Living in a Post-Delete World

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Photo: Louis B. Wallach Inc./Getty Images

Who among us hasn’t fantasized about an “undo” button for life? I’m an avid user of a Gmail feature called Undo Send, which allows me to make a split-second decision to retract a sent email and return it to draft form. I’ve saved myself from sending snarky comments to the wrong person, from misspelling names, and from committing to things I don’t actually want to do. Every single time I use it, I feel a little thrill, as if I’m getting away with something. That is, until I resend it and realize the email contains a different error I didn’t catch, and this time it’s too late to retract.

The ability to take back something we’ve done or said has gone from an idle desire to a digital possibility. There are companies that will scrub your unsavory personal data from the internet, and if you’re lucky enough to be European, there are “Right to Be Forgotten” laws that can help you omit Google results of your misdeeds from when you were a minor. The promise of Ashley Madison, the infidelity-based dating site, was that its delete option “does in fact remove all information.”

No such luck. Hackers broke into the site, apparently trying to prove that there’s no delete for cheaters, and have now released the email addresses of 35 million philanderers, which are now being combed through by journalists, hackers, and, presumably, suspicious partners. Is that fair? Even cheating dirtbags “deserve a ‘permanent delete’ option that actually works,” wrote Heather Havrilesky when the hack was first announced. But there isn’t one. Permanent delete has become a pipe dream, even — or perhaps especially — on a site whose logo is a woman with her index finger to her lips, making the “shhh” sign.

We're living in a moment of cognitive dissonance when it comes to deleting. The more evidence we're presented with that anything we do online can haunt us forever, the more we persist in trying to control our digital histories. A guy can send a barrage of angry tweets at a woman he doesn’t know online and then delete each one, but he can't stop her from posting screenshots. Same goes for celebrities who hit on much-younger women through direct messages. Hillary Clinton's deleted emails are still lurking on a server somewhere, ready to be unearthed. And it’s not just evasive politicians and individual creeps who suffer from delusions of deletion. BuzzFeed and Gawker might be able to appease advertisers or revise editorial standards in real time by deleting posts, but they can't pretend the posts didn't happen. By the time the offending posts come down, we’re all already talking about them.

Young people, who are supposedly fearless about posting personal information online, seem to understand this more than their elders. One survey found that 74 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds have removed something they posted online. The impulse to delete something painful goes far deeper than digital crowd-shaming and predates social media. Who hasn’t wanted to Eternal Sunshine an ex out of their memory, or do a Saved by the Bell pause-and-rewind after they've said something hurtful? Digital communication comes with the illusion that we can do just that. The idea is so seductive that deleting is now baked into our digital behavior. According to a new Pew survey, 41 percent of 20-somethings use apps that delete messages as soon as they’re sent.

The undeniable appeal of Snapchat's self-destructing photos is old news. The app is essentially a promise that you can live in the moment. You don't have to figure out what you might regret later because you’ll probably regret posting everything, from a well-angled belfie to the poorly lit leftovers you ate for dinner. But for all the talk about the app’s ephemeral nature, everyone knows you can still screenshot a Snapchat. This knowledge is built into the app’s very design: It gives you a notification when someone has screen-grabbed that supposedly self-destructing photo of your posterior and preserved it for posterity. You probably won’t get a notification at all, though, as it’s pretty easy to save a photo without the sender’s knowledge.

These days, people who don’t try to delete things are basically e-hoarders. But we all keep trying. In order to have a digital timeline that is pleasantly robust but also blemish-free, you have to go back and delete a few posts. What an Instagram filter does in the short-term, deleting does in the long-term. Untagging yourself in unflattering photos has been common behavior for quite some time, and Facebook offers users the opportunity to go further and remove "moments" from their histories. It's possible, though somewhat more complicated, to do a selective revision of your Twitter feed. That joke is now passé? You’ve decided that you are not, in fact, an amateur food blogger? That dress wasn’t so stylish in hindsight? Changed your views on Woody Allen? Had a bad breakup? It’s okay. No big deal. It seems possible — at least until a screenshot surfaces or hackers strike — to permanently pluck the offending or incongruous posts out of your digital history. As Colson Whitehead describes it, "Our entire lives as B-roll, shot and stored away to be recut and reviewed at a moment’s notice when the plot changes: the divorce, the layoff, the lawsuit."

Rather than providing relief from such plot changes, though, a deleted post is just as likely to draw attention to the fact that something controversial has happened. The act of deleting is seen an admission of guilt or professional acquiescence, not a cleansing of the record. Whether it’s Alabama sorority sisters removing a YouTube video showcasing their chapter’s lack of diversity, or an NFL player deleting a tweet about the toll that the sport has taken on his body, or a blockbuster film director quickly retracting a complaint about how his original vision was destroyed, the internet doesn’t forget. The cover-up is proof of the crime.

If deleting a regrettable post doesn’t work, what about editing it? Kim Kardashian, a master of managing digital attention, wants the ability to revise her posted tweets. Even if Twitter builds her an “edit” button, I’m not sure it will matter. Maybe Kim will be able to fix minor typos, but in the event of a controversial comment, her followers will be quick to save the unedited version. Revision will not save any of us, actually. Nor will prudently deciding not to post at all. Facebook is monitoring every word its users type, including those we delete without posting. Which means that ill-advised joke about my yeast infection I wisely chose not to post is archived on a server somewhere, probably not far from Hillary’s deleted emails, just waiting to be made public. Great. Digital privacy is an illusion propped up by our belief in the power of delete.

Maybe it’s time to get used to the fact that there are no take-backs in the digital world. I noticed that when Taylor Swift was excoriated for misinterpreting one of Nicki Minaj’s tweets, Swift eventually apologized without ever deleting her offending reply. That approach — not a hasty delete or even an edit button — is the way forward. We often choose to do things digitally because it seems easier that way, and the perceived option to delete our missteps is part of the appeal. But most things that are tricky to accomplish offline, from setting the professional record straight to getting away with a racist comment to finding a mistress, are proving just as difficult online. It’s high time we accept that. With no way to make something truly go away, our only option is to address it and reckon with it.