What if Tweets Had an Expiration Date?

Old tweets are too easily weaponized. Maybe it’s time to accept that the medium is simply best observed in the present.

Twitter logos being erased.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Twitter.

Movie director Rian Johnson deleted thousands of his old tweets last week. No one told him to do it. But presumably he’d watched Disney remove another director, James Gunn, from his upcoming movie after old, offensive tweets of his resurfaced. And he’d seen television creator Dan Harmon delete his Twitter after an old, offensive video parody of his started to recirculate.

In response to these and similar events, Johnson described the erasure of his Twitter archive as “a ‘why not?’ move.”

The circumstances around Gunn and Harmon’s shameful content surfacing were not organic, inasmuch as such things can be organic. Their old content re-emerged not by chance or by accident but due to the concerted effort of right-wing trolls like Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec. The right targeted these high-profile Hollywood men in an effort to expose what they saw as liberal hypocrisy. And while Gunn’s tweets and Harmon’s video may have been inadvisable and wrong, they were not, as the right-wing mob argued, evidence of pedophilia. These accusations were made in bad faith, as Christina Cauterucci argued elsewhere in Slate, and constitute “[r]ight-wing pedophile-accusers … simply grasping for the easiest way to tarnish someone’s name.”

No mobs have set their sights on Johnson—his decision to delete his tweets was purely a pre-emptive measure. But it’s probably a smart move. If it means one less way for online trolls to potentially ruin his career, it seems like an easy trade-off. And it’s not just entertainment industry power players who have to worry about this problem, either. It comes up with some frequency for young athletes too, so much so that on Monday Deadspin editor Barry Petchesky published a piece about the phenomenon. “I do not understand why every famous person has not already deleted their old tweets,” Petchesky marveled.

But why stop there? Why hasn’t every person, period, deleted their old tweets?

Scrubbing old tweets is already a common practice among journalists. That shouldn’t be surprising—after all, we’ve seen this cycle play out in countless stories, and we understand our appeal as candidates for targeted harassment and skeleton-exposing outstrips our actual name recognition. But journalism isn’t the only profession that leaves users open to public criticism. In fact, what profession doesn’t? If you work for the government, as a teacher, for a major corporation, you could easily be somebody’s target.

In fact, increasingly, you don’t even need any special qualification to be a target. Thanks in large part to the internet, our society has an ever-expanding definition of who’s a public figure—you could go viral because you made a good joke online or because you shot a newsworthy video or even, unbeknownst to you, because someone turned you into a meme. Suddenly everything you’ve ever posted is up for public scrutiny. It’s happened to people on reality TV, like a contestant on this season of The Bachelorette, who got into trouble not for what he posted, even, but for what he liked. It happened to Ken Bone—remember him? He enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight during the 2016 presidential debates, but the public’s perception of him soured after the discovery of some of his (embarrassing) old Reddit posts. The term milkshake duck is predicated on these sorts of incidents. Increasingly, old online posts are a liability. And, to be clear—this isn’t a defense of all the behavior that’s surfaced; it’s just, should we have that depth of information about relative strangers?

Maybe you think that this would simply never happen to you; you’ve never posted anything inappropriate online. But the post that gets you in trouble needn’t actually be inappropriate or offensive; it just has to be able to be taken out of context. And on Twitter, taking things out of context is practically the name of the game. As Emily Dreyfuss wrote in Wired about her own decision to start deleting her tweets, “There’s no way to easily tell, when looking back at someone’s timeline from years ago, what jokes were trending, what the national mood was like, what everyone was faux-outraged by.” Taking old tweets out of context is what right-wing trolls did with Gunn’s posts, but it’s also what they did with posts by an MSNBC journalist named Sam Seder that were intended as satirical. Seder lost his job, then was rehired when the network realized it had been duped by a disingenuous campaign. But not every case is so clear-cut, and not every damage can be so easily undone. If you want to ensure that your old tweets won’t get you in trouble, the best way to do so may be to just get rid of them. (Even then, it’s not a guarantee. Screenshots and caches exist.)

From a journalist’s perspective, deletion of the public record might seem like an odd thing to advocate for. For posterity, for accountability, there ought to be a record of things people have said publicly, just as there’s a record of articles newspapers and magazines have published. But it’s not a given that what we tweet should be treated like what’s in a newspaper, even if it more or less has been up until now. What if we treated tweeting more like talking? We don’t keep a constant record of that—for now, at least. If email is the modern analogue to letter writing, maybe a tweet should be considered a more tossed-off mode, one that shouldn’t necessarily be permanently index-able and cross-reference-able.

This may require some reframing. But the internet has changed since we started tweeting. As social media has become less a novelty and more a fact of life, people have grown tired and realized some of the drawbacks of sharing everything with their entire network, forever. Snapchat, and then Instagram Stories (and all the other Stories copycats), have led people to embrace the idea of content that expires. Mass-deleting tweets to protect against trolls no longer feels like letting the trolls win, exactly, but more like recognizing that, post–Gamergate and the 2016 presidential election, trolls have become a larger force than any individual person should be expected to reckon with. No longer feeding them isn’t quite giving in to them—it’s more like starving them out.

Twitter has always felt a bit ephemeral. If the service were being built now, given the success of disappearing posts, I bet engineers would at least consider making tweets expire after a certain amount of time the standard, or at least as an option. As the service’s 2017 expansion of character limits proved, it’s never too late for a change: Twitter could still add functionality that would allow tweets to expire, or at least be archived, as Instagram has. (On Instagram, archiving lets users remove posts from their public profiles without completely deleting them, a kind of stopgap that acknowledges that how people want to present themselves can evolve over time.) Archiving and highlighting Stories on Instagram (aka saving them from expiring by adding them to your profile) both grant users more flexibility around not just the presentation of content, but how long users want it to be available, showing that users are already used to factoring time into their posting decisions.

But currently, not only does Twitter lack such functionality, but the mechanisms for deleting tweets are extremely clunky, consisting of third-party workarounds that can be expensive and cumbersome for the average user. Free services are available to delete your most recent 3,200 tweets, but beyond that, you’re looking at either spending a whole lot of time clicking, or paying either a one-time or monthly fee to part with your old tweets. The difficulty of deletion underscores the likelihood that far from wanting to serve users’ needs, Twitter is fine with how hard it is to scrub old tweets. After all, Twitter derives a certain amount of cultural currency from being the forum of record for statements from celebrities and other public figures. Some people say that’s why Twitter would never ban a controversial figure like President Donald Trump: It’s in Twitter’s interest to be the platform on which important conversations are happening, to be essential to the news, and to be linked back to when we refer to such conversations in the future.

Deleting your—or some famous person’s, or anyone’s—tweets will mean that the world will be deprived of that many more short-form observations and witticisms. All that time you put into your tweets, all those faves and retweets, your precious brand as constructed 140, and then 280, characters at a time: Poof, they’d be gone! Twitter would inevitably lose some of this cachet if tweet deleting becomes standard practice. But Twitter has always been best at capturing the present, and it does it in a way that’s impossible to fully reconstruct after the fact. Attempts to square the past with the present are now creating real problems for users. In order to stay essential to the moment, maybe what Twitter needs to do is let the past fade away.