Edited

“edited” - the label which appears beneath an edited Telegram message.

It wasn’t obvious to me why this feature bothers me, frustrates me even. In part, this is due to how easy it is to think of reasons why this label is a good thing.

This is part of a matrix of frustrations in tech design which, when I think about them deeply, reveal a political side that their surface of convenience conceals.

Consider the way any modern communication app indicates that the person on the other end is typing a message, has received a message, or has opened it. When you are online or when you were last online and the “edited” label, these things are the new norm. These on-by-default things add meta social information to the content we send.

Continually editing messages? You’re insecure in your opinions. Been online but failed to respond to a message that you’ve received and opened? You don’t respect the person who sent it.

Further, in cloud-based document collaboration we don’t just share that we have edited something, we share what we have edited. The things we choose not to say are all there - virtuously presented as “versioning”. If you’re not being watched now, your ghost can be watched. You, and your edits, haunt the document and it’s imposed on you as a good thing, by default.

The fun of seeing the versions that led to a thing someone has created is obvious but the disconnect between that knowledge and the thing that has been created is generally obscured.

These features give work-like importance to auditability, accountability, transparency, etc regardless of how the software is being used - for a legally binding business conversation or catching up with a friend who lives overseas.

Workification distracts us from the fundamental reasons we can find digitally assisted communication and collaboration so useful. Compared to physical world alternatives, the convenience of speedy delivery over distance alone is a quantum leap.

But look at how breezily Google changed the Gmail loading screen to say “Google Workspace”. Why can’t it be a Play space? A communication space? Anything other than “work”.

Workification aside, there is something else going on when so much is being shared on our behalf. Our editing habits, last time online, what we have read, what we haven’t. We think we are communicating or collaborating and these things aid in that, but we’re not communicating or collaborating as much as we are observing and being observed. The feeling of being watched comes purely from the potential to be watched.

The words “privacy” and “security” become useful in changing the narrative of what would be considered creepy and completely unnecessary in the real world. Some features can be turned off or configured, some, like the “edited” label are just always on because “transparency” is seen as an unquestionable virtue.

Sometimes, though, your ability to control these things comes at a price. Like the matter-of-fact punishment you get for turning off your “Last Seen and Online” status in Telegram: “You won’t see Last Seen and Online statuses for people with whom you don’t share yours”. Remember, this is a decision made on your behalf, it is not a technical limitation.

Before brushing these things of as easily justifiable decisions which are only fair if we see them in a transactional context of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” consider how many assumptions need to be made about each person to decide that this is good for them too. The ability to control and configure some of these things distracts us from pondering “why does this treat my conversations like transactions?”

Because, these things are on by default. “Opt-out” is what it was called it in the early days of web form politics - a misleading practice which was generally considered a no-no.

The result of these features becoming normal is that anything without these features feels like less.

Now our digital interactions have been reduced to a behavioural skeuomorphism. We are users who communicate with contacts and share data. Our features have to adapt to the app’s - not the other way around.

Skeuomorphism is alive and well and the visual age of skeuomorphic UI design has demonstrated clearly that instead of trying to improve it, sometimes it’s best to just stop it.