Emily Reed lost her younger sister Jessica more than 10 years ago. For much of the past decade, she has 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 describes as almost like a twin. But Jessica’s account is now gone.
Last week, owner Elon Musk announced that Twitter would purge accounts that haven’t had any activity in years. That decision has been met with an outcry from those who have lost, or fear losing the thoughts and words of deceased loved ones linked to now-inactive accounts.
Reed immediately returned to Jessica’s side as she had done a day or two earlier after learning of the purge. In place of Jessica’s page was an “account suspended” message suggesting it might violate Twitter’s rules.
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Reed’s tweet Telling her shock at the loss of the account has received tens of thousands of responses. Others shared similar experiences of pain when they learned that the story of a deceased loved one had disappeared.
“Having these digital footprints … is super important to me,” Reed, 43, told The Associated Press.
The advent of social media has brought a new way in which people grieve and return to the place where they connected with friends and family in the past. In addition to memories and physical traces left behind, snippets of life are now captured in the digital space.
It’s something that social media has struggled with in recent years.
Twitter backed off an effort to purge inactive accounts in 2019, years before Musk arrived, due to a similar backlash.
Other social media have found ways to let people mourn those they have lost.
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Facebook and Instagram allow users to request that an account be deactivated, or a memory image of the account. Remembrance stories display the word “Remembering” next to the person’s name.
“In this modern age, we have these electronic reminders of people — (including) little bits of a thought they had on a certain day or photos they shared,” said Shira Gabriel, a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. Looking through a late loved one’s social media can be both a healthy way to process grief and come together as a community in remembrance, Gabriel said.
The prospect of that resource disappearing “can bring a sense of sadness again,” Gabriel said. “There’s a real psychological cost to getting rid of this digital thumbprint that’s been left behind and this ability for members of the community to come together in one place.”
It is unknown if Musk will reverse the decision to purge. Tesla’s billionaire CEO has launched policies that have outraged users and advertisers alike and shown little interest in changing those policies in response.
Musk is called a new CEO last weekLinda Yaccarino, a former NBCUniversal advertising executive, who will have her hands full with a platform now seemingly in a perpetual state of chaos.
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Removing inactive accounts can be seen as fulfilling a promise Musk made when he bought the company, specifically to win over junk accounts and bots, said Samuel Woolley, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism and Media.
There are good reasons to keep inactive accounts, and also reasons to delete them, Woolley said, but he’s skeptical of the “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Proponents of purging accounts cite skewed metrics caused by inactive or fake accounts on social media platforms. But in addition to emotional pain for some users who are grieving late loved ones, deleting inactive accounts can also mean losing tweets that documented historical events, comments and the latest news on the app over the years.
“Twitter acts in many ways as a data library,” Woolley said. “Just because someone hasn’t been active for 30 days or a few years doesn’t mean their tweets aren’t still relevant.”
Musk said the reasoning behind removing inactive accounts was to free up unused Twitter handles, or usernames, and that those inactive accounts would be archived.
Exactly what that means isn’t known — including what inactive accounts will look like when they’re archived and whether they’ll be easily accessible. 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.
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While Reed and others saw the inactive accounts of loved ones disappear last week, the account belonging to the late father of controversial internet personality Andrew Tate appears to still be on the site, for example.
On Twitter, Tate said he was fine with Musk’s decision, but asked that his father’s account remain active because he “still (reads) his account daily.”
Picking and choosing accounts for deactivation would “create exactly the kind of tier system that Musk says he wants to avoid,” Woolley said.
When contacted by The Associated Press for comment, Twitter responded with an automated email. Twitter’s trust and safety manager Ella Irwin also did not respond.
According to Twitter policy, the social media platform determines an account’s inactivity through logins. Twitter says users should log in at least every 30 days.
Twitter users can download an archive of their own data via the app, but not for accounts they don’t have login details for. Reed, for example, noted that her family was unable to access Jessica’s account for the past 10 years. The only clues they have now are some screenshots that Reed’s other sister luckily took before the purge.
Reed talks about the importance of Jessica’s Twitter and Facebook pages during her journey of grief — from following her sister’s difficult journey with cystic fibrosis, a progressive genetic disease that Reed also has, to cherished tweets that showed “the joy and… the liveliness that came” from her words.”
Over time, the image and memories of someone who has passed can slowly change in your mind — “like a fading photograph,” Reed said. Having online resources, she added, can help keep a “person’s memory alive, in a way that just your own personal memory can’t.”