Bring Back the Away Message

In an era where conversations never seem to end, we should be able to press pause on all of them.
Rachel Pick
New York, US
Woman sleeping under covers with her phone next to her in bed.
Adam Kuylenstierna / EyeEm / Getty Images

If you notice, everything seems to run on a roughly 20-year cycle—even the House of Representatives, which is voting to impeach the president today, for the first time since 1998. (They’re a year behind schedule, but they’ve been going through a thing, so it’s OK.) But there is one thing my millennial heart yearns for that has not come back to me. One thing that is both practical and inspires nostalgia for a simpler time, before 9/11, the Forever Wars, and acute climate anxiety: the away message.


Yes, you can set an out-of-office responder on your Gmail account. You can set an away message in Google Hangouts and Slack. You can even set an away message in iMessage, sort of. (You have to turn on Do Not Disturb, which doesn’t help if you’re trying to only selectively put some people off of contacting you. Also, a proper away message is visible to everyone even before they message you.) But what a pain in the ass it is to set all of that up! And what about other apps? Social platforms? What if you want to set an away message without turning on Do Not Disturb? The people need it, the people demand it: the Universal Away Message.

The author makes a case in Slack.

It was a recent bout of strep throat I had that led me to start thinking about the concept of a Universal Away Message. Stuck with tonsils so heinously swollen and diseased that the attending physician at urgent care called her colleague in to look at them (“because they’re very impressive”), I had no choice but to take a bunch of sleep aids and try to pass out for as much of the next few days as possible, while the steroids and antibiotics did their work.

But a combination of a demanding job, a functional and involved family, and some degree of a social life means my phone blows up with bullshit on about 12 different apps roughly 10,000 times a day. How could I communicate to everyone who cares about me or needs something from me at once? Wouldn’t it be great if somehow I could send anyone trying to reach me on any platform a simple message? “I love you and/or respect you, but I’m taking a break from my phone, and please fuck off for right now. I’ll get back to you later. Mom: I am most likely not dead.” Emails, texts, Twitter DMs, Instagram DMs, your one tinfoil hat friend who will only use Signal, dating apps, etc. Anything incoming: She’s not here right now, please hold. In an era of digital conversations that never really end, but simply pick up and fade out and then pick up again, there should be an option to formally press pause on communication.

Of course, all the apps we use are walled off from one another and would never coordinate on a universal feature like this. Frankly, I’m not even sure it’s technologically possible—I’m not an engineer, so do not email me about this. It’s merely a utopian dream I had while in the feverish throes of acute tonsillitis. But I’d settle for a proper away message function in iMessage, or for similar concepts to be rolled out on all the major social platforms. And if anyone does make a Universal Away Message, somehow, in a brighter future, I expect money. Thank you so much and/or fuck you for stealing my idea.