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ConTEXTual Feeling

Maci Peterson, founder of On Second Thought, on why the ability to correct ourselves is key to communication.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Maci Peterson understands the importance of context. Peterson is the founder of On Second Thought, a startup whose tech allows users to recall and revise messages in real time. The company started out as a dedicated texting app, an idea that came to Peterson after she accidentally sent an embarrassing text to an ex. On a lark, she entered a startup pitch contest at SXSW and won, despite having no experience in tech. Within a year, she’d secured funding from family and friends and found a team to help her launch the app, which landed her on NBC’s The Today Show. AT&T dubbed the app “the texting savior.”

But in the four years since the idea first got off the ground, Peterson and her business partners have realized that the appetite for their “recall technology” goes far beyond their initial interface. They’re currently exploring how the tech might be used in online dating platforms, within online corporate networks, and even with digital payment systems. Combining what they’ve learned from several years of user feedback with a handful of recent dedicated studies on how we communicate, Peterson says On Second Thought is making a concerted effort to understand how just when and how we make mistakes while communicating, but what the long-term ramifications of those mistakes may be down the road.

“We’re taking a close look at user behavior in different forums, to better understand what the consequences are when we send messages we regret,” says Peterson. “Our initial feedback about which messages people regret was what told us to dig into the online dating world and the professional networking world. Because while ‘feeling embarrassed’ was unequivocally the number one consequence people list of text-regret, we also heard that message mistakes can have more severe consequences, like upsetting family or friends, or professional retribution.”

The subject of how relatively new forms of communication, like texting and social media, have impacted our ability to understand one another is certainly a hot topic at the moment. One recent study from Carnegie Mellon looked at regret in connection to Facebook posting, posited that delaying messages or posts may help limit user regret. Another recent study on Snapchat use, “Media, Meaning, and Context Loss in Ephemeral Communication Platforms,” concluded that within short-term messaging platforms people experience “context loss,” meaning they have more difficulty tracking conversation flow, which makes longer, more in-depth conversations difficult. 

Regret isn’t the only factor—the lack of context when it comes to shorter forms of communication has also led to a huge amount of scrutiny of message subtext, or metamessages, connected to digital communication. As researcher Deborah Tannen put it in a recent article in The Atlantic: “The meanings we glean in conversation are often, maybe mostly, not found in the words spoken, but in how they’re said, and in the spaces between them.” She goes on to point out, that when it comes to digital technology, our human inclination to make and interpret meaning leads us to draw contextual clues from things like which message platform a message is sent from or how long it’s taken the person we’re communicating with to respond to our last message, and, yes, specific word choice. But, Tannen says, because “metamessages are implied rather than stated, they can be misinterpreted or missed entirely.” (Making those Autocorrect mistakes all the more problematic.)

That’s a problem Maci Peterson understands firsthand. dscout recently caught up with Peterson to talk about how we communicate, the potential long lasting impact of ephemeral communication, and context, context, context. (Don’t worry, no more puns from here on out.)

dscout: Where did the idea for On Second Thought come from?

Maci Peterson: I had the idea back in 2014. I kept missing an ex-boyfriend's phone calls, and I finally sent him a text saying, “Hey, for some reason, I keep missing your calls.” But Autocorrect changed the text to say something far more embarrassing right at the moment I pushed send. I was slamming my fingers against my phone watching that timer go across the screen and trying to figure out how to stop the message from sending. It was awful. I thought there had to be a way to get the message back before he read it. I did a Google search and an app store search, but I couldn’t find anything that would let me take the message back. 

I started asking friends and family if they’d ever sent messages they wished they could take back, and overwhelmingly, they all said yes. One said, “What do you have in mind? I want to invest in that.” A few months later, I found out about a pitch competition at South by Southwest, applied, and was accepted. I flew down to Austin, having no real experience in tech, and pitched the idea. Out of about 20 companies—many of whom already had detailed business plans and product demos and lots more experience—I won first place for that idea. From there it was working on getting funding, entering more pitch contests, and slowly starting to recruit the tech expertise I knew I needed alongside me to try and build a demo. We ended up launching the beta version of the product that December and started to build up a stable of users. 

We were getting feedback from users and developers and VC’s and other informal business advisors all over the world, and there was a definite excitement about and hunger for the service. I remember shortly after we launched we heard that a divorce attorney in Alexandria, Virginia, was recommending the app to their clients because of our “curfew feature,” which provided an overnight embargo on messages. We were hearing stories like that from users, which was really interesting. And then in March of 2015 we had over 100 articles written about us within a 48-hour period, and we went from 5,000 users to 25,000 users in two days. It was insane. We’d clearly struck a nerve.

Sounds like it! Texting mistakes seem to be a pretty ubiquitous problem across the board—why do you think that is? Is it just the speed at which we’re trying to do everything and functions like Autocorrect getting in the way?

I think it goes beyond speed. Our research has told us 70% of smartphone owners have sent a text they wished they could take back. And what we’ve found overwhelmingly, in feedback from users and clients, is that people often only realize errors after it looks like a message has been sent. No matter how many times you proofread something, sometimes you can’t really see it objectively until it looks like it’s been sent out into the world. And then, once it appears more permanent, that’s when people see it more clearly and realize mistakes.

Like how you can’t proofread your own work.


Some of the research on that is pretty striking—one argument is that we don’t see our own typos because our brains are interpolating what we want to say, according to a Wired interview with psychologist Tom Stafford. Stafford argues that when we’re reading our own work, we’re combining what’s actually written with what we meant to write, which is why we often can’t see mistakes.

We’ve seen that play out with users. And it speaks to how it’s not really a matter of just slowing down and reading what you’ve written again, because in certain formats there are things we just often don’t catch. With our tech, it looks like the message has been sent but it really hasn't. It's being held so you can retract it. Because often it’s very soon after a message is sent that someone will regret sending it—close to two-thirds of messages that people wish they could “unsend” are messages people want to take back within a few seconds of sending.

Close to two-thirds of messages that people wish they could “unsend” are messages people want to take back within a few seconds of sending.

Maci Peterson

One of the things that comes up so often in conversations about research is the importance of context—and one of the problems with texting is that it’s a conversation happening with often such limited context.

That’s entirely the reason why our tech exists.

The messages themselves are so short, and yet it’s become one of the dominant ways we communicate. The Atlantic has done a couple of recent pieces about this—how this inherent lack of context leads people to scour every detail for additional meaning, and how modern communication has become a huge exercise in decoding metamessages. Word choice, the length of time between messages, whether or not someone used an emoji are all things we now perceive as contextual clues to help us understand our conversations on a deeper level.

People analyze every facet of every communication for clues as to what someone might be thinking. So if you communicate something poorly in a text, or make a mistake that you wouldn’t ever make during a “live conversation,” it can have really drastic consequences.

And that’s become an even bigger problem in the age of “nothing ever really disappears online,” that leads to a permanent, shareable, undeletable record of all of our missteps. We need to have the opportunities to fix those mistakes before they lead to, what we’ve found, are sometimes really severe consequences.

You’ve done a few studies connected to the ways people communicate via text and what mistakes in different arenas can ultimately mean.

We just did a big study on how people communicate in the online-dating world, as many of those platforms are set up with messaging systems that mimic texting. People generally tend to send fewer messages each day via dating apps than they send texts (66% of our users told us they send more than 10 texts a day, but only 30% said they logged into a dating app every day.) And we know from previous research that the higher the number of messages, the higher the number of mistakes. But even with lower usage rates, 45% of people still made mistakes, or sent messages they regretted. 

So it may be that women take mistakes more seriously, or that the mistakes that men are making are more egregious.

Maci Peterson

And what we found was, while there wasn't a huge discrepancy between men and women when it came to admitting they'd sent a message they later regarded as a mistake (52% of men vs 41% of women), there was a big discrepancy between the frequency and the impact of those mistakes. 26% of men reported sending a "mistake message" in the last month, while only 14% of women did. Men also generally felt less embarrassed when they did make mistakes—despite the fact that their mistakes were 50% more likely to permanently end a conversation, and 200% more likely to result in them being blocked or reported by the user they were speaking with. So it may be that women take mistakes more seriously, or that the mistakes that men are making are more egregious. 

Either way, we found those mistakes were having an irreversible impact on the possibility of romance blooming, as 30% of people told us that their conversations completely stopped after they made a message blunder. Again, it comes back to context. In an online dating platform, you’re operating with a limited amount of information about the person you’re speaking with, and they’re operating with a limited amount of information about you. So each message and each word choice is evaluated with a larger level of importance.

You also studied how people message with their co-workers and in a professional setting.

Yes, and we were really surprised to see some of the professional consequences that resulted from mistakes people made in those environments. Over half of us have sent a message to someone in a professional setting we wish we could take back, and sometimes there are serious ramifications to that. We actually found that 11% of people have faced professional consequences as a result of a messaging mistake. That included being written up all the way up to termination of employment. 

It speaks to what a serious issue these mistakes are. We’re also looking at things like the #MeToo movement, and the impact that messages may have had there, and issues like bullying and harassment. There’s research to suggest that, amongst teens, there's a high correlation between depression and high smartphone use. One theory is that it’s because teens are spending so much time on messaging platforms like Snapchat and Instagram and Twitter. And they’re impulsive, and quick to post things, and if they make a mistake with a post on those platforms that may be the impetus for another kid to bully them. We’re hoping to look more closely at the mental health impact of bad messages.

Is that what’s next for On Second Thought?

That, and we’re expanding with our tech into other platforms. One of the biggest surprises from starting the company is just how many applications people are interested in using the tech for. In a dating app for example, or within other messaging platforms. We’re even integrating with payment apps now, so people can undo payments before they get to the other person in the event that they make an error. There are a few different directions we’re looking at, but really, our whole mission and purpose as a company is to try and promote clarity and understanding. That’s what builds stronger bonds between people.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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