It’s impossible to responsibly exist on Twitter

Here’s a thought that may or may not scare the living bejesus out of you: Every forum post, every tweet and every Facebook post you’ve ever made gets collected into a giant ball of garbage that is chained to you, no matter how hard you run. The second you begin to write something online somewhere, you begin to chronicle your own history in a way that is unlikely to bring you anything positive. Instead, it comes with the potential to take everything away.

Director James Gunn learned this the hard way when right-wing Twitter personalities resurfaced some questionable, old tweets, and he was fired from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. People asked, “Why did Gunn tweet those things?” Maybe he was trying to make a point. Maybe he was trying to be edgy. Maybe he’s just a creep. There are a lot of reasons, some good and some bad, for otherwise decent people to have controversial statements in their social media history. The real head-scratcher is simpler: Why were the tweets still there?

Anything that you can wipe from the internet in terms of social media — where context diminishes over time, tone is rarely considered, and choices last forever — you should wipe from the internet.

Deleting your tweets is a relatively simple process, and you can even set up automated systems that delete your tweets on a rolling basis, so that you never have more than a week or two of Twitter history for anyone to look over. There’s no reason to carry years’ worth of questionable tweets for people to throw in your face to make you look bad if you piss them off, and it’s unlikely that every random thought you’ve posted on Twitter needs to be kept for any kind of permanent record. If you want to keep them, download your archive from Twitter. Then delete everything.

This has never been an asterisk on the grand experiment of the transparent internet telling people it’s OK to revert back to an opaque state of being, but there should be.

Clearing your history feels like putting down a huge weight you didn’t know you were carrying, even if you have no reason to think you’ve ever said anything bad on the service. I’ve deleted my own tweets in the past, before I left the service for good, and people always asked if I was trying to hide something.

Of course I was. I wanted to hide the angry tweets I wrote when I was younger and thought the shortest line to a better career was through tearing other people down. I wanted to hide the tweets where I said one thing about a game, and now think something else, because I didn’t want it thrown in my face by someone who doesn’t think you should ever be able to change your mind about pop culture. I was a petulant, often sullen young man in my 20s, and I absolutely want to hide that fact.

Any growth that has happened since doesn’t really matter, nor do the apologies and discussions I’ve had about my social media past mean anything. Those have been deleted as well. This didn’t stop anyone from combing through my past. I have my own fan club of people who went over everything I’ve ever said online, collecting questionable things with questionable context from years ago to send to my bosses. But the least I could do was limit the amount of ammo that harassers had access to. Too few people understand the privacy settings of their Facebook account. Too few people ever question whether they need one at all.

I recently nuked my Facebook and Reddit accounts after the expected groups became emboldened by the “win” against James Gunn, and I started to see my old bullshit pop up here and there. After I got over the initial fear and frustration over how unfair it felt, I was surprised to find myself ... elated.

The difference between wondering if, five years ago, you had said something that could be construed as horrible in an argument about politics, and being able to keep your thoughts about things restricted to internal reactions and real-world conversations with people I knew, felt like night and day.

Even if you can think about and edit thoughts before they go online, the nature of Twitter is about relinquishing control over the commentary, so you feel helpless when an old tweet begins to blow up. Deleting old content and walking away feels like regaining that control, not giving it up. We can’t change what we said online 15 years ago, what we published on social media in the thrill of the moment, but we can ensure that moment doesn’t linger, and put a tourniquet on the possibility that we’re going to say something stupid tomorrow.

This isn’t just a problem for celebrities or people standing on internet soapboxes — voice the wrong opinion online, and you’re toast.

You can’t read the room accurately if you don’t know the room’s size, and both Facebook and Twitter like to sell the illusion that you’re only speaking to a small number of people. But you’re not in a room of your friends, you’re actually in an elastic situation where the context could be shifted into a sold-out arena at any time, and it turns out everything you’ve said up until that point is on the public record.

These platforms all offer scale that can change at any time, with no one in charge who cares whether you live or die. There’s no responsible way to exist on a platform where hate goes further than joy because both are monetized in the same way. Twitter just sees engagement, whether someone is laughing at something you said or hunting you. Today, way more people are interested in hunting you, and Twitter has more to gain by you being hurt than you being understood, forgiven or allowed nuance.

Why would you want to engage with anyone on that platform? Why keep any statements around for longer than a day or so if the audience is always changing, and time itself erases what you thought you were saying? Twitter has always been clear that it doesn’t feel responsible for its own platform. We’re all swimming without a lifeguard in shark-infested waters. It’s better to stay dry.

Moving forward, it’s easy to imagine a world where public figures keep a folder with all the stuff they’ve said in the past that could come back to haunt them. Not to keep them secret, but to protect themselves in case their old tweets come up again — or even before they do. “This is all the bad stuff I said when I was a stupid kid,” they can say, handing over their own worst thoughts. “I need you to promise not to fire me over it if an agenda-driven Twitter account pretends to care about it again.”

James Gunn’s situation is one that no person, public or not, should take for granted. You very well may become a target, and there’s little you can do once vitriolic critics start coming for you. You can either prepare for them, or you can watch the stampede helplessly, as your words are used against you in the court of public opinion. At some point, not even Chris Pratt can save you.

James Gunn had apologized for his past actions on social media six years ago, and likely thought that controversy was behind him. If the tweets didn’t cost him a job now, they might have in another five years. The fact that they were still online at all is baffling, because Twitter isn’t the place for jokes anymore, if it ever was. It’s not the place for creative people to try new material or talk directly to fans. It’s the place where people can easily bring your past up to tear you down.

It’s hard to bounce back from that, no matter how severe our old tweets were. Arguing that we’ve learned anything from our past mistakes only works if we do so after we made those mistakes, and before they come back to bite us years later. But, in the short term, does it really matter?

One side may be angry that the other is holding them accountable for what they said yesterday. One may be frustrated that they have to address what happened 15 years due to bad-faith concern trolling. What both sides have in common is that Twitter’s memory now feels poisonous, no matter if you’re the offender or the offended.

Twitter can gain you an audience, and even a supportive one. But the malicious users who populate it can also rob you of your livelihood. The only way to fight back is to minimize your social media footprint, be mindful of everything you release (no matter how ephemeral it seems at the time), and remember that you can always walk away.

Don’t think of quitting as being silenced; think of it as leaving the teapot to get a better sense of the tempest. Dan Harmon might have been hunted down and run off the platform, but did it ever seem like Twitter made him happier or more productive anyway?

Eventually, we may all just decide to shut down our accounts completely, reclaiming our thoughts for private consumption only. It’s not just good for our careers; if we can afford to do it, it will be good for our souls, too.

Mike PalmerComment