Gmail and the (Shrinking) Luxury of Mistakes

Google’s email service now offers all of its users the blissful ability to “undo send.”

theilr / Flickr

Among the many things that there should probably be a German word for is the feeling that comes when you realize you’ve sent a digital message prematurely. That feeling, whatever it’s called—schadenschnell? aufwiedersehenpanik? idontactuallyspeakgermanso?—involves surprise. It involves panic. It involves regret. It’s a feeling that anyone who has texted or chatted or otherwise communicated in real time or quasi-real time will likely understand: the sense of wanting to take back a communication that has just slipped, permanently and irrevocably, from one’s grasp.

Bad news for that feeling, but good news for us: On Tuesday, Google announced that it is bringing un-sending capabilities to its web-based Gmail service. Gmail’s de-send (technically, “undo send”) feature has existed for a while as part of Google’s experimental Labs outlet. Google has now, however, made the capability a universal feature, expanding it to everyone who uses Gmail. Which means that you, too, can know the poetic wonder that is un-sending an email message. You, too, can have your panic assuaged after a twitchy index finger prematurely hits the “send” button. You, too, can undo.

You won’t have much time, though. Email being what it is, Gmail offers only 10 to 30 seconds of sent-to-received limbo before your sending becomes permanent. It works like this: After you hit the “send” button, a thin, yellow bar will appear to let you know that the message has been sent, and to let you know, as well, that there’s a chance to undo the sending. From there, you can either read the message in question or, in the case of an obvious  misfire, take it back right away.

You’ll also, if you want to know what it is to de-send, have to opt in to the feature. “Undo send,” Google notes, will be turned off by default for Google users but can be enabled for those who want the insurance that it offers. (For people who have already been using it through Google Labs, the setting will remain turned on by default.) Also, if you misfire a message on your smartphone, you’re out of luck: The “undo send” feature is, as of now, available only on the web-based version of Gmail. The feature was also added to Inbox, Google’s experimental email app.

Which is a small change that is, potentially, a big deal. There’s anxiety right now, among users and creators of communications tech tools large and small, about how email will fit into a communications environment that, for many, is now dominated by text messages and Facebook postings and chat clients. Is email facing an imminent death? If so, will anyone really care?

“Undo send,” however, changes the value proposition of email, making a virtue of something that, in other contexts, is a liability: email’s relative slowness. With those added seconds of retraction time, Google is framing email as a useful alternative to the insistent instantaneity of text and chat. It is suggesting that email will have a place in communications, whatever the naysayers may claim. It is treating the ability to make mistakes as exactly what it is, in digital communications as everywhere else: a luxury.