September 27, 2016 I accidentally wiped two weeks of my regular tweets.
Rather than be frustrated or angry, I realized I felt nothing about those few hundred tweets vanishing in a second. I started thinking about my twitter history, what is in it, and what value it holds.
I found that I didn’t care if it all disappeared.
Later I discovered that making it disappear is a surprisingly difficult thing to do.
For about five years I have been what would be considered a medium-to-heavy twitter user. My count topped out at about 67,000 tweets in that time. I have had ups and downs with the platform, taken frequent short and long breaks, been frustrated with the tenor of conversation (particularly political), and made fantastic friends and contacts.
Twitter has reconnected me with old friends, connected me with new ones, and helped grow the audience and guest list of the podcast I was co-hosting, We Talk Comics.
So I’m extremely reluctant to put the baby out with the bathwater and delete my account.
Recently I took another break after my carefully-cultivated feed became almost completely taken over by the 2016 Presidential election. I’m Canadian so have only a spectator investment in the process, and frankly it has become so repetitive and soap-boxy (even from other non-Americans) that it was time to step back from the conversation for a while and take stock.
As part of this, I searched back through my history to delete any references I myself had made to the election to ensure I didn’t get dragged into it again by surprise. Though the normal search works, I started playing with outside sites that will do some twitter upkeep for you, including Twoolbox which also claims to be able to wipe your Following list, Retweets, and Like/Favorite history.
It was while using Twoolbox that I accidentally wiped two weeks of my regular tweets. In a blink they were just gone, unrecoverable.
But I couldn’t think of a reason that I might want them.
Which began the great Untweeting.
The first step of the Untweeting was to use Twoolbox’s complete wipe tools. These are blunt instruments. If you want to be more selective, I recommend Tweet Eraser which allows searches by time, key word, etc.
But they kept stalling out. I tried a variety of other less effective sites and couldn’t move the line. Much like Ferris and his friends, the odometer on my Twitter was stubbornly sitting in one place.
It turns out that though Twitter allows you to search all tweets in its history, it only keeps a few thousand in “live” memory as part of your feed. Though some sites say that number is 3,200, I was able to delete another 7,000 or so through getting rid of Retweets and media. I couldn’t push any of the deleting sites to go further back than about nine months.
Which left me with about 54,000 tweets that are searchable but not instantly removable. What was in those, I wondered? I started looking. Searching my user name along with specific words or phrases.
I’m not a controversial or edgy tweeter, so I knew there wasn’t anything to be particularly embarrassed about. And yet reading back through I saw a lot I wasn’t proud of.
Anger. Frustration. Condescension. Soapboxing. Speachifying.
Yes, this was mixed in with a much greater volume of interesting conversations, promoting my various podcasting projects, and excitement about movies and comics.
54,000 tweets, warts and all.
It takes about 4 seconds to delete a tweet, give or take. Deleting on the phone app is slightly faster. Since I wasn’t tweeting, I was basically swapping time I would have spent reading my feed for time spent removing my past footprints.
First up were swear words (there were very few, I’m not that sort of tweeter). Then came controversial words (Trump, Clinton, election, voting, Batgirl). Again it didn’t move the needle that much.
Then came “people I used to tweet with a lot but now can’t stand.” That was much more rewarding. Also very cathartic as it turned out. Their side of the conversations still exist, of course, but they are all just ranting into the ether with my side deleted.
But wait, you say, aren’t all tweets archived by the Library of Congress? I had always heard that too, but a recent article in The Atlantic reported that not only has that project never been opened to the public, it doesn’t even seem to be an active goal. The volume of tweets has increased exponentially and the value of trying to capture them all is a bit nebulous. My deleted tweets also will exist for a bit of time in cached Google pages, but those vanish in a stiff breeze as well.
A friend asked why one would even want to remove their past tweets.
I guess that perhaps your social media history is your social media identity, if you erase everything, you vanish.
— Jeff Smith (@TheComicHunter) September 26, 2016
But that’s kind of the point. Like Keyser Söze, just like that, you’re gone.
As I post this, I have shaved my total down to 46,500.
Until then… search…. Options… delete tweet…. Scroll… options… delete tweet….
Untweeting became a bit of a pastime.
By searching for keywords or other user names, I can find pockets of anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of tweets. Using the phone app, you can open the thread for any tweet and that often leads to several others that can be eliminated.
It’s a hunt.
If the term shows up too much, like overly common words like “the” or “and,” Twitter doesn’t give you full results. Also, if there is someone you tweet with a lot, it will be unwieldy to do the whole past between you.
Zeroing in is a challenge. After doing my favorite films, genres, comic characters, and casual tweeps, it’s a bit of a fun experiment to find pockets of tweets. In 5 years I only used a day of the week in a tweet a dozen or so times each. The word “wish” apparently never appeared in my tweets.
It is a silly game, but then this was time I was only spending arguing about Superman anyway, so it’s pretty much a wash as far as value to society.
I’m sure I’m learning something of myself from this. What, I do not yet know. Perhaps that I am even more determined to wipe out this history as I was to create it.
Ω An earlier version of this post appeared at www.wetalkpodcasts.com