The promise—and potential dangers—of editing what we say online

hHave you ever sent a message or shared something online that you immediately regretted? Most of us have.

Facing the consequences of saying something thoughtless, reckless, or hasty can be a frightening prospect for anyone who often communicates by writing messages and then throwing them out into the digital ether. Now, a growing number of apps and services offer users the attractive ability to edit these messages.

In the last month alone, two tech giants, Twitter and Apple, have introduced editing features. Twitter launched September from announcement it will begin testing an edit button, first internally and then among subscribers of its paid Twitter Blue service. Within two weeks of the move, Apple released its new iOS 16 operating system, which allows users – for the first time –edit and unsend iMessages. Amid these developments, tech analysts continue to express concern about how these features could be used for criminal purposes, such as spreading disinformation.

It’s a trend that speaks to a desire among users to speak freely online without thinking about what they’re sharing, he says Mor Naaman, professor of information science at Cornell Tech. “People want to present themselves in the best light, but also to share freely without excessive cognitive load,” he says. “The edit button, if it works well, can support both purposes.”

Editing tools have been a long-requested feature on both services. But the search for an edit button on Twitter in particular reached new heights earlier this year after Elon Musk polled his followers about whether they wanted, shortly before he made an offer to buy the company.

How Apple’s edit button works

Given the success of cross-platform editing tools like Facebook, Redditand Relaxation, Christina Vodke, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, says it’s somewhat surprising that Twitter and Apple haven’t gotten there sooner. “It’s been pretty common to be able to edit your web posts for a long time, going back to the early web forums,” she says. “Apple and Twitter have the legacy of being built on mobile, not the web. And mobile SMS usually has no edits. But now people are asking why not?

Apple responded by introducing an editing tool into iMessage. Users can now edit an iMessage up to five times within 15 minutes of sending it, and unsend any message up to two minutes after it’s sent. To do this, users just need to tap and hold on their sent message, then select “edit” or “unsend.”

The recipient of the message will receive a warning that it has been edited or not sent, and can tap “Edited” to see previous versions of the message.

These new capabilities have the potential to change the way people view private messages, Naaman says. “The messages looked like postcards. Nobody expects you to come to their house and edit the Hawaii postcard you sent them,” he says. “But we expect to be able to edit, say, our Facebook profile at any time. If the implementation is correct, expectations will change and edits may become acceptable.”

How the Twitter edit button works

On Twitter, users will be able to edit a tweet up to five times within 30 minutes of posting it. Once a change is made, the tweet will be marked with an icon, a timestamp, and a label that says “Last Edited,” which users can click to see how the tweet was edited.

The button will give people a “generous” time frame to submit their tweets to the court of public opinion, Vodtke says. “What they’re doing is creating an edit button that allows the Twitter audience to be your personal editor,” she says. “So if you’ve said something that’s lame, you can quickly change it to make it clearer or less open to misinterpretation.”

Twitter says the feature is intentionally designed to be transparent and protect the integrity of the conversation. “We’re intentionally starting this test with a smaller group to learn and address potential issues before rolling it out to more people,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

Why edit buttons are controversial

To ensure that editing tools are used in good faith, experts say tech companies should take certain precautions. The importance of an “edit trail” that prevents the spread of misinformation and misinformation cannot be overstated, Vodke says. Especially when the information is part of the public record. “[Twitter] there is a moral imperative to show the story of the newsrooms,” she says.

Twitter’s implementation of an edit button shows it’s trying to strike a balance between allowing self-expression and preventing abuse, Naaman says. He says one of the main threats the company is likely trying to protect against is users editing a tweet after it’s gone viral to completely change its meaning. “Such editing, although available through the interface, may not be immediately visible to people who are simply viewing the shared tweet,” he says.

Even with these safeguards in place, Wodtke predicts that bad actors will still find ways to exploit the feature. “Every time you put something out there, no matter how well you and your team thought it out, people will find new ways to use it,” she says. “This is definitely no exception. I think we’re going to see a lot of fabrication.”

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Write to Megan McCluskey c [email protected].

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