Mariann Hardey’s father died unexpectedly a little over a decade ago. But he lives on through his Twitter account. It only has 42 followers and was blocked by Hardey’s dad so no one but those 42 people can see it. And with a shared username based on first and last names, it’s likely a coveted piece of online real estate.
“I check in with him regularly on social media,” says Hardey, a sociology professor at Durham Business School in the UK. The profile – whose last tweet praised Hardey for her bravery in removing a wisdom tooth – is doubly important to the professor as the profile picture features a kitten named Penny that Hardey’s family lost last year.
This could change soon. Twitter CEO Elon Musk has announced a purge of dormant accounts – after previously claiming that was the case 1.5 billion on the platform. As a result, Hardey’s father’s Twitter account, which has not been updated since March 14, 2012, may soon be taken down from the internet. “He now has a granddaughter who he’s never met, and his jokes and content on social media show her who he was and what we meant to each other,” says Hardey. “Social media is about connections.”
It’s a move that, like so much on Musk’s Twitter, could be messy. One-word or one-letter Twitter accounts, long-dormant profiles of deceased celebrities, etc Linkin Park’s Chester Benningtonand cherished brands that have given up on Twitter or been taken over by squatters, such as @Nintendo3DScould all be taken over by new owners.
“It may sound like closing some dormant accounts, but the consequence is the ruthless jeopardy of vast amounts of evidence to create a synthetic market for usernames,” said William Kilbride, executive director of the Digital Preservation Coalition. Kilbride likens Musk’s decision to “burning the public records to sell personalized license plates.” This is just the latest example of major platforms making subsequent changes to the persistence of the content hosted on their platforms Imgur And tumblr have changed their policies on hosting pornographic material and removed large portions of their content. Musk has stated that deleted accounts are “archived” without providing any further information.
The planned purge is particularly problematic because Twitter is viewed by many, including Musk himself, as the de facto public space of the internet, much of which could soon disappear. “When you have these gigantic global systems, change has to be initiated very carefully,” says Mar Hicks, associate professor of the history of technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
This is one of the dangers of privately owning public platforms that act as quasi-utilities. “Twitter was relatively small but had an outsized impact because it’s where journalists go,” says Hicks. “It’s really dangerous for it to descend into chaos in many ways.” An example of what could potentially be lost if the plan goes ahead: the loss (or reallocation) of Syrian activist Raed Fares, his account— and records of human rights abuses — remains crystallized in an amber following his assassination in November 2018.