Twitter is a service that exists almost entirely in the present. It's the world's commenting system, prompting people to share information and opinions on things happening around them and happening in the news. Which means, naturally, that there are a lot of comments that age poorly.
Because Twitter and social media are still young, it took a while for a critical mass of old content to build up. When there were only a few million people using it, and only a few hundred million tweets that were more than a year or two old, there weren't many tweets that had swollen with toxicity over time. As the service has gotten older and more people are using it, that has changed, and people's old tweets have become a point of friction.
Earlier this year, a newly hired staffer for Jeb Bush's not-yet-a-presidential-campaign was fired when old tweets surfaced making disparaging comments about women. At the time, I noted that the nature of the internet is that even old things look new; a tweet of mine from 2008 would appear the same as a tweet of mine from yesterday at Twitter.com. Newspapers yellow and fade. Tweets don't. Meaning that any context to those old tweets vanishes, and they appear as fresh and new as if you'd said it right this second.
"This is only a mortal risk if you’re in the habit of saying terrible things that you couldn’t defend if challenged," wrote John Herrman at The Awl earlier this month, "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." It's like those old services that aggregated comments you added to posts. No one looks good after a quick skim of those.
Herrman was reacting to an announcement from Twitter that it was facilitating the search of its entire archive of tweets, something it pitched as being critical for allowing "brands to most effectively analyze Twitter data." Toxic tweets will be easier to find.
That was on August 11. On August 21, Twitter did something different: It shut off access to its application program interface, or API, for a tool that archived politicians' tweets. It had previously stopped access to the API for Politwoops, a site that archived American politicians' tweets. Now, projects gathering tweets from politicians in 30 countries and the European parliament are similarly disconnected.
Twitter defended the Politwoops move by saying that tweeting would be "nerve-wracking – terrifying, even" if you couldn't delete your old tweets. "[D]eleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice," it continued.
"What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of public record," Arjen El Fassed, director of the group that operated those systems wrote in a statement. "Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history. ... What politicians say in public should be available to anyone. This is not about typos but it is a unique insight on how messages from elected politicians can change without notice." For politicians, there are other mortal risks.
I made a similar point after Politwoops closed. When then-New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner accidentally tweeted a photo and deleted it, that's substantially different than when you tweet a picture and delete it. When politicians try to whitewash their records by deleting past public positions, that's different, too. Politwoops used the power of programming to ensure that such things weren't missed.
But this latest move is more alarming. Among the 30 countries that will no longer have the benefit of an automated system for backing up tweets are countries like Turkey and Egypt, countries without particularly open governments and which could benefit from more political accountability. It also includes countries like the U.K. and Australia where democracy has a firm grip but in which accountability is no less important.
Twitter's argument is fairly simple. If you delete a tweet, it should be gone. If you don't delete it, it should be able to be surfaced. That makes sense for a company trying to sell a service to advertisers and cater to a user base of consumers. Respects privacy, but takes advantage of its increasingly substantial data pool to allow deep analysis.
But Twitter isn't just a company that matches consumers and advertisers. It's an integral part of real-time global communications, including communications from elected officials. The failure to set a different standard for different types of users -- especially as candidates increasingly use Twitter as part of their political campaigns -- is a disservice to the community that uses it. This is not a court of law in which a comment can be stricken from the record. It's a public square with a hot mic.
Twitter has no objection to Jeb Bush's staffer's tweets having cost him a job. But it objects to using an automated system to make sure that if Bush himself tweets and deletes something similarly disqualifying, it isn't missed. Or, we now learn, if Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tweets and deletes something. Their right to "express their voice" through covering their tracks trumps our right to make sure their voice is heard. Politicians might not be "in the habit of saying terrible things that you couldn’t defend if challenged," but if they say such things, shouldn't we do everything we can to know it? Shouldn't Egyptians?
Twitter's internal logic is flawless. The result is ridiculous.