Washington Post illustration made with iStock (Washington Post illustration made with iStock)

Once, the Internet was fun. It’s time to move on.

We’ve built up archives of our past selves online over the years — tweets, social media, message-board posts, live journals or, ahem, deadjournals. And, increasingly, those past selves have become liabilities.

Multiple professional baseball players have now apologized for ugly old tweets containing racist and anti-gay slurs. The tweets, written while they were teens, resurfaced online.

Finding old tweets, edgy jokes or offensive remarks to try to ruin someone’s career has also become a favorite tool of the pro-Trump Internet, in part because it sometimes works. Earlier this month, Disney cut ties with director James Gunn. His old tweets joking about rape and pedophilia were circulated on the right-wing Internet as evidence of a popular conspiracy theory, accusing Hollywood figures and Democrats of running a secret pedophile ring.

Following Gunn’s firing, the search through old tweets of other Hollywood types — or even those perceived as defending them — intensified. Mike Cernovich, who first uncovered many of Gunn’s tweets, has spent days going after Trevor Noah for his past Twitter history — a controversy the “Daily Show” host already weathered when it was first announced that he would replace Jon Stewart. Cernovich also said he had found “another Cernovich hater caught with the pedophile stuff” after finding an old tweet from comedian Patton Oswalt’s. Ironically, the tweet was part of a series Oswalt wrote in 2013 to prove a point about taking tweets out of context.

Over the past few weeks, the act of cleaning up your past tweets has become simultaneously more popular and more suspect. Even non-celebrities want to prevent enemies from scrolling through their history. Others are promoting the idea that anyone who deletes their Twitter histories must have something to hide.

But by 2018, we should know that a tweet is simply too easy to take out of context — and there’s no reason to keep a full accounting of everything you’ve ever tweeted. So here’s a guide to getting rid of it.

1. Emotionally prepare yourself

I deleted almost my entire Twitter archive about a year ago. But it wasn’t a quick decision: I hesitated for months, because I was too attached to my years-old food observations and tweets about the local art scene in the small city I lived in after college.

Our online archives are records of our past selves, and it can be tough to erase them. I joined Twitter in 2008 — the record of tweets contained there covered nearly all of my 20s. It wasn’t easy to wave that all away. And yet you can . . .

2. Download your archive

Before erasing your tweets, you can save a copy of everything you’ve ever tweeted — should you want a record before it’s all gone. I’ve never looked at mine, but it makes me feel better knowing it’s there. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Go into your account settings.
  2. Click the “Your Twitter data” tab.
  3. Scroll to the bottom and press the “Request data” button next to your Twitter and/or Periscope archives.

Twitter will, eventually, email you a big zip file containing your entire archive of tweets to the email address it has on file for you.

3. Start deleting

Sure, you could manually go through your tweets one by one and delete them, if you have infinite time. I use TweetDelete, a free service that I chose for its ease of use, privacy policy and recommendation from smarter friends who hopped aboard the “delete your tweets” train ages ago.

TweetDelete lets you wipe as many as 3,200 tweets at a time, and you can choose the length of your recent Twitter archive that you want to keep. The first time I ran TweetDelete, I set it to delete anything older than one year, for instance. (You can also delete your whole history.) All you do is sign in with your account and give the site permission to get to work.

The thing is, if you have more to delete than the 3,200-tweet limit that Twitter imposes, you’ll have to do this multiple times. I had tens of thousands of tweets when I first ran the program, which meant I had to log in and run TweetDelete several times before my account was cleared. (It deletes your most recent 3,200 at each log-in.)

Are there other options? Yup, but I haven’t used them. The Verge’s guide to deleting your tweets has a good rundown of the free and non-free services you can use instead of TweetDelete to clear up your old tweets, and their advantages and disadvantages.

4. Keep deleting

One thing I also like about TweetDelete is that you can set it up to delete your content on a rolling basis. I keep tweets for two months, which for me means there are about 200 to 400 live tweets on my account at any given time, depending on how self-important I’m feeling. You can set up the rolling delete during your last run through TweetDelete’s archive cleanup.

Once the rolling delete is up and running, TweetDelete will check in with your account every few days and delete anything above whatever time limit you set. To stop deleting your tweets, you can disable the app’s access to your account or log in to TweetDelete and press the big green button telling it to turn off the deletion cycle.

5. Know deletion’s limits

Deleting your tweets isn’t going to erase the entire record of everything you’ve ever said on the platform, at least not necessarily. I’ve used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine in my reporting to access long-deleted tweets from Roseanne Barr’s account and to examine the history of suspicious, viral accounts. However, the Wayback Machine’s archives are somewhat random and incomplete, showing only the last few tweets from each moment it crawled the account’s page.

Someone could screenshot your past tweets or embed them in a blog post. Just so you’re aware.

6. You know, there is a simpler way . . .

which is to delete your account altogether. For a guide to that process, click here. 

More reading:

The 3 loopholes that keep Trump’s tweets on Twitter

Why did the lemon go viral?

The #WalkAway meme is what happens when everything is viral and nothing matters