Don’t count on the new “unsend” feature in iMessage just yet.
It only works if the person you’re sending it to is also on Apple’s public beta, which most people aren’t.
The upcoming version of iMessage will let you unsend and edit messages for up to 15 minutes. Sounds great and would be very helpful, but Signal, WhatsApp, and Viber have had similar features for a long time. You can try it out right now in the public betas of iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura. Just one minor note.
If the person you’re trying to sweep under the rug isn’t running the public betas on every iMessage device they use, you’ll be the only one who sees history the way you wish you’d written it.
I opened iMessage on my brand-new iPhone 11 beta and asked my colleague Mitchell to show me the NFT they got while testing America’s most legally required new 5G network so I could try out the new unsend and edit features. I sent a message that said “Thought you had apes,” then took it back, sent a second message that just said “cool,” and then changed the first message to say “VERY cool” a few minutes later. (That’s not cool. Dish, I’m sorry.)
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, along with a little “Edited” badge. On iOS 15.5 and macOS Monterey, they could still see the deleted message and both the edited and original versions of the second one. This showed that I hate NFT.
I tested this feature with multiple people using different versions of iOS and macOS, and the results were always the same: if both people are using the public betas, the feature works as it should, and you can keep as much of your dignity as you can. Even the notifications about unread messages in the notification center go away quietly.
But on Apple devices that aren’t running the public beta, which is most of them, unsent messages just sit there, sent. And if you edit a message instead of deleting it and sending a new one, Apple keeps the original message and sends a second message with your changes. This second message is wrapped in quotes and starts with the words “Edited to:” as if you had written it yourself. This is confusing and could be embarrassing, and the sender doesn’t know unless they look at the conversation on an older device.
Apple does warn you after you delete a message that it might not work on devices with older software, but there’s nothing in the user interface that makes it clear that editing a message is like putting a correction in tomorrow’s paper.
There are many good reasons to recall a message after you’ve sent it, such as embarrassing typos, messed-up auto-correct, messages sent to the wrong person, or just deciding that your first attempt was a little bit rude. (I apologize, Mitchell.) You can already edit messages in Slack and Discord, and WhatsApp, Viber, and Signal, among others, let you delete messages you’ve already sent. However, none of these apps is the default messaging app on half of the country’s smartphones. Most people only use it to avoid embarrassing mistakes and make social interactions go more smoothly.
But unending and editing are used for more bad things. Victims’ rights groups have spoken out about the possibility of abuse and “gaslighting,” which is when someone edits their messages to make them look harmless after they’ve been read, sends them graphic images they didn’t ask for, and then deletes them, and makes it harder for their victims to keep proof of wrongdoing. “Manipulating edit and unsend features will fit nicely into any power and control dynamic,” Adam Dodge, CEO of EndTAB, tells The Verge. “A bad actor will be able to reach into a victim’s device and make changes without permission.” EndTAB trains organizations to help stop and deal with online abuse. “And in 15 minutes, a lot of damage can be done.” Dodge also said that he had talked to judges who were worried that it would “make a mess” of how iMessage screenshots could be used in court.
At the moment, editing and unending are only available to the very few Apple users who have signed up for the public betas. But this fall, they will be available to everyone with an iPhone 8 or later, which is a big part of the US smartphone market.
Should you avoid the iOS 16 update if you don’t like the idea of people being able to change or delete messages on your phone’s default messaging app? Dodge says that this is also not a good choice:
It’s an option, but I think it puts too much on the people who are hurt. Updates for iOS make the device work better and keep users safe from new threats. Keeping an older version of iOS means that people will have to deal with other problems and risks just to stay safe. I’d rather see a feature that users can choose to use, like a read receipt, that lets them edit and delete messages on their device.
There are still a few months until the new operating systems are officially released, so Apple may still have time to add features like editing and opting out of sending, as Dodge suggests. Those who want to can turn on the features. Or they can use a different messaging app like Signal, which lets you send messages that can only be seen once and then disappear. Even Android can use it.