Social media has enabled everyone to share their unique thoughts and sense of humor with the entire world at the click of a button, an insane thing that no one should ever do. In the past couple of weeks, professional baseball players have had to deal with the fallout from homophobic and racist tweets they made as teens, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was fired by Disney after a right-wing social media campaign highlighted off-color jokes about rape and pedophilia he made on Twitter a decade ago, and journalist Sarah Jeong (who has contributed to Motherboard) endured a similar campaign after right-wing personalities attempted to get her fired from her just-announced gig as a New York Times writer for her old, clearly over-the-top tweets about hating white people. (The Times announced it was not firing Jeong, though it did not condone her old tweets.)
Obviously, coordinated campaigns that take posts out of context in an attempt to get people fired are different from people noticing genuinely toxic beliefs that manifest in old social media posts. Just as obviously, if companies take bad-faith smear jobs seriously, it will just lead to more of these dishonest campaigns. But zooming out from these individual cases, it's clear that many people have posts they made in certain contexts, or with certain audiences in mind, that now may look cringeworthy. Maybe this was a joke you made several years ago that now longer comes off as funny. Maybe you tossed off a remark during a moment of heightened emotion that doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Maybe you used to post while drinking. All of those are good reasons to look back at your history.
In the wake of Gunn's firing, director Rian Johnson deleted 20,000 tweets, saying, "It’s nine years of stuff written largely off the cuff as ephemera, if trolls scrutinizing it for ammunition is the new normal, this seems like a 'why not?' move." That seems like a choice a lot of people are considering. For advice on whether and how to delete your social media footprint, I turned to Katie Linendoll, a tech expert and frequent TV talking head, who told me why and how to purge your accounts.
VICE: If you're someone who is in the public eye—an actor or an athlete or a journalist—and have spent enough time on social media that maybe you don’t remember all of the jokes you’ve made, should you be freaking out right now?
Katie Linendoll: I think if you are in the spotlight as a celebrity or an athlete, or even if you’re an individual, I think these are things everybody thinks about now. As our digital presence starts getting larger and larger, think about how much has been put out there. I always try to say that if you have to think twice about something you shouldn’t say it—and that goes for in-person or online. Were you not having maybe your brightest college years, for example—do you know you said something not that smart when you were younger and and not as wise on social media? Now’s the time to do a cleanup.
What apps would you recommend to do this cleanup?
I really recommend Tweetdeleter—at the moment they are currently counting 1.3 million users, and claim to have deleted over 500 million tweets to date. What I like about Tweetdeleter specifically is you can get their base program for free but then they also offer the unlimited plan [for $15 a month]. If you think you have some deleting to do it might be very much worth it. You can search by keyword, you can search by a time period, and you can batch-delete a lot of tweets at once. Also it has one nice option where you can automatically delete tweets after a certain period of time. Tweetdeleter offers an option of just deletinfg all tweets. I don’t think it’s a bad idea and I’m not surprised to keep reading every day about new people that have been on social media for a while or that are journalists, or an athlete, or a celebrity—want to get rid of everything? Just do it! Tomorrow is a brand new day to start on social, you’re not missing anything.
What do you think about wanting to preserve all tweets as much as possible because it's important to keep a record of what was said, just for the public interest?
I think its smart to archive, that couldn’t hurt at all and it's basically just a few clicks. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Wayback Machine—going into the web archives I can see, anyone can see, on one website you can go back to your very first tweet. If somebody wants to comb through 30,000 tweets on said athlete or politician, or an individual that’s getting hired for a job—it's accessible. To know that it's so easy to pull up is interesting.
That brings up another question: If you use a service to delete your tweets are they still online?
There’s always a chance that someone could take a screenshot and then you're kind of screwed. And if you haven’t deleted it, its going to be there, yes. The chance is, Twitter also has some cache of it. If you look into the twitter API and on the back end it probably exists somewhere—but is it a good practice to delete it? Yes, if it's something that you're worried about. But is there always a chance that somebody commented and retweeted and that there’s some sort of cache in the system? Sure.
"If you’re hesitant on a tweet and you think it might be dicey, then in what capacity do you think it’s a good idea to keep it up there?"
If you were advising someone—maybe a celebrity or someone who's just getting famous—what would you tell them to look out for in old tweets or old Facebook posts?
I don't want to sound like a broken record, but if you have to think twice, it probably isn’t a good idea. If you’re hesitant on a tweet and you think it might be dicey, then in what capacity do you think it’s a good idea to keep it up there? It's mind-boggling to me, it's just not worth it. I think there are times when people may have thought things were funny—but years ago the mood, or the tone, of where we were at in society may have been different. It’s a really interesting time right now, when people can go back and comb through tens of thousands of tweets. Even if you pull one out and it's an anomaly and it's out of context… People need to be very careful and if they have any hesitation or they feel like there is a time period where they probably weren’t saying the brightest stuff—look at James Gunn. He admits that during that time period he was saying some not-so-wise stuff, why didn’t he delete that?
Do you see companies changing the way that they vet people, are they more aware of social media posts?
Yes, absolutely. Social media now is like your digital billboard for the world, it's like your cover letter. I have a ton of people who work under me, and I had a really smart candidate apply for a position and I went and did a little search on social—because that person is a representation of you and your brand. And they were funneling beers on their Facebook posts and I was like, Why is that public, what were you thinking?! How many times do we have to say be smart on social media, yet you still have people making some pretty giant mistakes.
It seems like even if you're being targeted by people who want to get you fired and are weaponizing your old posts in bad faith, that can still have negative consequences for you and it just shows how risky it is to make what you regard as jokes or as fine things to say in certain contexts. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that because that’s definitely a big topic of conversation after Gunn's firing.
If something is even borderline on the edge, why even waste the effort to potentially get in trouble? To me it's so crazy—your self-worth is not contingent on likes, retweets. There’s this feedback loop of needing to be tethered to social: I got to put it out there, I got to put it out there. Take a beat, there’s much more happening and at stake right now. Not everything needs to be broadcast to the world, especially when people can’t hear your tone, where you’re coming from. Some people might not think that’s funny, others could be very sensitive.
I mean, think about how many things you scroll through on your Twitter feed. I’m offended by certain things—I’m surprised that people really need to put that out there so a couple hundred or a thousand people can see. Is it really worth it? I think better choices need to be made across the board.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.