While I gave birth to my first child in 2015, my brother sat across the street from the hospital in a bar, live tweeting his experience of waiting to meet his nephew. As the hours of my long labor wore on, my brother got drunker and his jokes more off the wall. When my son was finally born and I went to send an email birth announcement, I found that everyone already knew. Emails had flooded my inbox already congratulating me. My colleagues had all been following along with my brother’s live tweets. The second my son was born, word had reached them—and thousands of other people.
Unless you, too, were following my brother on Twitter that day, you’d have no way to verify THAT this story happened. I assure you it did, but you can’t go back and look at his tweets about it because they’ve long since been deleted. Like many other prolific tweeters, my brother—the person who first introduced me to Twitter, who is the most devout Twitter user I know, and whose entire living is made running the social media accounts for a major media company—has joined the ranks of the tweet deleters.
In fact, over the past few months, many of the journalists I follow have casually mentioned that they have timers on their accounts set to delete their old tweets. “Why wouldn’t you delete them?” tweeted one, in a tweet I can no longer find because it has since been deleted.
At first, I was aghast. If something happens on Twitter but then gets deleted, did it even happen? Deleting it is an affront to history! Isn’t Twitter a sacred record of our [checks notes] … inane thoughts and bad jokes? Oh wait, maybe I do get it.
There are practical reasons to delete your tweets. Increasingly, old tweets are being used as ammunition to get their owners fired or ruin their reputation by people with an ax to grind. We’ve seen this recently with the film director James Gunn. After Gunn criticized President Trump and Republicans online earlier this month, far-right figures and outlets like the Daily Caller dug up old posts he wrote that mentioned pedophilia and rape. The director apologized for his “offensive” and “shocking” jokes, and though the tweets were a decade old, Disney found them objectionable enough to fire him.
It’s hardly a new trend. The playbook used to take down Gunn was honed years ago during Gamergate, with its attacks against women gaming professionals and media companies. Last year, far-right trolls took a satirical tweet from journalist Sam Seder and used it to get him fired from MSNBC; the network later rehired him when they understood he’d been the target of a coordinated campaign. Using Donald Trump’s old tweets as proof of his hypocrisy (or his penchant for accusing others of the things he himself may be guilty of) is practically liberals’ favorite pastime.
Twitter is a reaction to stimulus. Once that stimulus is gone, though, the tweets linger, like a too-loud laugh at a joke no one else heard.
That kind of bad-faith trolling is not to be confused with the work of people like CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski, who has mined the old social media posts of public officials to shed light on beliefs that are pertinent to their jobs. Most recently, he reported on a Veteran Affairs official who spread birther conspiracy theories and made anti-Muslim comments; he has written about Democrats, too.
It’s especially easy for trolls to weaponize old tweets and use them against their enemies because of the nature of the platform itself: Once tweets have been sent, they exist out of context. There’s no way to easily tell, when looking back at someone’s timeline from years ago, what jokes were trending, what the national mood was like, what everyone was faux-outraged by. Twitter is a reaction to stimulus. Once that stimulus is gone, though, the tweets linger, like a too-loud laugh at a joke no one else heard. What was funny? Who knows. We’re all going to die anyway.
But I’ve always assumed one day I might want to go back and check out my old tweets. Or, rather, I’ve assumed one day I might need to. There always seemed some hypothetical scenario where I may really need to know what exactly I had tweeted in, say, June of 2012. That day has never arrived. So who am I keeping my tweets around for?
Certainly not my son. I would never in a thousand years want him to read my Twitter timeline. What if I die and all he has to understand me by are my tweets? Not only would they be mostly inscrutable to him, he’d inevitably come across the tweets I’ve sent exploiting his youth for retweets. You could also argue—fairly!—that if I’ve tweeted about him, then he deserves to know the truth about the kind of mother he has, but I’d really rather he didn’t. (And come to think of it, I should just stop tweeting about him.)
That’s the only good argument for not deleting tweets: to keep us honest, to hold us to account. The Library of Congress tried to archive every public tweet in an effort to keep a robust public record, but starting this year it “will acquire tweets on a selective basis” only. It’ll be there to maintain the archive of people like President Trump, whose tweets matter—whether we like it or not—to the whole world. There’s not a great public-interest reason to keep my own record public. Whatever value it has, it’s really just for myself.
Twitter can sometimes feel like a thread from our thens to our nows. It’s a way of capturing some part of ourselves in real time, like a mosquito frozen in amber—tangible proof that we existed. But it is an incomplete and imperfect record. Has it helped my memories imprint if I tweet about my experience, as some studies suggest photos can? No. My memory, with or without Twitter, is a sieve of experience I cannot stop up.
So I’ve decided to delete my tweets. Is it a perfect solution to the existential threat of bad faith? Of course not. Do I advise others to do it? Not necessarily. I worry that for some people, deleting tweets would be license to tweet more vile, terrible things in the first place. It also doesn’t prevent people from using screenshots to keep tweets in a permanent record. But I’m ready to embrace a more impermanent relationship with Twitter, to use it as it was intended—in the moment—and let the past slip away into obscurity. And though I don’t think I had any landmines of bad jokes in my past, I can’t be sure. Certainly none of them were good enough to risk keeping the whole record online forever.
So first, I downloaded them, so I have the option to solipsistically go through them one day seeking confirmation that I was ever clever. You can do that by going to your “Settings and Privacy” and selecting “Account.” Scroll down to the “Content” section and hit “Request Your Archive.” (You can also download your “Twitter Data,” but that file will not include your tweets, so make sure you have your archive before you delete anything!) Twitter emailed me my archive of more than 24,000 tweets within an hour. I downloaded it with the file name “YOUAREGROUNDEDIFYOUEVERREADTHIS” and hope my son never finds it.
Then I picked a deletion service. Because I’m lazy, I chose Tweet Deleter, because it’s the service my brother uses. It lets you delete your full history, and set recurring deletions at regular intervals. For $5.99 a month, it will delete up to 3,000 tweets at time, and for $7.99 it’ll delete an infinite amount.
If you’re interested in joining me on this burn-it-down adventure, there are a bunch of different services that will delete your tweets. If you’re versed in Python, you can follow this FreeCodeCamp teacher’s advice and code the process yourself. (I don’t know Python, so haven’t tested this myself.) There’s also a free site called Cardigan that lets you filter through your old tweets and decide which ones to expunge, or lets you smoke them all. There’s also an open source service called Twitter Archive Eraser you can download from Github and run. And there are mobile apps to do this, too: Tweeticide for iOS, and Xpire for Android.
Pretty soon, all my bad jokes will be gone. I doubt if anyone will miss them.
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