Time Is a Privacy Setting

Twitter starts its latest announcement — “instant and complete access to every historical public Tweet” — with a truly excellent pair of sentences:

Dr. Carl Sagan once famously said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.”

followed by

For brands to most effectively analyze Twitter data in the present, they also need to know what’s happened in the past.

Continuing in the spirit of pale blue dots on which nothing could possibly matter, the feature promises to “solve enterprise business needs with user experiences not previously possible.”

The morning before this post went up, a friend had asked me about deleting her tweets. I’d done so a few months before; plenty of other friends and acquaintances had done so in the last couple years. In each case the impetus was ill-defined and hard to articulate. These were not people who are afraid of anything in particular, really, or worried about horrible things they might have said before becoming suddenly and conveniently enlightened or just paranoid. Mostly these were people who have used Twitter steadily for years. They watched it change in form and function; they watched the people using it adapt to the changes in expected and unexpected ways. They watched it become a machine that manufactures a thousand new contexts a day, urges users to fill them with messages, and moves on as soon things slow down. Imagine explaining to a Twitter user in 2007 what the service would be like in 2009, or to a user then, 2012. Then imagine telling that person what it would be like today. What the hell is Twitter going to be like when they drop the 140-character limit? And how weird will that make our form-obsessed old short messages look? The semi-intentional realities of a platform of millions are only ever obvious in retrospect.

Watch this video and sign this petition if you know that a human life won’t become a donkey or a cat: https://t.co/neRez6ule9

— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 10, 2015

How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.

— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 12, 2015

Maybe people just better understand that this platform is going to change underneath us in ways we won’t be able to easily anticipate? Or the simultaneous inevitability and inconceivability of the changes coming to the various apps and services we use has settled in, and one of the responses these mindful people are having to this is a desire for this small measure of control? When Facebook introduced its timeline-style News Feed, arranging your live events from “Born” to the present day, a number of users assumed old private messages had been exposed — their wall-to-wall public conversations were carried out in such a different context that they couldn’t believe they’d posted them in the open. A few months ago, a friend mentioned a joke I’d forgotten I posted more than a year prior, made about a sporting event I didn’t remember watching. That’s why I deleted my posts: because, looking at the archive, through months of content, not even I could figure out what I was talking about.

Twitter is a massive rolling context experiment, its conversations and subjects and audiences materializing and disintegrating constantly; a single user’s Twitter archive is a series of permanent and public contributions to discussions that have long since ended. A user’s posts referencing the Oscars also reference other users’ posts from the same time, and are experienced first in full transcript. In the archives, however, each speaker is isolated to the point of incoherence.

This is only a mortal risk if you’re in the habit of saying terrible things that you couldn’t defend if challenged, but a scattered trail of thousands of public messages, originally interpreted in the context of a feed but now only available one at a time and lacking context clues beyond a timestamp and maybe a link, still feels like a stupid way to represent yourself to the world. That you might be able to explain them if asked, or reconstruct the context, is irrelevant, because that’s not how they’ll be experienced: they’ll show up in a search, where their decontextualized strangeness, failing to rise to the level of actual inquiry, will nonetheless leave some kind of impression.

Naomi Zeicnher, the editor of Fader, wrote recently about her emerging habits:

After live-tweeting an event, I’ll comb back and trash anything that didn’t meaningfully connect. Sometimes I delete weeks after the fact, while I’m checking in on my profile, thinking about how it comes off in aggregate. Beyond Twitter, I erase text message exchanges to make space on my phone for selfies I’ll delete later too. I untag photos people have taken of me. On weekends, I delete emails for fun.

Here is one conclusion: Time is a privacy setting. Even Facebook knows this! Users can, for example, keep new friends from seeing private posts from the past. On Twitter, there’s a lot less flexibility. You official options are going entirely private or deleting your account; your unofficial option is to delete your tweets.

I archived everything before deleting it all, and now my posts automatically disappear after a week, courtesy of one of the dozens of sites that offers such things. The result is that new posts aren’t saved anywhere anymore, privately or otherwise, unless they’re screencapped or embedded. This is fine but not ideal. I think a reasonable demand — or expecation, given how much of a grind the overall Twitter experience has become as the service has matured, and how evident it’s become that all that funlike work and worklike fun that was much easier to rationalize when both the service and your own experience was expanding in exciting ways was never really going to amount to much — is for the company to treat the age of a users’ posts as one more privacy parameter. I don’t suppose they’re really incentivized to do this. The new search product they’re selling to brands suggests that they’re incentivized not to. But at the very least we can understand this as a problem; as something a better service would offer, and that users of a better internet would take for granted.

Make my dumb bad posts private after a week, a month, or a year. Or at least make the incredibly complicated process of deleting old posts a little bit easier. You’ll probably get more from us if we can still deceive ourselves into thinking it’s ours!

Giph via Reddit