Twitter should allow users to “hide” old tweets: my correct opinion

Twitter should allow users to “hide” old tweets so that they are only visible to that user, and selectively “un-hide” individual tweets from that collection so that they once again become available at their original URL, in quote tweets and threads, and in sites where they are embedded around the web.

The need for a mechanism to remove old tweets is very clear and becoming abundantly moreso with every rightwing campaign trawling for old statements to weaponize by taking out of context. Numerous guides have been written about how and why to delete your tweets, and it’s beyond the scope of the argument I’m making today. Many of these guides, too, address the emotional difficulty of actually pulling the trigger and wiping an archive—in many cases spanning a decade or so of interaction.

One of the best encapsulations of this problem (and that solution) is John Herrman’s Awl 2015 piece “Time Is a Privacy Setting.” Even just the phrase in the headline is an important contribution, and gets at why simple dichotomies of “public” and “private” are so unsatisfying. A lot more goes into our understanding of privacy than a binary toggle, and time is certainly a factor.

And just as interesting, to me, is something Herrman said this week, in a tweet thread that began with his a link to that now three-year-old essay: “You thought you were talking, but you were writing.” It’s true! Twitter has managed, for many people, to clear out a barrier that can otherwise be insurmountable, letting people be comfortable writing down their thoughts and conversations. Something the tweet-deleters flirt with, but never seem to quite put their finger on, is that writing (as opposed to talking) has some real advantages in addition to the drawbacks.1By definition, most of the articles about deleting tweets are written by writers. Writers, again by definition, tend to write more stuff down. So maybe the benefits of having a place to write stuff down if you otherwise wouldn’t isn’t quite as clear to them.

This observation is obviously not new to Twitter. My father, a writer, has always exhorted me to keep a journal or a diary, though I’ve never really been able to. One real value of Twitter, for me, has been breaking through that hesitation by setting the threshold of participation so incredibly low that I can just, y’know, write. It’d be better to keep a journal or to blog, but in many cases tweets are good enough.

Over the decade that I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve gone through periods of prolific writing and total dry spells. I’ve maintained this blog regularly at times, and at others it’s sat dormant for months. And the thing is, I frequently refer to and read the old entries for time periods where they exist! Human memory is fickle and fragile, and it is genuinely interesting and educational for me to look back on old writing and see the germs of ideas that later grew into real passions. Looking up old tweets isn’t quite as good, but it fills in the gaps.

Beyond just lowering the threshold to producing such writing, Twitter did some important things to make online writing even more valuable. Search, the villain in recent sagas, is a powerful tool when used for good. Joanne McNeil recently raised a use case I love:

I do that too! Yes, it’d be great if all my friends blogged about every movie they watched or book they read (and I had a good way of finding those posts when they became relevant to me), but this is a decent runner-up. If you want, too, you can see first interactions with people who later became important to you, or all the people who’ve made a joke you just thought of, or people discussing an article you’ve just read, and Twitter (helpfully, in this case) collapses the time gap between you and those people.

Beyond that, Twitter puts a time stamp and a URL on each of these things. In recent years it even preserves the semantics of threads. I don’t want to downplay the very real harm these attributes can cause, but it’s also true that in some situations they provide a ton of value.

Which brings us back to tweet deletion and why it is emotionally difficult for people to do. For better or for worse, this archive we’ve created of our own writing is valuable, and deleting tweets is permanent. (Emily Dreyfuss’ article at Wired does an especially good job at grappling with it.) Every guide I’ve read to deleting tweets walks through the process of creating an “archive,” but even doing so misses some of these benefits of keeping old tweets online.

Archiving-then-deleting may preserve a copy for you, but it permanently rips each tweet out of its context in threads, at a URL, within quote tweets, embedded in articles, and in the Search index.2Beyond that, there’s no easy way to present your archive on your own terms to anybody but yourself, a feature I’ve argued for in other contexts. Maybe you want to do all those things, and you should have the power to do so! But with a corpus of tens of thousands of tweets, in many cases, it is overwhelming to permanently make that decision for everything all at once.

(Side note: that permanence is in large part a result of Twitter’s centralization. Under a more decentralized model,3Check out Mastodon. where we controlled our own domains, you could maybe just rebuild your database from a backup and point all the right URLs to all the right content. There’s pros and cons to such centralization—and in particular, people seem to love the guarantee that the archive hasn’t been tampered with—but in any case that’s the situation we’re in and what can you do.)

So here’s the solution, referred to up top. Twitter should give users a new option to “hide” old tweets, which would look to every other user like deletion, but which would be a reversible operation. Your hidden tweets should still appear in your searches and views of old threads, but greyed out to indicate they’re not otherwise available. And—and this is probably the hardest part—Twitter should introduce a per-tweet configurability for these settings.

That’s the kicker. Individual tweets could be deleted (fully gone), hidden (just for you), private (for your followers, no retweets), or public. That would be a big change! But it’s important.

(Another side note: when I posted this opinion on Twitter, I got a few responses that such an option should not be available for public figures or politicians or what-have-you. I tend to think that we should not rely on Twitter to preserve these public records, and that their introduction of a feature that has real benefits to real users shouldn’t be hindered by the possible exploitation by shifty officials. And just as with deleting tweets or blocking critics, the behavior can be barred without Twitter needing to intervene.)

Twitter the company has mismanaged Twitter the product in a dozen different ways, and its policies on speech, censorship, harassment, and abuse have often been incoherent. It’s also provided an invaluable platform for many of my favorite writers and thinkers, and done so in a way that is reasonably consistent with the technology of the web.4Two good things that stand out: canonical URLs for every tweet, and the fact that unavailable embedded tweets degrade gracefully into text. On the other hand, the normalization and ubiquitous use of a URL shortener sucks. Giving users more tools—in this case a new privacy setting with more granularity—is the right next step in overcoming the former without diminishing the latter.

   [ + ]

1. By definition, most of the articles about deleting tweets are written by writers. Writers, again by definition, tend to write more stuff down. So maybe the benefits of having a place to write stuff down if you otherwise wouldn’t isn’t quite as clear to them.
2. Beyond that, there’s no easy way to present your archive on your own terms to anybody but yourself, a feature I’ve argued for in other contexts.
3. Check out Mastodon.
4. Two good things that stand out: canonical URLs for every tweet, and the fact that unavailable embedded tweets degrade gracefully into text. On the other hand, the normalization and ubiquitous use of a URL shortener sucks.