Twitter removed public likes

Published June 25, 2024

We’re laying on the couch, watching Reels on my phone. He takes ahold of it to search for something. Three letters into the query, his ex-girlfriend's profile appears at the top of the search results. I hope he doesn't notice. He does.

“Let me share my screen” on the Zoom call, I open a new window so no one can see that I was shopping on TheRealReal and doing the crossword.

On the L train, my neighbor scrolls through his Twitter (“X”) feed. I want to read them over his shoulder but my curiosity is rudely interrupted by his privacy screen. The girl on my other side is analyzing who watched her Instagram story. She flips to the next one and repeats. I take my phone out, turn my brightness all the way down, and do the same.

We lay in bed on our phones while he scrolls through a group chat and flips through photos from the night before. Pausing on the ones he’s in, he zooms in on his own face and stares at it for a second before moving on to the next. I pretend I do not see this.

When my ex-boyfriend was cheating on his girlfriend with me, I would save every message in our Snapchat conversation. I thought the messages were only saved on my side, unaware that they became a permanent fixture in our shared feed. Eventually, she went through his phone and read them all.

As I type this at the coffee shop, I worry that my friend is looking over at my screen and sees that I’m writing about her.

Our devices exist as part of the public sphere. I have the impulse to think of my phone as only mine—an extension of my thoughts, my relationships, my curiosities, my peculiarities—but am constantly confronted by the reality that this is not a private space.

Our apps have begun to reflect this publicity. In 2016, Snapchat launched “My Eyes Only,” a feature that locks selected photos behind a passcode rather than displaying them in your Memories. In order for someone to access your Memories, you’d still need to unlock your phone and hand it over to them. My Eyes Only acted as an ultra-private space within something that was already meant to be private, an extra layer of security to pacify our anxiety. 

Clearly, the impulse to treat our phones as private spaces has caused enough grief that our apps have had to react accordingly. This reprieve from corporeal pressure allows us to communicate more reflexively than we would in real life. I’m more impulsive on my phone, sending off thoughts and executing patterns instinctively without the shame I might suffer in IRL environments.

We now operate in the era of virtual takesies-backsies. While many of us have wished for a way to stuff our words back into our mouths once we’ve said them, our digital selves are now able to do just that.

In 2016, iMessage introduced Invisible Ink, an animation that emphasizes the private nature of a message, intended for the recipient’s eyes only. The text remains obfuscated until the blur is cleared away with a swipe. This was followed by the edit and unsend feature, the “Hidden Photos” folder in 2022, and the ability to hide apps from your homescreen in 2024. Instagram introduced the unsend feature in 2018, followed by “Vanish mode” in 2020, which turns the message feed into a Snapchat-esque interaction where messages disappear automatically (presumably only used for elicit affairs). 

This barrage of features is a direct reaction to our inherent anxiety—the propensity to fire off texts without thinking, the paranoia that wandering eyes might see our private messages, our tendency to sit too long without a response and develop a feeling of shame, to post now and think later. It’s likely that these features were introduced as a way to circumvent honest mistakes, but instead afford us the opportunity to ruminate in the facticity of our virtual output.

To be online is to be bent at the knee, peeping through the Sartrean keyhole; pre-reflectively absorbed in what lies on the other side. Arrested by the approaching footsteps of an onlooker, we realize how this all looks to them. In this case, what lies on the other side of the keyhole is the image of ourselves that we project online. We are constantly participating in a performance when we engage virtually, curating the version of self that we want to convey. When I post a photo of myself, I’m compelled to stare at it repeatedly, to double-check exactly what it is that the others are seeing. I scroll through my own feed to assure myself of the image I’m expressing. Yet, I’m humiliated at the thought of someone else watching me perform this act of total self-absorption.

When in public, the performance of self arrives to me more naturally. We’re more accustomed to being in “public mode” in certain environments. Online, this flip between the public and private self oscillates at a more rapid pace. I’m Googling “luteal phase cervical mucus consistency” as I receive a text from my crush. My privacy is interrupted, even though I know he can’t see what I’m looking at. I immediately gain consciousness of what I’m doing; ripped from the bliss of my perfect solitude by the awareness of my existence as subject-object.

Lost in the pseudo-privacy of our phones, we forget that the boundaries between private and public are more blurred in the digital sphere than in the physical. A slip of the finger, an accidental like, hitting “post” instead of saving to drafts, any small mistake might propel our private thoughts into the collective domain.

At lunch, I pass my phone to my friend, showing him the profile of whoever I’m gossiping about. We perform the delicate trade-off of the device, an intricate exchange where much can go awry. Always, he quips: Oh shit, I followed them. I know he’s joking. Still, I feel a drop in my stomach. We perform the passing of the phone again an hour later, this time so he can read a thread of texts from a new acquaintance. In the changing of hands, I accidentally trigger a voice note that starts recording our conversation. We both panic before hitting the X. 

Until now, a “like” existed in the public domain. As habitual users of any particular app, we possess a subliminal awareness of its rules and functions. I know my Twitter likes are public (hopefully we discover this organically, otherwise we have to learn it the hard way, like Ted) and I adapt my behaviors accordingly. Generally, our assumption is that others are using their apps in a similar way to us. If I’m reading other people’s likes, tracking their activity status, or checking their profiles, I’m operating under the assumption that others might be doing the same to me. 

With the removal of public Twitter likes, we regain one facet of our user habits back into the distinctly private sphere. Now I can forget the paranoia of the Twitter-panopticon when I press ❤️ on a tweet that contains the N word (what will they think… will they think that I like the N word? That I laugh at the N word? They’ll know that I said it in my head and I actually said the whole, real word and not “N word” when I read it to myself in my head).

The point here is that we are not in the age of cowardice, but rather that this cowardice is a permanent fixture of our human disposition. We subsist on the existential plane of cowardice, an inescapable facet of our humanity. Even those who appear to be above it can only do so once they’ve anticipated it and decidedly act against it. 

But the constant changing of these privacy norms might only work to confuse our subliminal user habits even more. Our brains are increasingly disoriented by the different rules of each platform:

On LinkedIn, people can see if I view their profile.

On Instagram, people can see if I view their stories, but not their profile.

On TikTok, people can see when you view their profile but only when you have that feature turned on. I turned it off, right? I think I have it turned off. Actually, let me check.

On Instagram, you can unsend a message without a trace.

On iMessage, I can only unsend by triggering a permanent relic of my hesitancy.

This inconsistency results in total paranoia.

Once, I received a text:

“Can I just ask one thing?

Why did you block me on IG?

I have an app that sends me a notification every time someone blocks me.”

I went home for Christmas and upon my return, the guy I just started dating told me he got an alert that someone from my hometown had Googled him.

“That’s weird” I said. (It was me.)

There exists a whole assortment of “unfollower” apps so we can keep tabs on who breaks virtual ties with us. While unfollowing is meant to be a covert act (we don’t receive a notification when someone unfollows us), the event often doesn’t go undetected. Last year, Charli XCX’s unfollowing of friend and collaborator Rina Sawayama made headlines so big that she felt compelled to address the situation explicitly:


“You watched my story but you didn’t answer my text.”

“I noticed you stopped watching my stories—did you mute me?”

Now, I hesitate every time I lurk, unfollow, mute, block, or Google someone I know. I start to second guess myself. What are the chances they’ll notice? The neuroticism of others has fed into my own.

Can my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend see that someone from my neighborhood has checked her website twice this month?

I started a burner LinkedIn so I can look at people’s profiles in peace.

I have a second Instagram account so I can look at people who have blocked me, or watch stories without my name appearing in a list.

At times, it feels as though I’m surveilling someone else’s online presence to measure their behaviors and compare them against my own, to ascertain whether or not my level of neuroticism is normal.

They edited the caption of their Instagram post published 2 years ago.

22 tweets on a profile active since 2015—a purger.

A friend told me about a girl she met at a party who had thousands of followers but only followed 199 accounts, a number so spectacularly low that it was obviously intentional. She followed my friend and her companion—bringing the count up to 201—but in the morning, it dropped back down to 199. Who did she bump?

Recently, I’ve noticed a new pattern among Zoomers: to upload an Instagram post just to archive it immediately. Weeks, sometimes months later, they’ll unarchive the post so it can live on their profile free from the pressure of accruing likes or the harsh scrutiny of the main feed.

The nature of this surveillance is sometimes subliminal. I inadvertently pick up on clues of other’s habits and peculiarities. “This tweet has been deleted” signals hesitancy. The Instagram user who’s removed all their tagged photos exhibits diffidence. Still, I yearn to be the person who doesn’t notice when someone I met at a party doesn’t follow me back. I long to be the kind of person who doesn’t care.

I feel a small joy in finding the rare user who clearly doesn’t exhibit these same compulsive behaviors. Following count triple their followers, thousands of posts dating back to 2012—a user who’s aware of the virtual panopticon and actively defies it. Still performing, of course, but performing as the person who doesn’t care what you see or think. A full embrace of the publicity of privacy. A user who hears the approaching footsteps of an onlooker and doesn’t move their gaze from the keyhole; they anticipate the look of the other and try to transcend it. They exist in stark contrast to the person who actively curates and archives their online presence, the poster who edits their captions from 4 years ago.

The advent of these “cowardly” features are certainly reflective of our anxiety, and more likely than not, they serve to exacerbate it. The inherent nature of our self-consciousness—the fact that we’re preoccupied with how others perceive us, and try to exert control over it—is present in all of our interactions, even looming over us when we’re alone (what kind of person does this action make me? Does this fit into my own picture of who I imagine myself to be?

We enjoy the internet in part because it provides a bigger space to manipulate our self-image, to curate our self-expression. The problem with this enlarged space is that it feeds into the delusion that we can, in fact, control it. With increased opportunity, it’s our nature to equally increase our obsession over how we present ourselves. Of course, the only perfect solution to this obsession is a purely private internet, just as the only solution to social shame is either total isolation, or death <3

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