The Sadness of Deleting Your Old Tweets
I held my breath and pushed the button. “Delete All,” it read. Yes, I clicked, do it. “Are You Sure?” it asked. I wasn’t. But I’d made a decision, about which I’d written an entire article already, and I wasn’t about to renege.
The tweets started disappearing in batches. I refreshed my timeline every few minutes to find myself back in time, tweets from 2016 at the top of my feed, as though suddenly it was just after election day again and I was… unhinged. Refresh. Now I went back further, 2015, tweets about my newborn son. Oh god, I seem happy! Refresh. 2014, tweets about… shoes and the weather? Was I really ever so naive?
When I was a sophomore in college a thousand years ago, I wrote poems in sharpie all over the walls of my dorm room. Tiny haikus in the corner by the radiator, huge sonnets above my bed. I stood on tiptoes and wrote words on the ceiling. The room looked like the set of the movie A Beautiful Mind, and though I wasn’t a schizophrenic math genius, let’s just say I was in a strange phase of my life. When the year ended, and I scrambled to throw all my belongings in a box and get out before the school locked the doors, I was faced with a question: How can I bring all these poems with me?
There were obvious answers: I could photograph them, for starters. Or I could copy them down by hand. Instead, I decided that because I had written them on walls I did not own and that I knew I would be leaving, I should accept responsibility for their ephemerality and allow them to be painted over, to be lost to me forever, a product of a time in my life that had now passed. The college charged me a painting fee, white-washed the walls, and I never saw the poems again. I hope they weren’t my masterpiece. (My now husband, who I was dating at the time, assures me they weren’t, which he means to make me feel better, but is still upsetting.)
I relay this story as proof that when I deleted all 24,000 of my tweets last week, I was following a tradition in my life of letting go. I even improved on it—I have often wished I had a few of those old poems, and so this time I did save copies of my tweets. Even so, after I hit the delete button on my public timeline last week, I immediately felt regret. What had I done?
To make myself feel better, I clicked on a random tweet in the Excel file archive that Twitter had sent me. The first one that came up was a video of my son watching me on CNN, sitting at his high-chair, pointing “Mama, mama!” I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Why was I upset? I still had that video in multiple places—it’s in the archive that’s now saved on my desktop and in the cloud; it’s on my phone; it’s on my private Instagram account; it’s on Facebook.
I realized I was upset because my old tweets, like those old and probably terrible poems, symbolized a phase in my life, which deleting brought to an abrupt and final end. Those tweets were my late 20s, my era of striving, before I became a mother and stopped staying up late for Weird Twitter, and before I learned that the internet is not a safe haven for silly jokes but can be a deadly serious extension of the real world. Deleting those tweets was the nail in the coffin of my innocent relationship with the internet. That’s a lesson all online denizens have been learning as we watch net neutrality unravel, trolls and disinformation armies weaponize our old content, and social media surface dangerous rumors that, at their worst, can influence the outcomes of elections or get people killed.
“It feels like getting rid of old t-shirts you have a sentimental attachment to. There's no good reason to keep them, but it feels bad to let them go,” Dan Lavoie, a political communications strategist who deleted 30,000 of his own tweets and then felt the same way I did, tweeted to me.
My brother, who inspired me to delete my tweets, felt the same sadness, but he assures me he enjoys the way now Twitter feels more like a chat room. Aside from the complicated emotions that might surface if you join the tweet-deleting resistance, and the loss of a historical record—which I wrote about last week—there are a few other potential downsides I only realized after I'd taken the plunge.
First, if you have active Twitter conversation going, you might not want to delete them. When I abruptly deleted every single one of my tweets last week, I included ones linking to my most recent articles, which readers were still retweeting, replying to, and engaging with. I should have kept those around for a month to allow the conversation to play out.
Second, be aware that to some people, deleting your tweets will be proof that you had something to hide. I have always been a sort of nervous—if prolific—tweeter, so I felt sure there wasn’t anything in my archive that would be deemed inappropriate, but there’s no way for me to convince people of that now that the tweets are gone.
Third, your tweets might not be totally gone. As one reader put it to me in an email, "If you put it out there, it’s there for eternity." Understand that your tweets may have already been scooped up—by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine (as many of mine were), by the Library of Congress before it abandoned its effort to save every tweet, by search engines, by social scientists, by pretty much anyone, since Twitter’s API makes it easy to collect public Twitter data. I knew this going in, but hadn't given much thought to what bulk deleting would mean to those who use twitter data for research.
Researchers increasingly rely on Twitter data to analyze all sorts of human behavior, and the question of using deleted tweets as part of their analysis is a thorny one. In a survey of 368 Twitter users, data scientists Casey Fiesler and Nicholas Proferes found that 31 percent of respondents would be very uncomfortable with a tweet of theirs that they later deleted being used in a research study.
“I think that if researchers are going to use deleted tweets, there has to be a compelling reason with scientific merit, and that they absolutely should not quote any tweets in the paper, and DEFINITELY not make a dataset public. i.e., do not bring those tweets back from the dead,” Fiesler tweeted last week. “Researchers might also use deleted tweets accidentally. When you collect a dataset, over time some of those are likely to then be gone. So what should we do? I think that there is some due diligence researchers could do without overly fretting about it, depending on context.”
Fourth, it's important to note that systematically deleting all your old tweets after a period of time is different from cherry-picking ones you no longer agree with or are worried are offensive and deleting those. A few people shared my article to justify going through and deleting some of their worst tweets, but I would argue that kind of behavior runs the risk of being dishonest, since your timeline will look like all your tweets are there even though some are not.
One thing you don’t need to worry about is whether deleting your old tweets will be held against you by the Twitter algorithm, making your new tweets less virally potent. According to a Twitter spokesperson, what you see on Twitter and who sees your tweets is mostly based on behavior: who you follow, what you like, what you retweet, and the behavior of your network. Those signals are analyzed in real time, and deleting old tweets should have no effect.
Here’s one more tip: If you download your Twitter archive, you’ll get two versions. One is an Excel spreadsheet, and about as inviting a document as an Excel spreadsheet ever is. Which is to say, it’s mostly inscrutable and annoying, and you will probably never look at it. The other version is an HTML file, which opens your archive in a web browser and is searchable by month (in my tests I could only get this to open on a Mac). Neither version shows how many likes or retweets a tweet got, or makes it easy to see which tweets started a conversation. But the HTML file can let you pretend, when you’re feeling nostalgic, that you’re still young and free and tweeting about [checks timeline from 2014, sees tweets about sneezes and donuts] nothing of consequence.