Technology

The history behind text messaging’s most dreadful feature

You may not know the technical term “typing awareness indicator” by name, but if you’re using chat systems like Slack or send texts via iPhone, you see it on a daily basis.

More often referred to as “so-and-so is typing,” TAIs (an abbreviation I just made up now, for this article) have shaped how we interact with each other. Seeing a message indicating that, say, a person you’re dating is typing out a follow-up to their initial “can we talk?” message with a never-ending typing bubble “…” — this is a moment when TAI anxiety becomes real.

The technology of TAIs has been described as “the tyranny of the text bubble,” “the most awkward part of online chat” or “a certain kind of chat app hell.” Bustle helpfully (or not) pointed out eight situations when typing awareness indicators were “the worst,” from saying “I love you” to sexting to a response to a joke (followed by a long-running typing bubble, wherein you question yourself and your existence).

But when I experimented with turning off TAIs on my work Slack for a mere 30 minutes, the anxiety of waiting for responses created pure drudgery, and the anxiety of not knowing when someone was typing might have even been worse than waiting with dread for a reply. So for all of the bad feelings and “tyranny” that TAIs may have inflicted on society, they’re a necessary evil whose origin comes from a pure space. Or, as pure a space as a bunch of IBM developers in 1997 trying to figure out how to work with each other while debugging a project.

It was while working on a chat server for the company that “someone’s typing” was invented. Jerry Cuomo, IBM Fellow and IBM’s vice president of blockchain technologies, created the technology with co-worker Richard Redpath, which was one of the first TAIs in existence, at least as far as he — and SFGATE — can tell, according to his patent filed in 1997. (For the record, though, Microsoft software engineer-turned-writer David Auerbach has also taken the blame/credit of working on TAIs for Microsoft’s MSN Messenger Service in 1999. Cuomo and Redpath’s patent was approved in November of 1999.)


As Cuomo wrote in an article last year celebrating the 20th anniversary of this small bit of technology, “If necessity (and laziness) breeds invention, this is where ‘someone’s typing’ was invented.”

Describing late-night debugging sessions for a chat server that evolved out of their work on a Tom Clancy video game (yes, you read that right), Cuomo said in an interview with SFGATE that while working with teams of people in different spaces, the group took to yelling at each other across the room.

“We would be sitting in each other’s offices and one person would run the server side, and a couple of people would run the chatting side and sometimes nothing would happen,” Cuomo recalled. “And we’re like, ‘Well, did you — are you typing something?’ We’d start shouting out to each other in the offices. Like, ‘What’s going — is someone doing something, or is it broken?’”

No response would generally elicit a knock on the wall to the neighboring room or calling that person’s office — this was before the cellphone age, Cuomo reminded me — even though that person was just a few feet away. (As a fellow lazy person, I completely understand.)

“One morning after, I said, ‘This is ridiculous and almost comical that we’re shouting,’” Cuomo said. “Sometimes I’d go home and my throat would be a little sore from yelling. And I just decided to put a debug message to echo to everyone what the person was typing. … It was really to cut down on the craziness of debugging the system.”

The initial typing awarenesss indicator that Cuomo co-created was somewhat of a social disaster for the team, however. Before they reached the iconic “someone’s typing” that we know today, the first iteration literally showed everyone what team members were typing, as they were typing it. Cue the first inklings of anxiety caused by messaging.

“[The typing awareness indicator] would literally put what you were typing and you would see it in real time,” Cuomo said. “And then [reactions would be], ‘That’s not how you spell that word.’ It was getting embarrassing.”

To cure this, the next iteration changed the format to hide the message content, so the typing instead showed asterisks.

“As you typed, an asterisk would be in place of that letter, so it was somewhat anonymized until you were ready to send it, but sometimes you would see it as, someone would be typing [Cuomo imitates typing sounds] and then it would go backwards [Cuomo makes deleting sounds]. And then it would just say, ‘yes.’ And then we’d start yelling out again: ‘You weren’t going to say yes, you were going to say something more. What were you going to say?’ It got clumsy. So we just decided on ‘Dianne is typing’ and just left it at that. And that’s the way it stayed.”


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