What did I just do?

I had one job this month:

September Shane, your job is to have fun improving this site.

What’s wrong with my site, July 2019

I almost achieved the exact opposite thing. I didn’t have fun or improve the site. I almost destroyed it, which caused me to swear at my laptop.

How did it happen?

I started with the best intentions: to review all my images for alt text.

In WordPress’s Media page, I selected everything, then clicked Edit. I then added alt text for a few images, no problem.

The problem came when I came upon an unused image that I wanted to delete. Having been in the mindset of editing one image at a time, I forgot that I was still in “select everything” mode. So I clicked that innocent-looking Delete button.

Editing images in WordPress

So I hit Delete on my unnecessary image, and got to this message.

Are you sure you want to delete these items? Deleted media will no longer appear anywhere on your website, including all posts, pages, and widgets. This cannot be undone.

Computers always get pluralization wrong, so I didn’t think twice about the word “items”. I was sure that I didn’t want that image, so “This cannot be undone” didn’t phase me, and I clicked Delete again. 

Then I saw my completely empty Media page and started swearing at my laptop.

Empty media page saying "You don't have any media."

The damage

After I deleted every single image on my site, I started looking around. It was not pretty. For example, my blog post about language learning resources was hideous.

screenshot of blog post showing long-winded alt text for a complex infographic
Nice graphic…. not! At least I had alt text in there.

Here’s another beauty screenshot. On my main page, which lists snippets of my posts, it also shows featured images. Or at least it used to.

My home page sans images. How’s that for a first impression?


First, I Googled my problem and found the following unsettling page.

once any media files and uploads have been removed from your blog, there is no way to recover them… please only delete files if you are certain that you would like to have them removed entirely.

WordPress help

I also found someone who made a very similar mistake in 2014. They ended up restoring his site for him because he…

wasn’t properly warned when he deleted his images by bulk

WordPress staff, WordPress forums

It sounds like they made some tweaks to the process after that, but I wasn’t properly warned either. So can they restore my site, too?

The emails

So I contacted WordPress (actually, their parent company Automattic). After several days emailing back and forth, they told me:

I’m afraid that it is no longer possible to restore deleted images on our sites without a Business plan.

email from an Automattic Happiness Engineer

At this point, I was about ready to give up. I felt like the gigging musician who had beer spilled on them by one too many drunk audience members. I love blogging but no one visits my site and it’s a lot of work to put together my monthly posts. Should I give up and spend that time on something else?

No. I had to take one more shot at it.

So I wrote a big, long email reply to Automattic, including the following plea:

Over four years of blogging and hundreds of hours on WordPress, I had built up a lot of trust. I felt comfort in the fact that even if I delete a draft post, it’s still there in the trash in case I change my mind. Or that if I publish a post prematurely, I can unpublish it. So I never bothered backing up any of my images. I trusted that once they were in WordPress, they would be safe. Are you saying that is wrong?

My email to Automattic

And even better, I also included the following peace offering:

How to prevent this from happening

I hate unsolicited redesigns because they ignore invisible real-world constraints. But here are a few suggestions that I thought of while blissfully unaware of the constraints of the WordPress team:

  1. Show a number in confirmation. “Are you sure you want to delete these 99 items? Deleted media will no longer appear anywhere on your website, including all posts, pages, and widgets. This cannot be undone.”
  2. Show a number before delete. Instead of a “Delete” link on the page in “select everything” mode, how about “Delete 99 items”? It’s a bit more wordy but there’s space there.
  3. Warn if deleting an in-use image. “Warning: 99 of the images that you are deleting are used on your site. Deleted media will no longer appear anywhere on your website, including all posts, pages, and widgets. This cannot be undone.”
  4. Gmail-style undo. After someone deletes media, show a toast at the bottom of the screen that says “99 items deleted UNDO”. If gmail can magically recall an email after it’s sent, then why can’t WordPress do the same with my images?
  5. iPhone-style trash bin. Yes, photos are large files, so you don’t want to keep them around forever, but why not have a 30-day trash bin like iPhones have? If you don’t recover them within a month of deleting them, THEN they’re gone forever.

I built a prototype showing all five of these ideas in action. Have a watch of the animation below and see if you can spot all five.

The great thing is that they don’t slow down the process of deleting images. They make it more explicit up-front then more un-doable after the fact.

The happy ending 

The happiness engineers at Automattic gave in to my final desperate plea and saved my images.

They also added my suggestions to a pre-existing github issue that is tracking this problem.

And now that my images are all back, I’ll be adding alt text to them. Carefully.

1 thought on “What did I just do?”

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