December 5, 2022

Want to Archive Twitter? Good Luck With That


Smaller, third-party services have sought for years to archive more specific content. ProPublica keeps a list of politicians’ deleted tweets on its Politwoops database. PolitiTweet has a database tracking 1,500 accounts. These keep records of statements and news stories from significant people in government and politics, but the projects don’t intend to capture the mass discourse of online communication.

Twitter was designed to capture the moment, and in its early days finding or viewing older tweets wasn’t easy and didn’t seem important. But by 2014, Twitter had improved its search tool for public tweets. The move helped researchers, but it also breathed new life into long-forgotten tweets that had moved down the timeline without much afterthought. The change proved problematic for some tweeters, like those who began punching out 140-character musings as teens but had since become college students or young professionals. Their tweets didn’t always age as well, particularly as an era of cancel culture began.

Automated tweet deletion services have risen up in response. These tools clear large swaths of tweets from an account, and they can allow users to sort by a tweet’s age and levels of engagement and select which tweets to delete. Semiphemeral is one such service, allowing people to auto-delete likes and direct messages, in addition to their own tweets.

“As you watch in horror/delight as Elon burns this site to the ground you might be pondering your privacy,” Semiphemeral tweeted Friday. “Do you have YEARS of tweets, likes, and DMs? Gather ’round, friends, while I show you how to DELETE THEM ALL (or as much as Twitter’s API allows).”

Not everyone is ready to leave behind their tweets. As of Monday, downloading a personal Twitter archive was getting trickier. Doing so requires getting verification codes from Twitter—they were not working via text but appeared to still be sending to email addresses.

If Twitter does go dark, it would be perhaps the largest wipeout of social data to date. There’s little precedent for this in the age of the centralized web: AOL Instant Messenger had a quiet death years after users fled the platform, and its primary content wasn’t public to even archive. Myspace lost years of photos and songs in a poorly managed server migration. Vine, Twitter’s long-mourned, short video service, has been archived in part by enthusiasts who created compilations of the platform’s best content and reposted it to YouTube, and the videos are accessible with direct URLs.

There’s no consensus that Twitter will go down in flames. It might break slowly, crushed by the weight of activity with fewer engineers to work out the bugs. Musk might declare bankruptcy and restructure the massive debt he took on to buy the service. But the drama has exposed the danger of trusting private companies with what we’ve come to consider public records.

“I think what these past two weeks have shown us is Twitter is a private company,” says St. John’s Fondren, “and, first and foremost, is interested in making money and not so much in providing this digital heritage.”

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