How Buffering Icons Shape Our Sense of Time Article Published

Below is an article that I wrote for Real Life magazine (original can be found HERE). This piece is from one of the chapters of the book that focuses on “designs of waiting” like buffering icons.

We have an acute awareness of duration, and that awareness is always linked to prevailing technologies that shape how we understand and experience time. One such technology reshaping our sense of a moment is an otherwise unassuming little piece of interface design: the buffering icon — the circle spinning in place on our browsers as we wait patiently for our content to load. It suggests that some complex code is being processed behind the scenes, and in lieu of access to that code, we are given an animated indicator to hold our attention. The buffering icon’s activity is meant to help us sit back and enjoy our passivity. These icons try to shift our expectations, modifying our willingness to wait. But the image of a buffering symbol has come to trigger mainly anxiety. As the scope of our technology use has expanded with transmission capacity, bandwidth limitations have remained a choke point, and that means that some users are left waiting. But who waits, and how, differs depending on their status and their power.

Waiting isn’t essentially a wasted in-between time; waiting is a core part of messages we send each other across the fiber optic lines

Waiting, for most people, is associated with boredom and discomfort. We hate wasting time, especially when it is so limited, and we hate not knowing when we will get a response. As Neta Alexander has asked in her research on buffering icons, “Is buffering a punishment? And if it is, what sin have we committed?”

But as I argue in my book, Waiting for Word, we are looking at waiting entirely wrong. Waiting isn’t essentially a wasted in-between time; instead waiting is a core part of messages we send each other across the fiber optic lines. The time it takes to receive and interpret a message is also part of its content. We take the moment of waiting and give it meaning; it becomes a message of its own.

Part of our awareness of duration is cognitive. After a period of working with a particular device, according to this study by computer scientist Ben Shneiderman, our brains begin to set expectations for how quickly it should respond. If these expectations aren’t met we move on to the next task quickly (often around the two-second mark) unless something calls us back. But part of it is also cultural. We wait differently and we have different expectations that are grounded in our specific cultures. Thus, it’s a combination of technological expectations (how quickly we believe that our technologies should be working) and cultural expectations (how the contexts in a society set up certain expectations about how people should wait according to their position within that society).

When the Xerox Star, among the first commercial networked computers, was released in 1981, it allowed people to do things at a speed that they hadn’t been able to achieve before. “Yet, that was not part of peoples’ feelings or perceptions. They just felt like they were going really slow even though if you compared it with what you would have had to do without the Star, it was dramatically faster,” Brad A. Myers, professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, told me. People’s overwhelming feeling about this computer was that it took forever to load. It took forever to exchange files. It took forever to exchange messages. It took forever, even though it was faster than anything that had come before.

The Xerox Star used an hourglass cursor to indicate a processing lag. This cursor carried over to Apple’s Lisa computer in 1983. The next iteration was the wristwatch icon in 1984, designed by Susan Kare, who argued that “more people had experience with a wristwatch than an hourglass.” A year later, though, Microsoft Windows would go back to the hourglass. In the late 1980s, Unix machines had the “beach ball of death” that carried over into Apple’s HyperCard for Macintosh. The spinning rainbow beach ball of death launched with Mac OS X in mid-2001. Its official name is the “spinning wait cursor.” The first internet version of the loading icon was the Netscape Navigator “throbber,” launched in 1994. Around 2006, Microsoft Vista was released; it used a circular spinning blue icon, the ancestor of what we know as the online buffering icon.

Waiting icons make us willing to wait longer — three times as long as designs with no visualization to indicate something is happening behind the scenes. Even better are “percent-done progress bars” — an approach first popularized by Myers before he started his career in academia in the early 1980s — which promise a specific end in sight. Despite this, buffering icons remain prominent. When I asked Myers why this might be, he noted that conditions on the internet fluctuate extremely, and a progress bar that had been moving smoothly only to stall at 99 percent is more frustrating and dissatisfying than an opaque buffering icon.

Progress bars also may have little to do with actual data-transfer rates. Designers often manipulate the circle visualization that purports to track app-download progress, front-loading it so that it moves slowly at first but then speeds up at the end. This allows the download to please us by seeming to beat our expectations, which were established by the contrived slowness. Once again, technologies can establish a perception of time and duration that is independent of actual measurable seconds.

Because our experience of duration can be readily manipulated through technology and interface design, businesses have been exploring the possibilities. Some retailers are especially concerned with wait times online. An Amazon study showed that for every 100 milliseconds of delay on their site, they lose one percent of revenue. These sorts of findings have prompted them to build servers next to those of partner companies in “co-location facilities” to cut down on latency. The concern for reducing wait time applies to online video as well. According to this study, after five seconds of buffering, 20 percent of people who started to watch that video will leave; after 10 seconds, half will be gone. After 20 seconds, it’s up to 70 percent.

But there are other circumstances where we prefer to wait. In 2016, Facebook began offering security scans of user profiles, sending back details of any potential threats it could detect from users’ profile settings. Facebook could conduct these scans very rapidly and at first would spit back the information instantly to users. But when it did, people didn’t trust it. They didn’t believe the scan was thorough and often would not change their settings. But when Facebook inserted a bit of code that made the system pause, people began to trust the results more and make changes to their profile’s security settings. Travel sites also modify the speed of results, building in a false latency to try to make consumers feel the searches were more thorough. Technology is actually ahead of our expectations, yet our temporal expectations of thoroughness dictate how we experience it and the code that is written for it.

Designers often manipulate the circle visualization, allowing the download to please us by seeming to beat our expectations, which were established by contrived slowness

Similarly, the desire for waiting is built into launch events, as when Apple implements anticipation as a core feature of new products. Apple announces a product and makes us wait, building our desire. It knows it’s extraordinarily powerful to have the imagination at work during that wait time.

In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes describes the eroticism of waiting. He writes, “Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move … Am I in love? — Yes, since I am waiting. The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game: Whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.” Lovers are not only willing to wait for the object of their desire, but are defined by that willingness to wait. While we wait, our desire grows and comes to define our relationship to the person (or object) we long for.

Sometimes the waiting is the very act that gives us pleasure in these erotic connections to people and things. Barthes goes on to recount a Chinese tale of a man in love with a courtesan, who tells him, “I shall be yours when you have spent 100 nights waiting for me.” On the 99th night, the man “stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away.” Waiting was the practice of dwelling in the fantasy about the thing longed for.

Waiting is such a powerful part of our relationships (to people that we long for, to objects like iPhones that we may long for) because that’s where imagination does its work. For consumers and users of contemporary technology, waiting is deeply connected to our fantasies about who we are and what our purchases say about us. This was famously detailed by sociologist Colin Campbell in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987). Campbell argued that modern consumers shape their identities by fantasizing about how a product will lead to the lifestyle they are daydreaming about, what he calls “autonomous, self-illusory hedonism.” For Barthes, the same is true of how we wait for the ones we are in love with and long for. When the thing longed for finally arrives, it can rarely live up to the excitement generated by our imaginations.

Though it is counterintuitive, a similar logic is at play in our online lives. For me, in my moments of boredom, as I turn to my phone and refresh my social media feed, I imagine that what’s on the other side of the buffering icon might be the content that will rid me of boredom and produce a satisfying social connection. The buffering icon here represents my hopes for the many ways that my social media feeds can satisfy my longings at any given moment. They rarely do, though I believe that we are half in love with the buffering icon here because it represents the promise of intimacy or excitement across the distances that separate us.

In moments of boredom, the buffering icon represents my hopes for the many ways that my social media feeds can satisfy my longings at any given moment

Though waiting is a powerful tool used by companies to create a bond with their products and a promise of fulfillment for the things we long for, users and customers want to feel that their waiting isn’t in vain. This is especially true when users are confronted with complex systems that aren’t visible, as with computer code being processed or data being sent across the lines. Feedback becomes an essential tool for letting users know that the system is working, making the invisible arenas of computing life seem less threatening and off-limits.

As the mechanics of our machines recede from view behind seamless devices, we can feel detached and disengaged. Our bodies feel less connected to a machine as its systems and infrastructures aren’t a visible part of our daily interactions with that machine. As discussed by the likes of Allucquére Roseanne Stone and Anthony Giddens, systems that recede from view ultimately require feedback for users. We will wait, but not if there’s little to no feedback about why we’re waiting (and nothing to give us a sense of control about how we wait). Buffering icons and wait cursors confront this challenge, giving us feedback that reshapes our everyday expectations and experiences of time and duration as computers process the data being sent across the lines.

But the visibility of waiting in digital interfaces should not make us think that the ultimate ideal would be to make waiting eventually disappear. We might embrace the visible tangibility of waiting not to remind us how much time we are losing but to demystify instantaneous culture and ever-accelerating paces of “real time.” Notions of instantaneous culture promise speeds of connection that will bridge the social distance between us, that will make our connection to ideas and knowledge instantly accessible, and that all of the desires we have can be fulfilled immediately. However, this logic that dominates the current approaches to the tech industry misses the power of waiting and the embedded role it plays in our daily lives. Waiting will never be eliminated and, deep down, we don’t want it to be.

If we embrace waiting as a core part of how we connect with one another, it could become a fruitful part of that connection. If much of our communication practices with each other use asynchronous media like text messages and social media posts, then our identities as social beings are indelibly linked to waiting (and the ways that waiting becomes a part of the interpretive process of receiving messages).

So the next time you see a “Read” receipt at the bottom of a text message, or see the three dots indicating that someone is typing back, embrace the waiting as a moment to notice how this time can tell you a lot about this particular relationship. Waiting reveals seams in our relationships and systems that we might otherwise have overlooked.