It’s 2009, and you’re finally signing up for Twitter. After entering the required information, you see a box asking, “What are you doing?” You think a moment and give a straight answer:
You’ve tweeted. You never do it again.
There are hundreds of millions of former users like you. At some point, a bot might have harvested your account and started spewing ads for Ray-Bans. Otherwise, it’s been dormant for years. Now Elon Musk owns it.
If Musk is true to his word, he’ll be deleting it and other inactive accounts soon, freeing up handles and server space. Twitter nearly executed such a plan in 2019, before backing off when people cried out over the loss of dead loved ones’ tweets. That’s a good reason to keep them around, but there’s a better one: Dead accounts are the best accounts on Twitter—the weirdest, yet also the most representative.
The story of Twitter is one of anonymity and failure. Twenty-five percent of Twitter users are responsible for 97 percent of tweets, which means a supermajority of users make no mark on the site at all. If you focus on the dropouts, you can see both the limits of Twitter as a social network and the elusive promise of meaningful interaction, or even fame, that lures so many toward it. The tweets by Twitter’s millions of misfit accounts are frequently hilarious but also endearing, sometimes heartbreaking. These are the users who never made themselves a brand, who never earned a retweet, who never penned a 🔥 THREAD. I love them. They failed at the site because they were too human for it.
Many of Twitter’s inactive accounts have just one tweet, preserving a dull moment in amber:
“Chilling” is the most common response, followed by “nothing” and “joining twitter.”
In late 2009, Twitter changed the prompt from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?” which elicited responses like:
Some of these users probably thought that question was another box to fill before the fun could start:
Then they realized this was tweeting. No fun to be had, they quit. These “orphans,” as a 2009 Slate story called them, are even more striking in context, when you see that single post atop an empty field they declined to fill with any further content.
Most of these accounts, you might have noticed, are just initials followed by a number, their users not savvy enough to devise a clever handle, instead using one probably suggested by Twitter. I first started trawling for these misfits in 2016 as, I want to say, an escape from the year’s political chaos but probably for deeper personal reasons that warrant formal psychoanalysis. It was like playing a slot machine, where the prize was an encounter with words—and maybe the side of a person—that nobody had ever seen before. I’d simply type initials and numbers into the Twitter url, going rmb1, rmb2, rmb3 … until I found one of these abandoned stabs at social media success:
Other times, I’d try common names or seek out certain types. Or maybe I just wanted to know what was happening with the world’s Stevies, so I’d add numbers until:
Their tweets recall how the site was initially mocked as a platform for sharing inane doings, as though anybody cares. What did these people think was going to happen? They tweet that they’re “Going to bed,” and then they’ll wake up with 50,000 followers—or even just a single person asking how they slept?
But what were they supposed to tweet? It’s not like Facebook, where they’re connecting with people they know. Twitter is about strangers. These users knew that Twitter was where famous people interacted with ordinary people, and where ordinary people could become somewhat famous people.
But they had no idea how those things occurred. Behind their banal answers, you can hear an implicit question: “What am I supposed to say to this site, and what good will it do me?”
Foolish as they might appear, these are probably Twitter’s wisest users. They came to the site, gave it one shot to add something to their lives, and moved on. Their responses are sweetly, laughably earnest, but that might be because they never took the time to learn Twitter’s ironic or belligerent modes, never saw the point. They had better things to do:
Amid those two tweets is an implicit story about why this woman left, and it’s these stories, layered within people’s repeated, halting attempts to make sense of the medium, that I find captivating.
There were the ones who tweeted just twice, years apart:
There were the ones who started strong, tweeting at 2:08 a.m.—
—but then abandoned the field forever five minutes later:
Many tried it as a journal, tweeting one day that they were “going to the red sox game,” then, two weeks later, “talking on AIM and cleaning the house,” and then, a week after that, “going to target,” before, in another two weeks, “going to bed” and checking out for good, un-retweeted, un-liked, unseen.
Some did all their journaling in a single minute, beginning:
And then, 60 seconds later—
—before bailing on the platform.
Many seemed to confuse Twitter with a dating site.
One guy’s bio reads, “6’ 232lbs athletic.” Another played coy with the bio: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a soul mate. Prove me wrong.” Another said his next birthday “will be 50th but look like 16.” A middle-aged man kept sending selfies to porn stars. One man tweeted first, “looking for love lonely,” then “Male 47 looking for love,” and finally, two weeks later: “Just getting stoned.” Women often emphasized that they were there only to find friends, but with no more luck.
Others struggled with the basics:
It’s not even apparent how you talk to somebody on Twitter, and so lots of tweets are seemingly directed at nobody in particular.
Or, in some cases, they’re directed at somebody very much in particular:
I thought maybe these people were using Twitter’s defunct SMS setup, where tweets arrived as texts, but few were, and even with that, you were supposed to use the person’s handle.
Sometimes you can check whom they’re following and find an @-free conversation unfolding, very slowly:
I found a Texan tweeting about how much he loved and missed his “baby,” sometimes toward, but never @, the only person he followed. She likewise tweeted almost exclusively about how much she adored her “hubby,” while unintentionally revealing him to be a controlling jerk—angry she went dancing, making her delete her MySpace. Suddenly, days after the man stopped tweeting, the woman began lamenting that he’d cheated on her. Were these tweets for him? For herself? For some imagined caring world out there? She said she was sticking with him, and soon her own stream ended.
This conversational method might work with someone who follows you back, but not with a celebrity who doesn’t. The account @tg51, which follows only Justin Bieber, sent precisely one tweet:
Bieber failed to respond, and the user never returned. Other accounts took a similar approach to engaging the famous, or whoever was on TV at the moment:
Many of these read like Dril tweets, or more like the bizarre old tweets Dril digs up and shares with his million followers. If inactive accounts are purged, they’ll be removed from his timeline soon, which feels like a museum’s vandalizing one of its own masterpieces.
Many undiscovered oddities will go, as well:
One of the things I love about Dril is the pathetic streak running through his posts. His hapless encounters with a brutal world make him weirdly endearing, and you feel that for many of these accounts too. They’d have gotten better at this if people had responded, but they didn’t know you need followers to get replies. They thought when they said hi, somebody would be there to talk. Even the ones who know how to reply rarely receive one in return.
The discourse around Twitter often focuses on its toxicity, on the constant badgering high-profile users face. But most users have a radically different experience. Nobody ever tweets at them, and their own tweets drop unseen, like messages in a bottle. Even the heaviest users average under 40 likes a month. All these people come to Twitter to find connection and, instead, find vast indifference. They tweet “hit me up,” and no one does.
It’s the most relatable content on the site. How do you find friends? How do you talk to people? How do you get them to talk to you? What is the point of it all?
They kept hearing about this Twitter thing on the news, seeing hashtags added to the bottom of their TV screens, learning about people who parlayed Twitter exploits into book and TV deals, and then they got to the site and were utterly confounded. It was so hard to make a connection.
Tweet what you’re doing, they heard, but what they were doing was boring. Talk to a celebrity, they read, but they didn’t know how to find them or didn’t know what to say when they did.
All these people, tweeting at but not @ one another, their words never quite finding their mark, connection ever elusive—the site begins to feel like a carefully constructed simulacrum of the painful insecurities and uncertainties of life on earth.
Someone help me, so it can be fun to me like it is to you guys. It’s the sentiment of the majority of Twitter users, and of everyone who’s ever been on the outside looking in, everyone who’s ever watched others succeed effortlessly but can’t seem to get the steps right. Like all social media, Twitter sells itself as being about connecting people, but it really just takes people’s feelings of disconnectedness and amplifies them. You’re not alone in your room; you’re alone among indifferent millions.
I found a woman who sent just 11 tweets, all chronicling her husband dying of cancer. I found a high school student whose one tweet read that she was finding her teacher on Twitter “and being bored,” which led me to the teacher, who said he was showing his class how to use the site (with little clue himself); then his account ended, a couple years and tweets later, with his wondering whether $30,000 in debt was worth his master’s in education. I found an older woman and “writer wannabe” who tweeted that she could still hear her “long dead parents telling me I was incompetent and wasting my life.” I found a devout grandma in Virginia trying to tell her grandson that his lewd tweets broke her heart—but she didn’t @, and he didn’t follow her. I found an Iowa woman who complained alternately about her failed job search and her husband, who never told her she looked nice. I found an Australian with a drinking problem who tweeted about not hearing back from their sponsor and “going out to buy more :(.” I found a man who took a photo of a framed photo of himself, which was also his profile photo, and captioned it with his college degree. Countless users lamented getting dumped by their partners or tweeted intentionally @-less tweets to dead loved ones. Some tweeted hundreds or even thousands of times, across years, without one reply, their only engagement from bots. All of them tried to share something with the world but found that even more difficult than baring themselves was finding someone to listen.
Twitter, as they say, is not real life, but these tweets are. There are millions more like them. Twitter would surely like to gain these users back, but that would mean eliminating the dynamic that attracted them in the first place. People are drawn there to mix it up with strangers, to win friends and influence people, and unless you arrive already popular or with the nerve to brush off a cold reception, that’s always hard, always going to leave many on the outs. What makes these tweets interesting is what makes Twitter’s survival so challenging, regardless of ownership.
One of my favorite tweets came from a man returning to the site after years of failure at it. Looking at the prompt, this time he answered: “just being myself right now.” I don’t think he, or the site’s other misfit users, had any other choice. Fortunately, if their Twitter accounts vanish soon, whether by executive fiat or uncontrolled demolition, many of their tweets will remain. Up until 2017, the Library of Congress saved every tweet ever sent, 170 billion of them as of 2013. I envision some future historian going back and skipping the loudest voices in the archive and instead proceeding account by account, a series of tombs encasing shards of lives waiting to be brought to light. They’ll find the people whose dispatches I’ve fallen in love with: trying to be heard, sometimes frantically, yet without a clue what to say; confused, annoyed, and all the more charming for their failure to be anyone but their workaday selves.