In Praise of Deleting Your Tweets19 Jul 2020 tagged in internet, social media
A few weeks ago, I indulged in one of my favorite past-times: pouring a glass of chilled rosé, putting on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and setting up a command-line program to delete all of my tweets.
I love deleting tweets. Every six months, I wipe (almost) all of mine.1 I also regularly scroll through my personal feed and prune out tweets that simply no longer bring me joy. I’ll tweet something and immediately delete it with abandon. And I want to share this practice with you, such that you too may come to know the pleasures of deleting.
Back in February, I was tagged into a conversation about deleting tweets, as one of my followers had noticed that I did it regularly. They asked me why I delete, and I would share the tweets that I sent them about it, but I’ve since deleted them. The gist was this: I delete my tweets for semi-arbitrary reasons, including a fair amount of anxiety about the footprint I leave on the internet as a young-and-formally-unemployed academic. But my primary reason for deleting is that it feels like a small way to reclaim some autonomy from a social media company I simply do not trust, nor do I think has a positive impact on our culture.
Over the past few years, social media has putatively come to embrace impermanence and transience. The concept of messages deleting shortly after being sent, once thought a refuge for sexting teens, has become a mainstream feature. Transience also appears in the concept of the algorithmic timeline, which for most platforms has become the primary method of engagement (and for some, like TikTok, the only method). One never knows which messages will appear and which will disappear. But this transience isn’t something designed for us: it’s designed to encourage continual posting and a false sense of “safety.”
I don’t really use any of these other platforms, mostly because my friends and professional network are on Twitter and I’m not hot enough for Instagram, boring enough for Facebook, or manic enough for TikTok. But I’m drawn to the idea of things fading away after they’ve served their usefulness—a feature that Twitter so far as not implemented. It’s not hard to see why. Twitter is notoriously bad at making money and needs all the data it can scrape in order to serve its ads. Power users like myself send out many thousands of tweets a year (in total, I’d guess I’ve sent somewhere in the neighborhood of c. 15k tweets since I joined the platform in 2013). That’s valuable information off of which to extrapolate advertisements.
To which I say: fuck that. My words, my rules—and besides, the last thing I need is anyone digging up something dumb I tweeted a few years back about how much I cried at the end of The Notebook (I cried so much y’all). Now, I’m not naive. I know that Twitter almost certainly maintains an ad profile about me, up-to-date with everything I’ve tweeted, whether I’ve deleted it or not. If they’re not, they really should! But I still prefer to force Twitter to operate at least semi-ephemerally; in turn, I try to keep more permanent thinking on platforms I control, such as this blog.
Besides, Twitter does such a shit job with its search function that it’s practically impossible to dive back and find something someone tweeted even a year or two back. Deleting my tweets reminds me that Twitter’s not my friend, it’s not my personal archive, and it’s certainly not a place to host every aspect of my life online. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think we would all be significantly better off with a return to the blogs-and-feeds mode of online writing from a decade and a half ago. At the very least, deleting my tweets forces me to diversify my online life.
Your crystalline prose has convinced me. I want to delete my tweets. But how?
There are plenty of easy-to-use online interfaces for deleting your tweets, such as TweetDelete and TweetEraser. Some of them cost money; all of them run up against the fundamental issue that Twitter’s API, for reasons that surpass understanding (money), only allows these services to delete up to 3,200 tweets. If you’re a light Twitter user, these services may work out for you. However, when I first decided to wipe all my tweets a year or so ago, I had accumulated well over 10,000 tweets. So these services are useless to me.
Thankfully, there are a number of more technical tools that can 1) get around the 3,200 tweet limit and 2) are free. I use one called delete-tweets. It’s a bit more challenging to use, in that it requires you to set up a Twitter developer account and fiddle around with the command line. I would say that if you’ve ever self-identified as a “digital humanist” before, you’ll be fine. Otherwise, I do think that the instructions are pretty self-explanatory. You have my word that if you do manage to screw up any of the steps, you won’t hurt your computer or your Twitter account. So it’s pretty low-risk.
(NB: As part of running delete-tweets, you’ll download your own Twitter data archive. This is a mostly-machine-but-also-lightly-human-readable series of files that encapsulate all the information about your Twitter account. If you’re squeamish about deleting and want to maintain a personal backup of your account, this resource allows you to do so.)
I will allow that there are perhaps good reasons not to delete your tweets. Perhaps you are a journalist for whom Twitter is a more integral part of your job than it is mine. Perhaps you are the president of the United States, and deleting your tweets is illegal. But for the vast majority of us—particularly anyone interested in pushing back against Twitter et al.’s hegemony over our online life—I think it’s a useful, if small gesture. Anything that gets us to imagine a world beyond Twitter is in my estimation a good thing.
Social media is not our friend! It is where our friends are, of course. And I admit that it is tremendous fun—or at least tremendously addicting. Deleting your tweets is one small way to disrupt social media’s stranglehold on our sociality. If we’re going to do what so many of us call for every few months and really build up other platforms for writing and sharing and socializing that are under our communities’ control rather than private corporations, I think one good first step is getting comfortable with depriving those corporations of the very thing they want most: our words.2
The first time I wiped my tweets, I experimented with keeping tweets that met a certain threshold of likes/RTs. But I found that keeping my most viral tweets only gave me a false sense of accomplishment about tweeting—something none of us should have! Now I just keep whatever my pinned tweet is, which is usually promotional for whatever I most recently published. ↩
For those interested in the concept of setting up distributed social networks that are under community rather than corporate control (e.g., Mastodon), I highly recommend Darius Kazemi’s instructional website Run Your Own Social. I haven’t gotten around to implementing it myself, but I think it’s a wonderfully lucid articulation of not only what you would need to do to run your own social media network, but why and how you might want to do so in the first place. ↩