Like most media workers, Matthew Lazin-Ryder, a Vancouver-based producer with CBC Radio, spends a fair amount of time on Twitter. When he tweets, his messages are seen by some percentage of his 3,470 followers. They retweet, favorite, write pithy replies. And then, a week later, his tweets disappear.
Lazin-Ryder is one of a number of Twitter users who are using homegrown methods to make their tweets self-destruct. He says that having his tweets disappear automatically makes Twitter feel more conversational and casual, and less like a professional pressure-cooker.
"Tweets are passing things," he said. "I don't laminate and frame my note-pad doodles, why would I preserve my tweets for all time?"
Robin Sloan, a former Twitter employee and author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, is another tweet-deleter. Sloan wrote a script that automatically deletes his tweets after a given period of time (in his case, ten days), which he posted to Github for others to use. The script also has an option to save those tweets to a Dropbox folder before they're purged, but Sloan says he stopped using that feature. Now, his tweets just drift permanently into the void.
"I have to admit that I cannot remember, with perfect clarity, the moment I decided I was going to be a tweet deleter," he says. "I assume I was taking a spin back through old tweets and decided, ehh, this is not a great contribution to the historical record."
In the beginning, Twitter was supposed to be a vessel for fleeting thoughts. People posted about their lunches, their sports teams, the news of the day. But because tweets are public and permanent by default, all of those ephemeral tweets congealed over the years into a kind of global permanent record. Now, everything the vast majority of Twitter's 288 million monthly active users have ever tweeted is searchable, indexable, and usable against them in courts of law or public opinion.
Auto-deleting tweets is a novel solution to this problem. And in an age when Twitter misfires end careers and ruin lives every day, it's not hard to see its usefulness. Ask Jeb Bush's former chief technology officer if he wishes he'd auto-deleted his six-year-old tweets about "sluts." Or ex-Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson, who was ousted from his position after unsavory tweets he'd posted years before made it into the social web's spotlight. Or the three Toronto firefighters who lost their jobs after media outlets published tweets from them quoting sexist lines from TV shows.
Most tweet-deleters, though, are not trying to protect themselves from a dark past. (After all, the worst gaffes often stand in the public record, no matter whether the original offending tweet got deleted.) Instead, they want their Twitter accounts to reflect their present states of mind and interests.
Josh Miller, a product manager at Facebook, 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."
Despite the cumbersome process required to mass-delete old tweets, it seems to be catching on. Prominent tweet-deleters include Matt Drudge, the political blogger, who currently has only one tweet viewable on his four-year-old account. There are a handful of services—TweetDelete, Tweet Deleter, and TwitWipe among them—that can automate the tweet-deleting process for those who don't feel like writing their own scripts. 1.3 million people have signed up for TweetDelete, according to the company, and 533,000 accounts are actively using the timed auto-delete feature.
"We feel it's important to give users more control over their privacy and what's visible when somebody visits their Twitter timeline," a TweetDelete spokesman said.
For the privacy-minded, deleting tweets can be especially important. When Gawker interviewed John Young and Deborah Natsios of the data-spilling site Cryptome in 2013, writer Adrian Chen asked them why they deleted their tweets regularly. Young replied:
Because it's trash. We don't need to retain that. It's some of the worst stuff I've ever said. Why would I keep that stuff? This notion that you've got to keep your tweets, it's like your garbage, it's like hoarding. Of course it's being archived somewhere else. The Library of Congress or these sites that collect everything, so there's no need to keep this. And most of them are embarrassing. An hour later you would wish you never said that.
Of course, deleting tweets doesn't necessarily mean they're gone forever. Sites like the Sunlight Foundation's Politwoops exist to catalog the deleted tweets of politicians, and services like Topsy and Undetweetable have created archives of deleted messages. (The latter was shut down after a request from Twitter.) The Library of Congress has said that its archive won't include deleted tweets, but has made no explicit mention of how it plans to remove deleted tweets from its archive.
Social media companies, predictably, aren't thrilled with the idea of users mass-deleting their posts. With the exception of Snapchat and a handful of other apps, these sites are built on the idea of lasting data. Our posts are meant to stay up indefinitely, each one a piece of an ever-expanding mosaic of our desires, tastes, and preferences. If all of their users auto-deleted their old posts, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks would have a hard time constructing the user profiles that are used as bait for advertisers. The entire business model might collapse.
"If anyone ever seriously proposed [a tweet auto-deleter], they were quickly shot down," Sloan recalls of his days working at Twitter. "When you have a huge, deep corpus like this, you can do interesting stuff with it." (A Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment.)
Despite the business imperative to leave their archives alone, social media sites may not have a choice but to adapt. Disappearing content—whether on Snapchat or elsewhere—is having a moment right now, and lots of young, privacy-conscious people are flocking to services where their data is less permanent. Last year, Facebook tested a feature that would have allowed users to schedule a status update's deletion in advance. But the feature was never rolled out—perhaps because it simply wasn't popular with users, or perhaps because it didn't advance the site's goals.
For some people, deleting old tweets is just one part of a fuller data-minimization strategy. For others, it's a standalone effort—one small way to turn a single site into less of a liability. For those who consider Twitter personally or professionally necessary, but who don't want to risk the possibility of a past mistake coming back to haunt them, auto-deleting tweets could be a safer middle ground. And, if the movement reaches critical mass, it could dramatically reshape Twitter itself—making the service more spontaneous and casual, and less fraught with historical baggage. Who knows? It could even lead Twitter to roll out an auto-delete feature of its own.
"Tweets are like conversations," Lazin-Ryder said. "You say things, other people respond, you might learn and change your mind. So, since they're ethereal…why leave them around forever?" He added that while some of his journalist colleagues objected to the practice of auto-deletion, on the grounds that it's akin to destroying the historical record, he didn't buy it.
"It's not a doctoral dissertation," he said. "It's social media."