How’s Twitter supposed to decide what to keep and what to cull?
During Thanksgiving week in America, when people celebrate family ties over turkey and pumpkin pie, Twitter announced that it was beginning a massive cull of inactive accounts. Anyone who hadn’t signed in for six months, it warned, would soon have their account wiped from the network.
If someone hasn’t logged on for half a year, maybe they’re on a social media detox. Maybe they’ve decided that they prefer to express themselves in more than 280 characters.
Or maybe they’re no longer alive.
In the latter case, the user may be no more, but their family, friends and followers may still experience close ties to their ongoing digital presence, through the social media profiles that they leave behind.
Harris Wittels’ sister knew that when she hit ‘Tweet’, the message would materialise like a haunting in the feeds of the late comedian’s 89 thousand friends and followers. If it would preserve the profile, though, she reckoned it was worth startling a few people. Unlike many mourners, she apparently had access to his devices and/or his Twitter password, so Stephanie was able to log on.
‘Twitter is going to start deleting inactive accounts in December, and it would be a goddamn tragedy if this account got sucked into oblivion,’ she wrote. ‘So I’m tweeting to ensure that doesn’t happen. Signing off now.’
As someone who researches death in the digital age, I know that a policy to cull inactive accounts is, essentially, a delayed delete-upon-death policy. I’m also aware that digital remains can vividly capture how the deceased person spoke, thought, felt, interacted, looked, and sounded, and as such they are hugely important to many bereaved people.
These things apparently hadn’t occurred to Twitter, a representative of which confessed that ‘it had not considered the issue of the potential upset that would be caused by the removal of accounts belonging to users who had died’.
On 27th November, just one day after their announcement, Twitter hastily back-pedalled in the face of user backlash, saying that they would hold off on the cull and prioritise developing policies and…