Digital Culture
Apple

iMessage's invisible ink puts the fun in functional

iMessage's most underrated function is great for gossip, drama, and creating 'an aura of suspense.'
By Elena Cavender  on 
Three people standing in bright trench coats holding iPhones over their faces.
Credit: Mashable

My finger hovers over an iMessage obscured by a haze of dancing white dots. Before I tap to dissolve the sparkling pixels and reveal the contents of the message, I know it's going to be juicy, or at the very least entertaining. That's the allure of iMessage's most underrated function: invisible ink. 

When you send a message or photo with invisible ink, the words and images are atomized only to be revealed with the swipe of a finger. It gives the allusion of security; taking a screenshot of it is a challenge but not impossible. The use of invisible ink also breaks up the monotony of texting. Text messages, unlike face-to-face conversations, are anything but ephemeral. They live on the recipient's phone forever, begging to be saved in your camera roll or shown to someone else. Invisible ink signals that you don't want whatever you said repeated, creating a sense of intimacy and code of conduct. 

Invisible ink launched in 2016 with other iMessage Bubble and Screen effects, including gentle and slam, but the other effects have yet to have the utility or cultural impact of invisible ink. Invisible ink is no longer just an iMessage utility but part of the internet's larger vernacular, an indicator of its impact on the way we communicate and how we decide what is secret or too much information to share. For example, Twitter users preface their more controversial or out-of-pocket opinions with the disclaimer "sent with invisible ink."

On average, Gen Z has 96 unread text messages on their phones and millennials have 51(opens in a new tab), yet the average screen time for Americans is 4.8 hours a day(opens in a new tab), suggesting a nationwide case of texting fatigue. In 2022, The New York Times(opens in a new tab) declared the group chat dead after our collective reliance on it during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, texting and group chats have endured largely because we've found innovative ways to make them more dynamic through inventive emoji use, voice notes, and invisible ink. Faced with seemingly endless messages on Slack, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, invisible ink is a way for me to liven up texting and differentiate between work and pleasure.

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"[I use invisible ink] in normal texts to create that aura of suspense," Emma Hashemi tells Mashable. The 23-year-old technology risk consultant based in San Francisco, California also employs invisible ink for silly stuff she might be embarrassed about or to surprise the recipient. It's a way to announce I'm going to be unhinged for a moment, don't hold what I am about to say against me, or here's some tea that I can't risk sending out in the open

When Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn broke up, I sent devastating edits and tweets in invisible ink prefaced by "tw taylor and joe break up" to a group chat of fellow Taylor Swift fans out of respect for their emotional wellbeing. In another one of my group chats, it's customary to send all photos of actor Logan Lerman in invisible ink because a face like that can catch you off guard. 

It's a way to announce 'I'm going to be unhinged for a moment, don't hold what I am about to say against me,' or 'here's some tea that I can't risk sending out in the open.'

The appeal of invisible ink goes beyond its contents. The effect in itself is enticing. Max Porto, a 25-year-old student in Brooklyn, New York, "gets a dopamine rush from swiping away the invisible ink."

But invisible ink doesn't just break up the boring streams of texts; its functionality is an ally of gossips everywhere. "I use invisible ink to gossip about people who are also in the room," Joyce Cam, a 24-year-old marketing administrator from Portland, Oregon, tells Mashable. It's also a method to keep talking shit about someone even when you know the recipient is with the subject of your rant. "It rocks when you don't want people to read over your shoulder. For example, if you're in an audience setting and the guy behind you is having a weird conversation and you want to tell your friend without him being able to read over your shoulder," explains another invisible ink aficionado to Mashable. 

Invisible ink is also a tool to discuss spoilers in group chats where not everyone is caught up, explains 22-year-old Mary Niarhos, who uses it when Succession airs. Similarly, it's used to send your Wordle score without revealing the word to those who haven't played yet. It's also utilized to send sexy messages and nudes.  

Invisible ink is closely related to another texting trend: censoring names or phrases for dramatic effect. "My friends and I will often censor the names of people we collectively dislike," explains Cam. She gave the example of replacing the letters of someone's name with asterisks when announcing the person's pregnancy to the group chat. Another strategy is to use [redacted] instead of a name or phrase. Self-censorship in private channels feels weird, but it adds flavor to text messages and is likely a result of so much of our daily communication occurring over work channels monitored by employers on Slack and Microsoft Teams. 

As we continue to conduct so much of our social interactions online, people will find even more creative uses for app functionalities like invisible ink. And our text communication will be better — and way more fun if not slightly absurd — because of it.

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Elena Cavender

Elena is a tech reporter and the resident Gen Z expert at Mashable. She covers TikTok and digital trends. She recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in American History. Email her at [email protected](opens in a new tab) or follow her @ecaviar_(opens in a new tab).


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