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WhatsApp Now Allows You to Erase the Past

Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann
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3D printed WhatsApp and Facebook logos and keyboard buttons are placed on a computer motherboard in this illustration taken in 2021.
3D printed WhatsApp and Facebook logos and keyboard buttons are placed on a computer motherboard in this illustration taken in 2021.Credit: Dado Ruvic / REUTERS
Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann

“Rethinking your message? Now you’ll have a little over 2 days to delete your messages from your chats after you hit send,” WhatsApp announced last Monday.

The instant messaging platform has had a delete feature since 2017. At first, it gave people seven minutes to delete a message after sending it, to allow for the correction of typos or technical errors: a spelling mistake you sent your boss; an intimate message that was missent to the preschool parents’ group chat; a vent against “that annoying Sarah,” sent in error directly to poor Sarah.

Mistakes that are discovered right after we hit the send button usually elicit a deafening cry – “Nooo, what a screwup, I’m dead!” Seven minutes is a reasonable amount of time to correct an error. Often a message can be deleted before the recipient even sees it, while it’s still “en route” in some sense. Even if the recipient sees it, they realize that there was a mistake, like a slip of the tongue during a conversation, or mixing up someone’s name.

When WhatsApp extended the grace period to one hour, it was still possible to argue that this was still within the outer limits of an error. But the leap to two and a half days takes this feature, with its 2.2 billion users, from the province of errors to the province of regret. These are two very different places.

This is how Israel’s Mako news website reported it: “So you sent a brash message that you later regretted to your boss, or worse, an ex, while drunk? Now WhatsApp will give you more time to delete it.”

But there is an enormous difference between error and remorse. Someone who sends a message by mistake will want to correct it the minute they discover it. A drunk who sends a message to his ex, keeps checking throughout the night for a reply from her and regrets it the next day when he is sober and she has ignored him – that’s a very different kind of language game.

Maybe the mistake was getting drunk. But does this make it legitimate, once you are in a different state of consciousness, to deny the past and to delete something that no longer belongs to you?

What’s in our cellphone is as intimate and precious to us as our most secret thoughts and feelings. By what right can anyone reach into our external memory and delete something that is already ours, in our possession, our memory, certainly after we’ve read it? If the sender has regrets, he can send a new message: I take it back.

If this were a letter, the moment it’s placed in the mailbox it would no longer belong to the sender. So how the hell is extracting a text message from someone else’s phone two and a half days after it was sent a legitimate celebration of privacy? Whose privacy? The person who regretted sending the message? What about my privacy and the privacy of my phone, from which things are deleted without my permission?

What’s amazing is that unlike a mistake, remorse often comes after a response by the recipient. You have regrets because you were ignored, because you didn’t like the response you got, because you were embarrassed.

Why does this give you the right to erase the past? Neither the recipient’s response nor the change in the consciousness or mood of the sender justifies the invasion of our memory. What was said to us belongs to us, and if it was transmitted in writing then the written words belong to us. No one has the right to touch it.

In eliminating the distinction between a mistake and remorse, WhatsApp is encouraging the rewriting of the past, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the past two and a half days of our lives or the rewriting of history, which is so characteristic of the times we live in. Is shattering a historical statue not a form of deleting a message from 200 years ago?

What was said to us belongs to us, and if transmitted in writing the written words belong to us. No one has the right to touch it.

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