I’ve gathered you all here today to make a confession: I am a serial Tweeter and Deleter.
It’s rarely high-stakes stuff, mostly takes on TV shows and stupid little observations from my stupid little life, or the occasional cat photo that doesn’t get the correct amount of likes. But I’d say I do it “fairly often,” and I know a lot of you do, too. Every day, I encounter the still-visible traces of other people’s tweets labeled with that little footer: “This tweet has been deleted.”
For whatever reason, many of us just can’t help it. “Yeah, it’s called tweeting while stoned,” one friend noted, “and I regret most of it!” Comedian Jaboukie Young-White tweets and deletes so often that there’s a whole account dedicated to archiving his deleted tweets; it has 61,000 followers. When VICE reached out to Chris Stedman, author of IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives, about offering his insights for this story, he responded with a joke: “Hmm, I don't think I can speak to this as someone who has never tweeted and deleted in my life!!!”
Whether it's a bad pun we know will get two likes tops or a super-personal piece of information we really have no business bombing followers with, some of us just have to tweet (and then delete) through it. So what's going on there? Why do we hit the “tweet” button even if our gut says it’s a bad idea, or when we know it’s going to embarrass us later? And why, after we do the logical-seeming thing in deleting, do we often feel kind of guilty about that?
We talked to psychologists, social media experts—and a few tweet-deleters themselves—to learn why we tweet and delete, whether it’s really all that big of a deal, and what to do if it’s causing conflict and/or embarrassment between you and your friends and/or followers.
First of all, why do we tweet?
Before we get into the deleting stuff, it feels like we should address some of the reasons we tweet in the first place. Because there are a lot of them! Twitter fulfills many functions: It’s where we follow breaking news, trade jokes, keep up with our friends, and share memes and oddities. (Anyone else out there an 80s News Screens fan?) It’s where we go to chat, throw out an idea, throw out… something.
Aleks Krotoski is a social psychologist who has spent a decade-plus studying exactly this stuff. She told VICE that a lot of this tweeting falls into a category called “phatic communication,” verbal or nonverbal cues that are intended to start a conversation or establish a relationship rather than share information. For the most part, we don’t say stuff just to say it—consciously or not, we’re hoping to get something back.
“Offline, we do it with a raised eyebrow, with an ‘ahem’ with eye contact, with a lean in, through body language, to communicate that we are available for social interaction, we are available to start chatting with somebody,” said Krotoski. Virtually, though, we do this in a slightly more sophisticated way.
Rather than a raised eyebrow or a meaningful glance to get someone’s attention, on Twitter we share what we’re feeling or doing. We literally engage people with prompt tweets asking about their weirdest celebrity encounter, or we more subtly engage them by tweeting about a movie we like. Both can fulfill that “phatic” communication role—you get a response, in the form of likes or retweets or additional thoughts from other people.
So why delete? Because we were basically tricked into tweeting in the first place.
I don’t know about you, but I would say that no fewer than 10 times a day, I open the Twitter app and start scrolling just because it’s there. “Often, our Twitter use is super reflexive and mindless, and a huge part of that—no duh—is because that’s what the platform is designed to invite,” said Stedman, the author of IRL.
Friendly as that little blue bird may look, Twitter is not on your side. It’s well documented how tech companies manipulate us into spending the maximum amount of time scrolling and posting so they can mine us for data and use that data to sell us stuff. Twitter is a publicly traded company, after all.
“Sometimes these tweeting and deleting moments are a reminder that you’re operating in treacherous territory.”
“You have to give yourself a little grace,” Stedman said, “and realize that we’re using these tools and platforms that were not set up to encourage thoughtful, careful behavior. Sometimes these tweeting and deleting moments are a reminder that you’re operating in treacherous territory.”
To Stedman, there are two kinds of play: deep and shallow. Deep play typically involves our imagination and creativity, while shallow play is like going to a casino and hitting the slot machines—fun, but ultimately not all that enriching. Social media platforms move us more in the direction of shallow play: “We keep pulling the lever until we get a tweet that takes off.” And what kinds of tweets go viral? Well… it’s not usually the super nuanced stuff.
It is possible to have a more meaningful experience online—to grow and maintain relationships on Twitter, or learn about yourself—but you’re doing so on Twitter’s terms. Stedman says that when he finds himself tweeting then deleting, it can become an unexpected opportunity to check in with himself about why he’s on the app in the first place.
Our brains haven’t quite caught up to Twitter
According to Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and media expert, “The psychology of wanting to say something—issue an opinion, cast some shade, make an observation, whatever—has been around since there have been people.” This is a human need that far predates Twitter (and Myspace and Xanga, for that matter), but never before has it been so easy to say something, publicly, to so many people at once.
Not too long ago, the best way for most people to get their thoughts and opinions out to thousands of others was in a letter to the editor. You’d have to take the time to sit down and write out your stance, find the stamps and envelopes, and really consider whether it was something you wanted your name attached to. Halfway through, you might realize you’d lost the energy (or the stamps).
Part of that hesitation is physiological: “We have this lovely thing called a frontal lobe, and the frontal lobe is the part of the brain that inhibits,” said Durvasula. It’s what keeps our worst instincts in check; it’s what prevents us from lashing out at people who annoy us IRL. Knowing there’s the possibility of causing conflict or hurt stops us from saying some things, which stops us from getting into trouble.
But on Twitter… it sometimes doesn’t. The social media site removes nearly all of the barriers that have historically given our brain pause when it comes to saying something we maybe shouldn’t. We can’t see who we’re lashing out at, and we often don’t know them. We can reply instantly, with fairly few consequences. Twitter beefs don’t usually spill out into real-life fistfights.
“Our frontal lobe has not caught up to what it needs to do in the world of social media, where everything is so quick, so instantaneous, without guardrails,” Durvasula said. But after you’ve tweeted, the frontal lobe has had a second to catch up—which could help explain why you post a tweet only to delete it a minute later. “Sometimes just seeing it on the screen is enough to say, ‘What was I thinking?’ And then we immediately pull it back.”
And Twitter gives you the option to pull it back in a way that doesn’t exist offline. Because as long as people have been communicating with one another, we’ve been putting our feet in our mouths, saying the wrong thing or a thing we wish we hadn’t said at all. In a group setting, you’d stew in silent shame as the conversation moved on from whatever awkward thing you said; on Twitter, you have to sit there and look at it, and you have the opportunity to take it down.
You tweeted to become known… and now you’re too known.
“I live alone and pandemic isolation hit me pretty hard, so I’ve become a bit of an impulsive tweeter,” said Karen Muller, a writer based in Boston. “It’s a weak replacement for actually socializing, but sometimes it does the trick.”
A lot of the time, though, it doesn’t. Rather than feeling affirmed, or more connected, Muller said she is often left feeling a little self-conscious about broadcasting her thoughts—which is when she smashes that delete button. “If that kind of tweeting is about wanting to feel seen, deleting those tweets is my natural response to the mortifying ordeal of being known,” she said.
“If that kind of tweeting is about wanting to feel seen, deleting those tweets is my natural response to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”
The tweet can be a way of reaching out, reminding yourself and those around you that hey—I exist! And Stedman noted that it can be a freeing thing. He likened it to the appeal of Instagram stories: Maybe, consciously or not, you only wanted that tweet to be visible for a short window of time before taking it down. There’s nothing wrong with that!
“I don’t want to be a ‘let’s find the silver lining’ person all the time, but I do think that the idea of tweeting and deleting is so loaded with shame, and like, ‘I’m doing this because I feel stupid or I fucked up or whatever,’” he said. “And I think there are things about it that are actually instructive and insightful and that can be liberating, knowing that you’re just going to let this little piece of information or whatever you’re sharing live in the world for a little bit.”
It can be freeing to leave the past in the past.
Some of us don’t tweet and delete every day, or every once in a while, but do so intentionally and in big batches. “There are people who, as a practice, delete all tweets older than, like, 30 days,” Stedman said. For those tweeters, there’s a built-in understanding that what you’re putting out there is temporary. It isn’t meant to be archived forever.
Other folks are like Tom Basgen, an executive assistant for a St. Paul, Minnesota city council member, who recently mass-deleted his whole archive. For Basgen, the decision to delete has been a long time coming. He and his friends have been discussing ways to use the platform in a less mentally disruptive way; some have stopped tweeting altogether, while others are trying to tweet more responsibly. “And it turns out you can use social media in a healthy way!” he said. “It just requires adding a bit of detachment and some of the rules that come with social interactions IRL.”
Basgen said his “great purge” finally came about due to a combination of ongoing self-reflection and the fact that he got a new job. He paid a company $15 to quickly and effectively delete the tweets—all 31,600 of them.
“I downloaded them all into a file in my Google Drive that I will never open, like some wretched ark of the covenant, and then torched them from the face of God’s internet,” he said. “It felt great. Like taking out the garbage before you leave on vacation. Clean.”
So much of what we tweet is about ourselves: Our likes, our dislikes, our affinities, our affiliations. It’s kind of like a diary, with years of your history stored in reverse chronological order.
“We don’t realize how much of ourselves we’re putting out there,” Krotoski said. “We talk a lot about privacy and we talk a lot about security and that kind of thing, and most of us think it’s about addresses or passwords. But it’s about more than that.” And it can feel weird when you realize you have a public persona out there on Twitter, where any stranger can see it—especially when we’re all changing, all the time. You might not necessarily recognize the person who said the things you said five years ago, and if those tweets are gone. “It’s almost as if they’ve now passed through a rubicon,” Krotoski added, “and said, ‘That is not who I am.’”
How to break the tweet and delete cycle
If you don’t find that your Twitter use is causing conflicts or strife, then by all means: Tweet and delete away! But if you’re interested in digging deeper into your relationship with the internet, moments like that can be opportunities to dig deeper and do a little self-discovery. “One of the things that we can gain from reflecting a little bit after we’ve tweeted and deleted is coming to better understand our reasons for logging on in the first place,” Stedman said.
If you find your tweeting and deleting isn’t necessarily harmful, just something you’d like to do less, it can be good to force yourself to pause for a moment before the tweet, taking a beat to reflect on your motivations before posting. Put your phone down and walk away for a second, and if it seems like something worth sending when you come back, fire it off! It can also help to have a group chat or trusted friend to run tweets by—we do this all the time in my group chats, which has the added benefit of helping to make good tweets even better.
If you do find it’s causing problems in your personal life, Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, told VICE it’s important not to get stuck blaming yourself, but rather to harness the positives of the regret that led to the delete. “Regret, like all emotions, is a survival function,” she said. “It is our brain's way of telling us to take another look at our choices—a signal that our actions may be leading to negative consequences.”
She adds that it can be helpful to stop tweeting when you’re all worked up: “Most of the problems with tweeting come from emotional tweeting—satisfying the need to ‘blurt,’” whether it’s an overshare or a rude remark. Twitter can be a toxic place, and that can trigger emotional responses. Strategically mute or block people if you find yourself getting into it with them.
In the end, Stedman said reflecting on your motivations for tweeting and deleting can be a positive and enriching experience.
“It ends up being something I really am grateful for, even if in the moment it’s motivated by a little bit of embarrassment,” he said. “Anytime something snaps us out of that and gives us a chance to ask ourselves, ‘Wait, what am I really trying to do here? What am I getting out of this?’ I think that’s a good thing.”