are they ready for the party or not? What the hell does that mean?

The Tapbacks available to users are also a little too weird to be genuinely useful. The heart’s a little too romantic, the thumbs up a little too flippant. The exclamation point is … excitement? Screaming? Any strong emotional response? Fine, the question mark is pretty straightforward, but you can see how we weren’t exactly set up for success here.

There is one area, though, where people seem to love Tapbacks: Fast-paced group threads. Several people mentioned that Tapbacks are great for acknowledging unanswered messages after the chat has moved on to a different topic. This does come with challenges — like the annoying converted “loved an image” text everyone gets when one person in the chat has an Android — but it’s also the one place where the message is distinctly, “I can’t respond to this in the regular way, but I want you to know I saw it.”

As with most facets of texting culture, it’s cool to take the Tapback’s ambiguity with about a cup and a half of salt. If you really aren’t sure what a person means, the best route is to simply ask for clarification. You’ll find out if it was a response or a reaction soon enough.

The only hard-and-fast rule is to never, under any circumstances, use the thumbs down Tapback. You will look like an asshole every single time.

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