Last December, messaging giant WhatsApp began trialling a new feature in a move that went relatively unnoticed. However, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that the ‘delete for everyone’ function was rolled out to all its global users.
It’s pretty self-explanatory: you can now delete messages from your chats even if you’ve already sent them. You could always do this for yourself, but now you can stop the message’s recipient(s) from seeing it too, as long as they haven’t read it yet. There’s also a couple more catches: firstly, you must have the latest version of WhatsApp downloaded, and secondly, you’re only given a window of seven minutes within which you can delete. Why seven minutes, you may be asking? Is that the amount of time that it takes to realise you’ve made a terrible mistake in sending that passive aggressive text to your housemate? Or perhaps it’s the average maximum time it takes receivers to read a message? With people using their phones more and more frequently, it seems likely that a WhatsApp message would be read a lot quicker than that.
It’s also worth noting that the deleted message doesn’t just vanish without a trace. On your screen, it will be replaced by a note reading ‘You deleted this message’, whilst your recipient will instead see the rather suspicious sounding words ‘This message was deleted’. It’s likely that this will cause just as much trouble as if you hadn’t erased it in the first place. Cue a stream of interrogatory messages on the group chat demanding that you reveal your initial sentiment. Ah, the politics of group messaging.
Anyway, this is all relatively harmless for those who have a habit of accidentally sending a message before they’ve finished crafting it, or grammar perfectionists who realise they’ve made significant spelling errors that they cannot bear to look at on the screen in front of them. However, there is a danger that it may encourage the sending (and then rapid deletion) of a nasty, scathing, or bullying text to an unknowing recipient. What’s the harm in that, you may wonder? Sometimes it’s necessary to get things off your chest, to make your feelings known, to see them there in the conversation waiting to be read.
Yet, the idea that one can say and then instantly retract something unnecessary or unkind is highly unsettling. In the real world, a person cannot do this, and as such must be held accountable for the mistakes they make. Sure, an apology can go a long way to being forgiven for a conversational mishap; however, the memory of it can take a lot longer to fade. WhatsApp’s new function has the capacity to entirely remove this process, with the message sender no longer held accountable for their actions. In summary, you can’t delete a real-life spoken word, which makes the act of deleting a digital one highly unnatural.
Like many things, this new feature will be used and abused. Yet, as the internet user is told time and time again that their online words can never be truly erased, only the brave (or foolish) few will dare to click send on their words of incrimination. Ultimately, this technological advancement can be read as a moralistic step back for WhatsApp users.
Words: Saskia Hume
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