As we inch toward the end of 2018, the media has reached a consensus that Twitter is an unruly beast and should be approached with caution. There have been thinkpieces upon thinkpieces upon thinkpieces exploring this notion. “Twitter is now an anger video game for many users… Everything is shrunk down to the same size, making it harder to discern what is a big deal and what is not. Tone often overshadows the actual news. All outrages appear equal,” New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman recently wrote in a column where she announced that, like many of her colleagues, she was taking a step back from the social media platform.
Others are going beyond taking a step back and are actively purging their histories in an effort to avoid being the subject of Sarah Jeong–esque phony controversies ginned up by their adversaries. Many journalists and writers have noted that there’s no good reason not to delete your old tweets. An off-handed joke or curt observation you made three years ago can come back to haunt you, so why not pay a minimal sum to an app and have a robot wipe your slate clean?
I'll tell you why: It's a cop-out. “We’ve built up archives of our past selves online over the years… And, increasingly, those past selves have become liabilities,” Abby Ohlheiser wrote in the Washington Post. I wanted to examine my liability-prone past selves, so I’ve been going through my old tweets, and manually deleting the ones that cause me shame.
This is a bigger project than it might seem. Since August 2014, I have sent over 51,000 tweets, which averages out to about 35 per day, though there were days when I tweeted a lot more than that. Sorting through those posts has meant miring myself in a steamy swamp of every dumbass thought I've had over the past four years. There are tens and tens and tens of thousands of brief asides and melodramatic declarations, all of them ancient and bizarre, and the unbearable heat of the cyber history is suffocating. Swamp creatures viciously nip at my ankles, and they come in many forms—the misguided and frenzied post-2016 election takes, sex jokes that are simply TMI, unfair snap judgments of various public figures, tired memes and lazy jokes, vulnerable displays of pettiness; sarcastic asides that look psychotic out of context. Every time a past version of myself tries to bite, I hit delete and emerge just a little bit victorious. I am purging the public record of my past folly so I can begin anew. I need to get intimate with my past blunders in order to evolve into a better version of myself, whoever she may be. Draining my Twitter swamp is an exercise in total self-abasement, pangs of indignity buzzing wildly into my ear canals like mosquitoes.
I used to think of my Twitter like a journal. It was where I’d vent about perceived slights, update the general public on the banalities of my existence, tell jokes to varying degrees of success, or go into a fiery rage over something that didn’t really matter as a way to rid myself of the bullshit feelings that come with being a person in society. Like many of my peers, Twitter was also instrumental in building my writing career—it was a place to make new friends and connections, a platform to throw out half-formed ideas to see what stuck. I’d often end up turning a meandering tweet thread into a more polished article.
I no longer think of Twitter like that. At least since the 2016 election (arguably earlier), the underlying bloodthirstiness of the internet is more dominant than ever before. Twitter in particular is where people go to take off-handed remarks with the utmost seriousness, to get fired up and outraged, and to scold others for not being as woke or smart as they are. The vicious are rewarded with likes and retweets, and those who are deemed problematic or otherwise unfit become the victims of the volatile and ruthless mob.
"Most people I’ve talked to who either work for Twitter or who have left the company in recent years, believe that the platform’s vitriol and meanness can’t be fixed without hurting the company’s financial model," Nick Bilton wrote in a recent Vanity Fair article about Twitter's refusal to remove Alex Jones from its website, even after Facebook, YouTube, Apple, Spotify, and other major tech companies kicked the Trump-loving conspiracy theory maven off of their platforms. Noting that Twitter's market cap would plummet if its most toxic user, President Donald Trump, were to bid farewell to the platform, Bilton explained, "Twitter is like a balancing scale, with assholes and revenue on the same side; less assholes means less money."
I was almost certainly one of those assholes, at least until recently. Without really thinking through those changes on a conscious level, I began to curb my Twitter usage earlier this year, likely because being a hyperactive user of the website was made me feel like shit and didn't give me much in return. Going back through my old tweets affirms my decision to begin yanking the plug. As it turns out, I have tweeted a lot, a lot, A LOT of embarrassing things—and it’s not like the stuff that makes me cringe is from 2014, it’s mostly from the last two years. (Nowadays, I prefer Instagram Stories, which conveniently disappear after 24 hours.) I have displayed needless cruelty, and performed a more brutal and overdramatic version of myself, which frequently rewarded me with new followers and retweets. I’ve partaken in the social network’s pervasive savagery and self-seriousness as often I’ve criticized it. I've flown into many a cyber-rage over upon reading unfair (and largely insignificant) criticisms of Bernie Sanders and his supporters, written multi-part tweet threads about the irredeemably problematic nature of some thoughtless thing an old acquaintance said to me when we ran into each other on the street, and delighted in mocking media personalities for their dumb tweets from 2013.
Slowly deleting my own dumb tweets, one at a time, has been an education in self-loathing and shame, and it is 100-percent worth it. It’s made me reconsider what I put out into the world, and think long and hard about the type of woman I want to be.
For years, I was proud of my ability to tweet about the darkest parts of my soul—frankly divulging the chaos of my depression and suicidal tendencies online, without a twinge of shame or worry. I’m less in the pits than I was last year or the year before that, and looking back, those tweets of despair inspire humiliation in me, no matter how much attention they got or how many people replied telling me that I'm great and to hang in there. Deleting my past cries for help reminds of how far I’ve come since 2015—I quit drinking alcohol, got into a relationship that’s so healthy I don’t even tweet about it, and have been constantly reevaluating the disparities between whoever I actually am and my public persona. I once believed that unapologetic confessionalism would heal me, but as I reread and delete my past posts of pain and suffering, I lament my decision not to have any secrets. Suddenly, I understand the value of keeping some things to myself.
Being an asshole online, whether it’s tagging the target of your wrath or subtly hinting at the identity of whoever you’re bashing, can make you seem unhinged and sickly.
Reliving my ill-formed takes on politics and feminism is also agony, of course, but most of the self-loathing I’ve experienced throughout manually deleting my tweets comes from how uncharitable I’ve been to other people. I have overreacted to rude tweets written by people who seemed to have the best intentions, and projected my personal plight onto individuals who didn’t deserve it. (Or maybe they did, but it still wasn’t worth it.) I regret it all.
A recent HuffPost article details “nemesis Twitter,” a trend where people express their ill will to an anonymous enemy. Pioneered by the writer Roxane Gay, nemesis Twitter allows people to “perform our grudges and gripes for a highly amused audience without risking blowback or a demoralizing back-and-forth.” Gay, who often gripes about her six unnamed Twitter foes, has written, “Pettiness is a healthy outlet.” A number of my past selves would have championed this sentiment, but as I delete countless expressions of my gratuitous spite circa 2015-2017, I’ve come to realize the opposite. Being an asshole online, whether it’s tagging the target of your wrath or subtly hinting at the identity of whoever you’re bashing, can make you seem unhinged and sickly. (This isn't to criticize Gay, who of course can do whatever she wants online. I’m just admonishing myself for my past pettiness.)
Of course, in the swamp of my past folly, I’ve found the occasional joke that makes me chuckle—“Bush did 9/11?? God, mediocre white men get credit for EVERYTHING!” for example—and glimmers of incisive analysis that I still stand by. (“I hate this website. It can fuckin suck my dick. It's not good” is a rare 2017 take of mine I wholly agree with.) But what I consider to be my best forgotten tweets were not my most popular. Which is a good reminder that using Twitter isn’t the best platform to test out ideas. As it turns out, my spicy takes that garnered thousands of retweets are not my best work. Over the past six months, I’ve redirected my impulse to narrate my day into my journal, and it’s a more forgiving and pleasurable medium to work out my material.
Entangled in a swamp of over 50,000 tweets, confronted again and again with bold declarations from the most unseemly iterations of myself, I am overwhelmed with the impulse to apologize: I’m so sorry I ever argued with anyone about politics on Twitter! I’m so sorry I made fun of the way people look, and I’m sorry I bragged about getting blocked for being a huge asshole and I’m sorry that I called dozens of people “little bitches” and I’m sorry I tweeted through the times I got dumped and I’m sorry I started drama because I didn’t know how else to be online! I want to be better, and again, I’m very sorry.
Manually deleting my tweets is not only a reminder to be more thoughtful in my digital life, but to esteem charity above animus. So instead of stewing in disdain for all the past versions of myself, I am going to forgive myself so I can grow into a better, future self. I am not out of the swamp yet, but I am a lizard, and this is how I shed my skin.
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