The upcoming version of iMessage will let you unsend and edit messages for up to 15 minutes. Sounds great, very convenient — Signal and WhatsApp and Viber have had similar features for years. You can try it out right now in the public betas for iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura. Just one small caveat.
If the recipient of your attempted rug-sweeping isn’t running the public betas on every device they use for iMessage, you’re the only one who will see history as you wish you’d written it.
To test the new unsending and editing feature, I fired up iMessage on my newly beta’d iPhone 11 and asked my colleague Mitchell to show me the NFT they obtained while testing America’s most legally obligated new 5G network. I sent a message saying, “Thought you had apes,” unsent it, sent a second message that just said “cool,” and then edited it a few minutes later to say “VERY cool.” (It isn’t cool. Sorry, Dish.)
Here’s what Mitchell saw: on the betas for iOS 16 and macOS Ventura, they saw that I had unsent a message (but not the message itself), and they got the edited version of the second, with a little “Edited” badge underneath. On iOS 15.5 and macOS Monterey, I was revealed as the NFT-hater I am: they could still see the retracted message and both the edited and original versions of the second one.
I tested this feature with several people across multiple versions of iOS and macOS and got the same results: if both parties are running the public betas, the feature works as intended, and you get to keep as much of your dignity as you can scrounge. Even the unread message notifications in the notification center quietly go away.
But on any Apple device not running on the public beta — which is, statistically, all of them — unsent messages just hang out there, sent. And if you edit a message, as opposed to deleting it and sending another one, Apple leaves the original message intact and sends a second message with your edits, which it wraps in quotes and prefaces with the words “Edited to:” within the message, as if you had typed it yourself. This is confusing and potentially embarrassing, and the sender is none the wiser — unless they happen to look at the conversation on one of their older devices.
To be fair, Apple does warn you after you delete a message that it might not work on devices that aren’t running the latest software, but there’s nothing in the UI to indicate that editing a message is the equivalent of running a correction in tomorrow’s paper.
There are plenty of good reasons to recall a message after you’ve sent it: embarrassing typos, wayward auto-correct, messages sent to the wrong person, even just deciding that your first attempt came off a little bit rude. (Sorry, Mitchell.) Slack and Discord already let you edit messages, and WhatsApp, Viber, and Signal, among others, let you delete sent messages — though none of them is the default messaging app for half the smartphones in the country. For most people, it’s a way to avoid gaffes and smooth out social interactions, nothing more.
But unsending and editing have more nefarious uses. Victims’ rights organizations have spoken out about the potential for abuse and gaslighting — editing messages to look innocuous after they’ve been read, sending unsolicited graphic images and then unsending them, and generally making it harder for their victims to keep evidence of the misdeeds. “Manipulation of edit and unsend features will fit neatly within any power and control dynamic by allowing a bad actor to reach into a victim’s device and make changes without consent,” Adam Dodge, CEO of EndTAB — which trains organizations to help address and prevent online abuse — tells The Verge. “And a lot of damage can be done in a 15-minute window.” Dodge added that he’d spoken with judges concerned that it would “wreak havoc” with the admissibility of iMessage screenshots in court.
Right now, editing and unsending are only available to the vanishingly small percentage of Apple users enrolled in the public betas. But this fall, they’ll roll out to everyone on an iPhone 8 or newer, which is a sizable chunk of the entire US smartphone market.
If you don’t like the idea of people being able to edit or retract messages on your phone’s default messaging app, should you just avoid the iOS 16 update? That’s not a great option either, as Dodge explains:
It’s certainly an option, but I think this puts an unfair burden on victims. iOS updates improve device performance and protect users from new threats. Keeping an older iOS version means asking victims to endure other disadvantages and risks just to stay safe. I’m more in favor of an opt-in feature that lets users choose to allow editing and un-sending messages on their device, similar to read receipts.
With several months to go before the new operating systems officially roll out, there may still be time for Apple to make editing and unsending opt-in features, like Dodge suggests. People who want the features can enable them. Or they can use another messaging app like Signal, which lets you send view-once and auto-deleting messages. It even works on Android.