I’ve decided to put into practice a habit I’ve dabbled in on my only social media membership, but never committed to until now. Going forward I’m going to delete anything I tweet after about 48 hours or so, with the exception of links. I’ve seen others commit to the practice of periodically deleting their older Tweets. You may be able to guess the reasons people would do this if you know much about online culture. My own reasons are intuitive in this way, but with an added concern that pertains especially to me.
Here’s why I’m deleting my tweets every 48 hours or so:
1) The big reason is that nobody who is regularly active on Twitter is wise to let old Tweets exist publicly for an indefinite amount of time. A disproportionate percentage of people who get viciously torn apart by an online mob do so on the basis of something they posted in the past, and the overwhelming majority of these victims did not get any criticism or flak at the time they posted it. In some cases they should have been criticized. But in many cases the reason the victim of the rage mob gets attacked now but not then is that the anger of the Internet is downstream from its temporal neuroses. The reason that joke X was inoffensive in 2015 but morally unacceptable in 2020 has nothing to do with the joke, but everything to do with the audience. The words didn’t change, the audience did. And because social media is literally designed to make anger and addiction easier and self-awareness harder, nobody stops to consider this, and the result is a deep dishonesty masquerading as righteousness.
There’s no reliable way to outsmart this, but there are ways to make the threat to yourself much worse, and one of those ways is to Tweet thousands of times across several changing years and just hope something you said when the context was self-evident is not seen by someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t like you today.
2) But on the other hand, this isn’t wholly the fault of bloodthirsty snipers who quote-tweet those they dislike into oblivion. Part of the problem is the way Twitter works. Twitter (and social media in general, but I’ll focus on Twitter) is epistemologically gaseous; its contents are momentary in the most extreme sense of the word. For all practical purposes Twitter is a cast and crew commentary, not on a piece of art or even life but on the minutia of current events, ideas, fads, etc. Even that may be going too far. Twitter is really a commentary on commentary, a second-by-second content machine that creates cultures and “moments” out of the ether. I’ve seen people refer to what happens on Twitter as a “conversation,” but no mentally healthy person would tolerate a real-life conversation that moved at the speed, the randomness, or shallowness of Twitter.
Aside from links to outside websites, every single Tweet is a creation of the moment, and every Tweet’s legibility depends utterly on how much users are absorbing the ambient moment. When the moment passes, so does the truthfulness, the helpfulness, the coherence of the Tweet (quotations, such as from Scripture, resist this somewhat, but even then the felt applicability of a quote depends on the moment. And there are plenty of Bible verses that will never and can never be put on a Twitter meme). While I’m sleeping, my Tweets lose the context that made them (at least in my view) accurate and reasonable.
Deleting Tweets is thus a recognition of the limits of real-time commentary. It treats the discourse of the internet more like the dry-erase board that it really is, instead of the printing press that it is not.
3) [Here I’m going to talk entirely to myself.] A strong desire to “go viral” is much like a craving for pornography: it is overwhelmingly strong in the moment, but it leads to very bad places and it never, ever satisfies. The single most alluring thing about Twitter is when a Tweet gets a lot of Retweets and Likes, and the notifications keep coming. This dopamine hit is so powerful it is the single biggest reason that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and a lot of other men are billionaires.
But going viral is perhaps the single most destructive desire in our cultural discourse right now. Until recently I had never asked myself what the difference was between a conspiracy hocking news site that twisted truth for clicks, and my own carefully worded Twitter dunks that I hoped would get a lot of attention. I’m not making stuff….but then again Alex Jones wasn’t always making stuff up either. Almost every media personality who has become wealthy by saying stuff that isn’t true started off trying to say things they thought were true. The truth didn’t stop being compelling, it just stopped being as rewarded.
I want to go viral. I want a million followers. I want the neural and career rewards of being a “thought leader.” I want that so much that I cannot be confident in myself as to what I would not be willing to do to get them. Already I see the cracks. A tweet that lives for only 48 hours is my best defense. If it resonates with a lot of people in that time, great. But I can’t afford to be willing to chase it.