June 28, 2019

The House Is Haunted by the Echo of Your Last Goodbye

I have started to delete my old tweets. This is something I have been meaning to do for a while, not for any particular reason but out of a general sense of digital hygiene — it seems like a good idea to dismantle archives of personal material that are open to scrutiny by machine learning algorithms and other adversaries. There’s no telling what conclusions may be drawn about you from some aggregate processing of what seemed at the time to be random jokes, casual exchanges, and links shared.

People used to put disclaimers in their bio lines: “Retweets are not endorsements,” but AI processing certainly doesn’t care what you “meant” in sharing a link, even if you can remember what that was. A future employer or lender (let alone a future enemy) probably won’t care either that your old social media content has been analyzed out of context in some way you never anticipated. For them, that may be the whole point, the trick that reveals the secrets that anyone under consideration for anything will always be presumed to be hiding in the low-trust society that ubiquitous surveillance is teaching us that we live in.

In this article, Zeynep Tufekci blames the internet’s climate of pervasive fraud for the facilitating a low-trust culture, but one must also factor in not only surveillance that renders the idea of “kindness of strangers” obsolete — see this thread — but also the imposition of ratings and measurements everywhere, and the new kinds of data that can be used as ways to circumvent trusting people. Why trust when tech companies promise that you can verify? Never mind that social media’s verification systems are also scams.

Deleting tweets on Twitter is not as straightforward as it could be — it requires a series of clicks through a series of drop-down menus and pop-ups, necessitating a lot of mouse movements and taps and clicks. This is clearly by design: the same reason it is prudent to delete old posts is the same reason archival social media platforms make it difficult. Your posts are valuable data to them. This makes one wonder if “deletion” actually does anything beside remove your content from public view — it is likely already cooked into various internal aggregations and analyses of user data. Whether or not it remains available after deletion for the company’s future processing feels unknowable.

Platforms don’t give you an option to assess what data they keep on you or amend it — again the assumption is that what you choose to let people know about yourself is a lie or at least inadequate, while what companies infer about you through surveillance and analysis is “true” and more valuable to marketers and other interested parties, who want to use that information to reinforce the idea that you are a manipulatable object, not that you have autonomous desires that they are hoping to get to know. If you want to know the truth about someone, the assumption is you have to watch them through one-way glass.

I’m sure there are third-party applications that one could use to bulk-delete old tweets, but that likely would require trusting an even shadier entity with the data you are ostensibly trying to protect or eliminate. At any rate, I have made the somewhat penitential choice to delete tweets by hand one at a time — artisanal deletion —methodically going through from the beginning, month by month in the archive that Twitter permits users to download. You can open a list of your tweets from a particular month in an html page, each with active links to open them up on the internet so you can delete them. Otherwise you have to scroll backward from the present to get to old tweets, a process that is throttled so that it is virtually impossible to get more than a few hundred tweets into the past.

When I started the deletion, I expected it to be a tedious but emotionally inert chore, a bit like alphabetizing my record collection or something. I had the idea that my Twitter account was an attic full of old ideas, many of which might be out of date and perhaps a bit moldy but still would serve me at least as nostalgic reminders of all the interesting stuff I have been thinking about over the years. This turned out to be an absolutely preposterous assumption — instead of interesting thoughts and aperçus, I find instead a lot of self-promotion, water carrying, awkward efforts to impress people, attempts to @ my way into conversations I didn’t belong in, and lots of stray opinions that would have been better off kept to myself in any circumstances. It’s like I had no concept of a “lane” to stay in. I want to believe that this was just the general ambiance of the site at the time — that everyone just spouted reactions off the top of their heads on whatever was distracting them at the time — but that’s surely not the case. It’s more that there’s always a certain percentage doing that and a certain percentage that’s moved on.

From the graph of my Twitter usage by volume of tweets that came with my downloaded archive, I can see that my heavy tweeting directly corresponded with the period during which I had a desk job and was forced to sit in front of a computer all day long whether there was work for me to do or not. It’s easy for me to read a lot of loneliness into the messages now, and I’m embarrassed at how obvious that must have been to other people at the time. Not that it is shameful to feel lonely, though “social technologies” certainly try to convey that ideology — it’s more that I’m sad at how I thought being opinionated and opaquely jokey would help. Reading the tweets now gives me the impression of someone doing unrehearsed standup in a room where the same two or three people clap politely every now and then.

If nothing else, this is strong motivation for keeping up with the deleting. I’ve purged about 3,000 tweets so far, and expect to clear out everything before 2015 in a few weeks. It was around then that I changed jobs and stopped tweeting out of a need to feel connected to something, anything. I ceased tweeting altogether for long stretches, and when I would tweet it would generally be in the more contemporary “thread” style, where it’s basically a compressed essay and not a plea for connection in the same way. I no longer feel like I need to narrate my entire day’s reading to the site as if it were a surrogate listener.

Still the whole experience has been profoundly depressing, in an almost existential way. I had a vague idea that there was something useful in those old tweets, some evidence of a person I wanted to be and to a degree succeeded in becoming. Since I never looked at the tweets, and actually, for all intents and purposes, couldn’t look at them from within Twitter itself, I had the pleasant feeling that they constituted an extremely minor sort of legacy, a chronicle of the “interventions” I tried to make into “the discourse,” even as I was working a job that required very little of my thinking ability. But reading them over as I eliminate them from the public record, I see that there was nothing there, nothing that can redeem for me now the time I spent on the platform in the past. It’s more an illustration of the time I wasted while never trying to write something that might have had the remote chance of actually being lastingly useful.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. The point of social platforms is to immerse us in immediacy, dilate our sense of attention and relevance by fracturing it and scattering it into a million distractions. No one on social media is speaking to the future. At best they are speaking to the future machines that will process what they have said into a way of dooming them to repeat it forever.