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The Depressing Truth About Deleting Your Online History
I torched all my old tweets at the beginning of this year, using one of the many websites that help you destroy your online past. Like any reasonable person, I’ve never been a virulent racist or sexist. But the unscrupulous, mass-deletion of personal almanacs has become something of a rite of passage for anyone who spends a lot of time internet.
You probably know the deal: Click on a prominent Twitter account and there’s a decent chance the person behind it has reduced their total tweet count to triple digits, at most. Last Jedi director Rian Johnson did it. So did Kanye, Lindsay Lohan, and any number of other public figures.
We’re in the middle of a communication breakdown.
The internet once seemed to promise an endless, uncensored repository of memories. In high school, I dreamed about one day revisiting Myspace and LiveJournal, my online haunts, where every good and bad night was documented in something close to real time. I thought I would be in the first generation to remember everything.
Lately, the possibility sounds more like a nightmare.
Old tweets now sour the fortunes of people who have something to lose. Director James Gunn was fired after pedophilia jokes from 2010 and 2011 were resurfaced by a right-wing smear campaign. Brewers reliever Josh Hader was forced to apologize before his inaugural All-Star game appearance after he was caught being racist online as a teenager. WWE wrestler Cedric Alexander did the same after an old one-liner about rape was dredged up from the ether.
Tech optimists used to wax poetic about how the internet was going to make us a smarter, more erudite, more empathetic global community. But in 2018, it’s become clear that we’re in the middle of a communication breakdown, and that nobody has a good answer for how to properly engage with the things we once posted online, however dumb or horrible.
So, I asked a few people why they decided to obliterate their online pasts — which once lived so clearly in stream-of-consciousness Twitter timelines — in hopes of understanding what’s going on here.
Dawn Lee: ‘I Wish the Straight Professions Were as Accepting as Sex Work’
Dawn Lee is a call girl and legal professional in Toronto, Canada. She mostly uses Twitter for self-promotion in the sex industry, and runs a script that deletes everything off her account on a weekly basis. This keeps her online presence terse and transient, with a tweet count that rarely rises above triple digits. “I wanted to use Twitter more like Snapchat,” she says.
Lee’s personal brand is unique. She’s both a sex worker and a dedicated libertarian, who’s unafraid to take some staunch, anti-PC stances online. This is a way for potential clients to get to know her from a distance, ensuring that they’ll be able to debate austerity measures on the first date.
“Today, I had a guy who was like, ‘I read what you wrote about political correctness and I totally agreed, I knew I had to meet you,’” she laughs. “In that way, it helps. Corporations are very focused on not saying anything that will turn away potential customers, but I guess in this business, it’s a bit different. It’s not about maximizing profits.”
Surprisingly, Lee’s hesitancy about her Twitter paper trail doesn’t have to do much with the sex industry. Yes, the auto-deletion protects her personal privacy, but she’s far more worried about her legal career, and the chance that the Law Society of Ontario would move to terminate her license if she’s caught saying something too controversial.
“As far as the escorting goes, I don’t care if a guy doesn’t like me. It’s not a big deal,” she says. “I’m [more] frustrated with the legal profession. It’s very archaic and very conservative. I didn’t know that going in. It’s caused me to look into myself and reckon with the things I can sacrifice… Escorting is already such a stigmatized profession that people are going to be more accepting of people’s faults. In some ways, I wish the straight professions were as accepting as sex work.”
David Greenwald: ‘I’m in a Completely Different Universe’
David Greenwald is a programmer and WordPress designer, and someone whose online persona changed radically after the last U.S. election. In 2016, he was a prominent figure calling for recounts in the tightly contested races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. When that fell through, he continued to spend a lot of time signal-boosting allegations of Russian interference in the American political system, which has netted him over 13,000 followers.
He’s also now a father and a husband. “I’m in a completely different universe,” he says.
Greenwald says that wiping old tweets was something he did for his safety and sanity. As a bona fide member of #Resistance Twitter, occasionally his posts go viral, which means they find their way to unsavory corners of the internet. Trolls lay siege to his reply box with all sorts of loud, threatening nonsense. He takes solace in knowing that even as they scroll through his timeline, everything will eventually self-destruct.
“When people from the Donald Trump subreddit find your tweet to harass you, you know that in four days it’s gonna be wiped out and they won’t bother you anymore,” says Greenwald. “The people who needed to see it saw it, but it doesn’t hang over you as something people can Google and yell at you for.”
Nicole Carpenter: ‘They Could Find Intimate Details on My Friendships’
Nicole Carpenter is a staff writer for Dot Esports, where she covers professional gaming. Women on this beat are routinely exposed to systematic, organized abuse. Out of anyone I interviewed, she has the most reason to believe there could be bad actors sifting through her timeline — and that’s a risk that won’t go away as her career continues to flourish.
“It was stuff you’d just put into a text message now,” she says, reflecting on how she used Twitter as a teenager a decade ago. “People that were looking for information on me didn’t have to go through any extreme lengths to find that. They could find intimate details on my friendships. It’s unnerving. It scares me. I knew what I was going into when I signed up for this, but the people around me didn’t sign up for it, and I don’t want them to be harassed in any way.”
She’s not so sure the problem is getting better.
“Some teens definitely are [more careful]. You see that with people making separate private Twitter accounts,” Carpenter says. “But at the same time, a lot of the horrible, nasty stuff that people send to me is from younger people.”
Brock Wilbur: ‘It’s an Erasure of Entire Relationships With People’
Brock Wilbur is a stand-up comedian and writer in Los Angeles, and out of everyone I spoke to, he’s the only one that can point to an exact moment when he decided to press the reset button on his Twitter account. It was earlier this year, when Disney decided to part ways with director James Gunn, who was in the middle of piloting the multi-billion-dollar Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. It was astounding to him that a man who made some of the grisliest horror movies of all time was seeing his career derailed by a bad-faith effort.
“It threw me for a loop. That guy made Troma films! They knew who he was when they hired him. In Slither, a pregnant woman explodes!” says Wilbur. “Right-wing trolls can weaponize you, especially if it’s something you wrote that was intended as satire… and it’s taken out of context.”
Wilbur’s wife was the one who convinced him to delete everything: 40,000 tweets, doled out over the course of seven years, gone in an instant.
He felt a twinge of grief during the purge. Comedians rely on Twitter to build their brand, because going viral is a great way to get booked and aggregated. Wilbur was sacrificing all of that momentum — “my important work, my smart funny brain!” — and burning down his portfolio in the process.
He downloaded his data beforehand, in case he ever needs it, and doesn’t mind treating the internet as a more ephemeral place. But he is especially sad about losing the tweets that helped other people out.
“It’s an erasure of entire relationships with people,” he says. “There’s a lot of me amplifying other voices that’s now gone, too.’”
Tyler Barstow: ‘I Was a Big Louis CK Fan’
Tyler Barstow first started thinking about his old tweets as he was gearing up to appear on a FOX Business show hosted by Maria Bartiromo. His company, Vinyl Me, Please, is a subscription service that ships records to customers every month. The operation is expressly apolitical, but Barstow was still cognizant of being a bearded, lefty Colorado guy on a network that attracts a certain breed of right-wing toxicity. So, he went home and wiped the slate clean.
In his words, it’s a way to ensure that things he tweeted as a drunk twentysomething could never be attached to the person he knew himself to be today.
“An example is, I was a big Louis CK fan. Obviously, what he did was fucked up. I’m glad he got found out and those people got a platform to talk about it and he’s had to deal with the ramifications,” says Barstow. “But the concept of someone going and digging up a thing of me tweeting two or three years ago about how funny Louis CK is, somehow now, that can become ammunition.”
In the past, Barstow was callously, bitingly cynical on the platform — far too eager to raise an opinion about every little controversy that passed through his timeline.
“Now, I just want to digest things other people have said and be quiet,” says Barstow. “I knew if I went back through a lot of it, I would be embarrassed, but more than that, it’d just make me sad. Like, ‘man that version of me [didn’t have] any humility or soft-heartedness.’”