Even two months after his death, Prince’s Twitter feed has 330k followers. Aside from a subtle profile-picture replacement following his overdose—from an illustration of him wearing sunglasses to one with his eyes closed, but a third eye open—his feed remains stuck in time and precisely what anyone familiar with him would expect it to be. It follows nobody. The tweets are full of exclamation points, spirituality, capital letters, emoji, pictures of himself and purple objects, expressions of love for other artists, and quotes—not retweets—of fans praising him.
Eventually, Twitter will delete Prince’s account—although a representative from the company couldn’t provide specifics as to how long any inactive account lasts before permanent removal. When this happens, it won’t just be the words of the 740 tweets Prince posted that get lost, but traces of his social-media behavior and routine. Any record of communications he sent or received will vanish. Deleting a known figure’s—or anyone’s account—erases an extension of themselves, part of what makes up their online footprint.
Should famous artists’ social-media profiles be saved? Archiving their digital materials would follow the tradition of old-school paper archives, the ones that are responsible for maintaining collections like hundreds of Emily Dickinson’s letters, notes from Mary Shelley that show her succumbing to a brain tumor, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s working drafts and photographs. If journals, sketchbooks, letters, and scribbled-on napkins are venerated and kept for insights into great minds, there seems to be a case that tweets should be held onto, too. Then again, publicly accessible 140-character bursts can be so frivolous—and based so much on maintaining appearances—that they might seem like they don’t offer anything worth preserving.