WASHINGTON (AP) — Emily Reid lost her younger sister, Jessica, more than 10 years ago. For most of the past decade, she’s visited Jessica’s Twitter page to help “keep her memory alive.”
Twitter became one of the places where Emily processed her grief and reconnected with a sister she described as almost a twin. But Jessica’s account is now gone.
Last week, owner Elon Musk announced that Twitter would remove accounts that have not been active for several years. This decision was met with protest from those who are missing, or who fear losing the thoughts and words of deceased loved ones associated with accounts that are now inactive.
Reed immediately went back to Jessica’s page as she had a day or two earlier after learning of the purge. Instead of Jessica’s page, an “account suspended” message popped up indicating that it might be breaking the Twitter rules.
reed tweet Her account of her shock over losing the account received tens of thousands of responses. Others shared similar experiences of anguish when they learned their deceased loved one’s story had disappeared.
“Having these digital footprints … is very important to me,” Reid, 43, told the Associated Press.
The advent of social media has brought about a new way for people to grieve, going back to where they used to connect with friends and family in the past. In addition to the physical memories and traces left behind, snippets of lives are now being captured in the digital space.
It’s something that social media platforms have struggled with in recent years.
Twitter backtracked on trying to purge inactive accounts in 2019, years before Musk arrived, due to a similar backlash..
Other social media sites have found ways to allow people to grieve for their loss.
Facebook and Instagram Allow users to request deactivation of the account, or memorialization of the account. Memorialized accounts show the word “Remembered” next to the person’s name.
“In this modern era, we have these electronic reminders for people —[including]little snippets of an idea they had on a particular day or pictures they shared,” said Shira Gabriel, a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. Gabriel said researching the late loved one’s social media can be a healthy way to process grief and gather as a community of remembrance.
The prospect of this resource disappearing, “could lead to feeling sad again,” Gabriel said. “There is a real psychological cost to getting rid of the digital thumbprint left behind and the ability of community members to congregate in one place.”
It is not known if Musk will reverse the decision to purge. The billionaire CEO of Tesla has launched policies that have alarmed users and advertisers alike and has shown little interest in amending those policies in response.
Musk named a new CEO last weekLinda Iaccarino, former advertising executive at NBCUniversal, who will get her hands on a platform that now appears to be in perpetual disarray.
Deleting inactive accounts can be seen as fulfilling a promise Musk made when he bought the company, particularly the removal of spam and bots, said Samuel Woolley, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and Media.
Woolley said there are good reasons to keep inactive accounts, and also reasons to delete them, but he fears a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Account purge advocates cite skewed metrics resulting from inactive or fake accounts on social media platforms. However, on top of the emotional pain for some users who are mourning their loved ones, the deletion of inactive accounts could also mean the loss of Tweets that have documented historical events, comments, and breaking news on the app over the years.
“Twitter functions in many ways like a library of data,” Woolley said. “Just because someone hasn’t been active for 30 days or a few years, doesn’t mean their tweets still have a lot of relevance.”
Musk said the reason he removed the inactive accounts was to free up unused Twitter handles, or usernames, and that those inactive accounts would be archived.
Exactly what that means is unknown — including what inactive accounts will look like when archived, and whether they can be easily accessed. Other details of the plan are also unclear, such as the number of accounts to be removed and whether the policy will be applied evenly.
While Reid and others saw the inactive accounts of their loved ones disappear last week, the account for the late father of controversial internet personality Andrew Tate still exists on the site, for example.
On Twitter, Tate said he was okay with Musk’s decision, but requested that his father’s account remain active because he “still (reads) his account daily.”
Picking and choosing accounts to deactivate would “create precisely the kind of tiered system Musk says he wants to avoid,” Woolley said.
When contacted by The Associated Press for comment, Twitter responded with an automated email. Twitter Trust and Safety Lead Ella Irwin also did not respond.
according to Twitter policy, the social media platform identifies account inactivity through logins. Twitter says users should log in at least every 30 days.
Twitter users are able to Download archive of their own data through the app, but not for accounts without login credentials. Reed, for one, noticed that her family hadn’t been able to access Jessica’s account for the past 10 years. The only traces they have now are some screenshots that Reed’s other sister happily took before the purge.
Reid talks about the significance of Jessica’s Twitter and Facebook pages during her journey with grief — from following her sister’s difficult journey with cystic fibrosis, a progressive genetic disorder that Reid also suffers from, to the treasured tweets that showed the “joy and…that came out of her words.”
Over time, the image and memories of someone who died can slowly change in your mind — “like a faded image,” Reed said. She added that having online resources can help keep a person’s “memory alive, in a way that only your personal memory can’t.”
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