Self destructing tweets

Twitter prides itself on being current. It is not a social network, it is an information network. It is quick, short, sharp and to-the-point and yet despite Twitter’s immediacy it also has an unnecessary permanence. At best, old tweets are of little value. At worst they’re a personal and professional liability.

In July 2016, I had 63,000 tweets. One month later, I had less than 20. There’s a growing body of people who, as Kevin Roose writes, use ‘homegrown methods to make their tweets self-destruct’. I am one of them.

‘Tweets are passing things,’ says Matthew Lazin-Ryder, a Vancouver-based producer with CBC Radio. ‘I don’t laminate and frame my note-pad doodles, why would I preserve my tweets for all time?’

Author and former Twitter employee Robin Sloan also engages in this practice. When asked why he started to delete his tweets, he said:

I assume I was taking a spin back through old tweets and decided, ehh, this is not a great contribution to the historical record.

Noah Kalina, a photographer probably most famous for his ‘Everyday’ project, in which he takes a photograph of himself daily and compiles them into timelapse videos, told me (via tweets now gone) that old social media content does ‘nothing but embarrass’.

I agree. Like Robin, Noah and Matthew, I downloaded my Twitter archive and began looking back at past versions of myself, all the way back to 2009. I hated it so I wiped it and I bet you would too.

Social media does have value in the short-term. Services like Twitter are great for making announcements and having discussions in the same way face-to-face conversation is. But face-to-face conversations are ephemeral, relevant only for as long as you’re having them, so why do we feel the need to keep a copy of conversations online?

Josh Miller, previously a product manager at Facebook and Obama’s White House, wrote a piece of code that deleted his tweets after seven days. He frames his tweet-deleting as a decision to make Twitter more like other forms of conversation…

My opinions aren’t permanent in my head (I often change my mind over time), and they’re not permanent when shared around the dinner table (nobody is recording our conversations),’ Miller wrote in an e-mail. ‘So it just doesn’t make sense to me that they would be permanent online.’

I bet he wishes the present occupier of the White House adopted his stance too.

To decide how long I should leave before my tweets expired, I looked at how long my average tweet was relevant for. In 2016, when I was still a heavy user of Twitter, I decided it would be 72 hours. That was a good time for tweets to be published, read, shared, and begin to die.

I wrote a full-blown cloud-hosted programme to delete my history on a rolling basis, 72 hours after a tweet was posted. I wasn't deleting a dark history, I was simply using Twitter for its purpose: current conversation. As fantastic as it is, I didn’t join the growing crowd because of Rooses’ article. I joined because I had my own thoughts about Twitter and social media in general.

Not long after my app began deleting my tweets, I stopped using Twitter altogether. It turns out that if you mute every user you follow and trash every tweet you have, there’s very little reason to use the service at all! I’m not sad about that; anyone who has 62,000 tweets has spent too much time on Twitter.

In the middle of 2018, I did the same thing with Facebook. Every like unliked, every share unshared, every post deleted. This felt a lot harder to do. Facebook is where ‘friends’ are, not followers. It’s where photo albums are hosted and event invites are shared. Facebook was my secondary school, it was my Sixth Form, it was my university. But of course, it wasn’t – and the only thing stopping me, much like the first time I deleted my tweets, was a sense of sentimentality. These platforms never were intended to be diaries; the history is incidental and, as recent events testify, potentially dangerous.

When I began deleting my tweets three years ago, social networks were different. News that states were using them to try and sway international elections hadn't come to light, social media shaming hadn’t really made headlines in the way it inevitably would, and we had no clue that privacy scandal after privacy scandal would beleaguer tech companies in the way it eventually did. In hindsight, these things were obvious. If the Cola Wars of the '70s and '80s were about Coke and Pepsi fighting it out for your money, the '00s and '10s will be known as the Data Wars. Despite all of this, the social landscape hasn't meaningfully changed. Facebook has continued to consolidate and kill off competition either by buying them out or by cloning their features – 'fuck us or we'll fuck you' – leaving us in a world with three major platforms, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, owned by two companies – Facebook and Twitter – with nothing on the periphery. Snapchat, evidently, got fucked.

I'm sure my past activity on both of these platforms still exists somewhere in the underbelly of the beast and if it does, I am very sure they are still using that activity to sell me as a user to advertisers. The reality, however, is that I'm much less of a valuable asset than someone with an entire back-catalogue of public activity. I’m also less of a liability to myself.

Twitter is a ‘honeypot for assholes’, claims a former employee. They aren't talking about ordinary people like you and me – but your Twitter archive is a honeypot. It’s a honeypot for the political and socially radicalised, for the company that wants to check you’re a good fit before they’ve even spoken to you, and for hard-pressed journalists looking for a shareable story. All of them will spend hours scanning your online footprint with the explicit purpose of finding something negative. It’s so easy that I’d say it’s probably the first step they take when a new name crosses their desk.

All of this gives credibility to deleting old social media posts as a practice. And believe it or not, Twitter was supposed to be this way.

In Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, a book by journalist Nick Bilton about the founding of the network and the lives of the people behind it, co-founder Jack argued Twitter is about updating your personal status and that only one update should be visible at a time. ‘What are you doing?’, the website asked before it changed to ‘What’s happening?’ in 2009.

My relationship with social media (and the internet in general, having grown right on the cusp of ‘everything in your pocket’) has always been muddy. An early adopter of just about every social platform going, my presence on the services had always been 'this is who I am' rather than 'this is what I do'. I now have a more balanced mindset.

To quote Tom MacWright, who deleted his tweets in June 2017:

What I write on my website is the historical record. I’ll use Twitter as usual - an outlet for bad jokes and links to blog posts, but it’ll be a fresh start.

My app still runs on Heroku for free. It’s called Mayfly, named after the insect that lives for just a few hours, even though I’ve now expanded my tweet-then-delete window to 28 days.

The number is still fairly arbitrary but 28 days is the number of days between each of the newsletters I send to my subscribers. I still twitter away my time reading the service and sharing thoughts and photographs every now and then, but it's a lot less than I ever did before.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher sits perched in a beautiful pink cherry blossom tree.
New Jersey based wildlife photographer Ray Hennessy took this

Old-school newsletters are now my preferred method of mass-communication; semi-private, long-form messages that feel both personal and valuable. No algorithm, no advertising, no attention-grabbing bells and whistles. No behind the scenes talk of serotonin or dopamine or how to get you addicted. No foreign interference, no data to harvest. A private and meaningful conversation is just a reply away. I control the data, I control the message, I control the platform. I like it that way.

If you're interested, the newsletter's called Recently. It's a briefing on what I've been reading, writing, listening to, and doing the past month. It comes in the form of an email  that lands in the inboxes of my subscribers on the first Sunday of each month. It's free and you can unsubscribe if you don't like it.

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Subscribe: Every month, I write a newsletter called Recently. It's a digest of what I've been reading, writing, listening to, and doing. It comes out on the first Sunday of each month.