“I’m bored and lonely, say something funny”

At 12:21 PM on December 24, 2012, I sent this sentence via iMessage. It caused absolute mayhem for three weeks. Here is why:

  • You cannot add or subtract people from a group iMessage. As a result, it’s impossible to unsubscribe from a group iMessage unless all participants agree to stop messaging it. Not wanting to be on an iMessage is not an option. The only way to stop the flood of iMessages is to either disable group iMessages, to block all senders one by one, or to disable iMessage entirely. All of these are “nuclear options” that would probably mess with your social life in very unpleasant ways.
  • The recipient list of a group iMessage is exposed to all participants. As a result, anybody can copy the recipient list, add (or subtract!) a few people, and start an entirely new thread. (Keep in mind, however, that this still preserves the old thread.)
  • iMessage is buggy as hell. On a thread of this size, random iMessages will spawn new threads for no reason.Recipients will not receive iMessages for several days, then receive over 4,000 at once. Or they’ll just start receiving messages from an existing thread in medias res and have to begin making sense of it.
  • iMessage applies to your data plan. This is great for cutting down the number of texts you receive, but if you have only a 2GB data plan and aren’t on wifi over Christmas, you will absolutely receive enough insane GIFs to exceed your data plan for the month… in, like, ten minutes.
  • Once the iMessage is sent, it’s out of the sender’s hands. I can do nothing to “fix” this: it has to come from the group. The whole group. If somebody wants to troll that group, they are allowed to do so.
  • iMessages are forever. Want to revive a thread after a really long time? Go right ahead. Three months after this thread finally, mercifully died down, somebody sent “Hi everybody! How’s it going?” to the entire damn thread, prompting desperate “UNSUBSCRIBE” texts and numerous confused replies.

Now here’s why all the mayhem: that first iMessage was sent to 108 people. I had to take two people out to apology brunches because I blew their data plans. Numerous people missed really important texts from loved ones. Nobody – myself included – could figure out what was going on at any point. And it was awesome.

Christmas can be a boring and isolating time: you’re cooped up in the house with the same people for a few days, and working on stuff is really out of the question. Obviously, I had to do it again this year.

So, I created a google form that asked for your name, iMessage ID, and asked the question “Why are you doing this to yourself?” I got about 30 responses, and created the first thread around 11am on Christmas Eve.

This year’s iMessage has been amazing.

Several people have begun new friendships on the iMessage; people have told numerous great stories on the iMessage, about foraging for ramps and looking at bad holiday decorations; numerous in-jokes have surfaced on the iMessage; people conducted Setup interviews on the iMessage with the creator of The Setup; hell, somebody even wrote short fiction on the iMessage, with a sideplot about a high school football player named Nutmeat.

I’m about 500 words through the first draft of this letter, and fifteen iMessages have been sent since I began it. The iMessage went on for over a week – but it could flare back up anytime.

More importantly, though, I think this year’s holiday iMessage has changed its recipients’ lives for the better. As one person said, “by the time you send that newsletter, we could have formed a whole new society.”

I have no idea when the iMessage will finally die off: probably when folks start to get annoyed with it. But that doesn’t appear to have happened yet, and I’m really grateful to have played a part in its creation.

I hope Apple never fixes iMessage. All of those qualities I listed above? They can be interpreted as bugs to be fixed, sure. But they are also what makes the holiday iMessage so great. iMessage’s bugginess, permanence, and harrowing persistence have built a small community of friends. And building friendships is the hardest and yet most important thing.

I will cherish this stupid, buggy, awful protocol forever.

[photo via Martin Fisch used under Creative Commons]
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