Why Won’t Twitter Help Us Delete Our Tweets?

This view on the story of deletion, however, privileges the anxieties of the already powerful. In this telling, it’s about well-off people being brought low again; the fear that their pasts could be used to undo their futures; and, most of all, that what they used to get away with has become a liability. It fails to account for the millions of other deleters with no film franchise to lose.

Some of these people are surely ashamed of things they’ve said on Twitter (or at least fearful that someone else will think they should be). But for many tweet deleters, getting rid of old posts is a practical matter — a replacement for simple and obvious Twitter privacy features that simply do not exist. For one user, it may be akin to updating a Facebook profile or brushing up a LinkedIn page; for another, it takes into account the demands of a new job; for another, deletion may be necessary to travel safely. Twitter has stubbornly refused to address widespread harassment on its platform, and tweet deletion offers a way to mitigate it in some forms. (That is probably the most-demanded feature, if you can call it that — that users be able to use the service without being confronted with targeted abuse.) The Twitter Archive Eraser app is, like Twitter, most popular in the United States, but according to its creators has also gained traction in Saudi Arabia, where Twitter, once seen as a tool of liberation, has been embraced by the government as a tool for surveillance and targeted repression.

There are even more obvious reasons to think that Twitter’s users, even those who aren’t subjected to targeted abuse, deserve more control over how their content is found and consumed. There is, for example, the concept of time. A user who joined Twitter in middle school might now be in the work force. Another who signed up at 22, around when Twitter launched in 2006, would next year be old enough to run for president.

James Zeigler, an indigent defense lawyer and tweet deleter in Washington, D.C., explained via Twitter direct message, “it’s not so much that I perceive there to be that much risk associated with preserving my tweets, but rather that I perceive there to be almost no benefit to it, such that deleting them seems to make more sense than not.” Or, put another way, as Twitter user Saysay Olvido half-joked recently, “I delete tweets because I’m not the same person I was 4min ago.” (She did not say “person.”)

Consider the life of a tweet posted ten years ago. After a short and probably uneventful time in a small spotlight, it would have drifted down followers’ feeds and its poster’s own timeline, as if never to be seen again. There was no easy way to find or view old tweets, even your own. Nearly everything about the experience of using Twitter then implied that it was a rolling conversation disappearing behind its users. In 2012, the company gave users a tool to download their own posts as an archive. Few users bothered. But it was a sudden reminder that nothing on the platform was actually disappearing, that the way a service seems to work may bear little relation to how it actually works, and that the context of old posts is often as important as their contents — not so much in the “funny at the time” sense as in the sense that Twitter was, at the time, a completely different machine.

Then, in 2014, Twitter made every public tweet ever posted searchable by anyone. This was a feature that many users had demanded. It was not, however, accompanied by commensurate new privacy controls. Billions of messages that had been technically public but effectively private were instantly made accessible to anyone: friend, foe, authority figure, or online passer-by.