Image: Amy Kinkead

I recently took on the grim task of going back through my old tweets and revisiting a life that I’d long since left behind, spurred by both morbid curiosity and a fear of the past coming back around to set me on fire.

At one time people spilled their innermost thoughts in diaries, which they protected with a small lock. Twitter urged us to rip that lock off, and years prior I’d done so happily. Scrolling back through my tweet history from 2009 to 2013, I hoped for the best but anticipated the worst.

As I read through what was essentially my own public diary, my first thought was that I didn’t recognize the person that I’d been in 2009. He seemed sad, alien, uncomfortable in his own skin.

“I crushed two beer cans on my head last night at Big Star. Life rocks.”

—Craig Hlavaty (April 20, 2010)

It’s become common practice: athletes, comedians, politicians, and all other manner of public figures having their Twitter profiles biopsied for lumps of offensiveness. Even random people who are suddenly thrust into prominence for one reason or another are scrutinized, treated like potential Supreme Court candidates. An immature aside from 2011 can now be used against you; a joke you made in 2013 before you were “woke” is now grounds for losing your livelihood.

This is what social media, especially Twitter, has become. Anything you type and send will be seen as a declaration of who you are. Everyone’s running for imaginary office. You can be canceled or deemed problematic at any time.

I’m usually not a guy too terribly swayed by mob mentality. I typically sit on the side and point and laugh, like I’m witnessing a bar fight. And yet…

“If I was a country singer my name would be Johnny Hash.”

—Craig Hlavaty (April 25, 2010)

Twitter is a corporate animal these days. We all fancy ourselves brands. Our tweets are a public narrative we’re writing in real time, yes, but there is no concept of evolution, no context. Our initial stamp is our forever stamp. There is no changing it.

Before social media, it was easy to do away with whole portions of one’s personality. There was no definitive record of who we were in the past or what we did or didn’t believe, beyond what our contemporaries might have observed. Twitter invited its users to showcase the best and worst of themselves for everyone to consume.

“I will sleep when you are dead.”

—Craig Hlavaty (May 3, 2010)

As I went through my feed, I stared at my most outrageous tweets and remembered how I used to type in the voice of a reckless character who would say wildly inappropriate things while peeing in the backyard at Big Star Bar or pouring a full flask of cheap bourbon into a cup of soda at an Astros game.

I’d thought I maybe missed those days, but the deeper I dived, the less nostalgia I felt. Instead I cringed. In fact, I wanted to reach through my monitor and strangle myself. Shame slapped me in the face.

Why was I doing this to myself? Besides the aforementioned fear about how the things I’d said could come back to haunt me, I was drawn in by the beginning of Twitter and its punk-rock-style open-mic period.

“Of course I am about to be drunk at a gun range in Friendswood on my birthday.”

—Craig Hlavaty (April 19, 2010)

For me the early days of Twitter were about exploring personas and characters. We could be whoever we wanted to be—if we so chose, without the attendant messiness or responsibility. We could don digital costumes without leaving the couch.

Eventually a more woke generation logged on and that concept disappeared. Twitter became more about espousing ideals and virtue-signaling, getting angry over events happening hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The masquerade ball, which Twitter had been for some of us in the beginning, evolved into a place where people did battle over ideas. They militarized against each other, seeking out alliances, forming armies, and taking part in modern America’s favorite pastime: picking fights for fun.

“Codeine makes you stupid. Is Huey Lewis the poor man’s Springsteen?”

—Craig Hlavaty (September 12, 2010)

Many have said that Twitter is humorless now, and I tend to agree. People wake up, roll over, and look for a fight, or just the next thing to care about, forgetting about the saga of the day before.

I recently went back and read a cover story I wrote for the Houston Press back in May 2010, a chronicle of the early days of Houston’s Twitter scene. The feature’s lens was decidedly rose-colored, viewing the platform as a folksy-humor-filled community builder where denizens of a city forever on the move could come together and find likeminded souls. That world is so far away, one guy I spoke with was running his Twitter empire from a BlackBerry.

“According to my new buddy Foursquare, drinking four days straight equals a bender.”

—Craig Hlavaty (October 8, 2010)

Newly installed transplants wouldn’t recognize Houston as revealed on social media posts from 2010. No one was taking Instagram glamour shots in front of street art. We didn’t even have much street art; we had lots of graffiti, though. Uber and Lyft didn’t exist, and I don’t remember seeing many of us taking cabs anywhere after long nights out. A few of us have the records and insurance bills to prove it.

There used to be sporadic Twitter meetups—tweet-ups—where users would show up to The Coffee Groundz (RIP) in Midtown and wallflower it up for a few hours over coffee and polite tech conversation before slinking back home.

Although I often showed up, I hated these things because I always felt like I was turned up to 11 while my Twitter friends spoke barely above an NPR whisper. I wanted to be Outlaw Dave, and they were carefully dissecting their meal at the hottest new place I couldn’t afford. Maybe I just didn’t like reality intruding upon my carefully crafted persona.

It wasn’t long before Houston’s early adopters found themselves overwhelmed and these meetups stopped. Still, I couldn’t go anywhere without running into people from Twitter.

“I’m not a saint, but this sucks.”

—Craig Hlavaty (October 9, 2010)

Whenever I met people from Houston Twitter, I always amped up my behavior, licking knives in photos, smoking anything in the vicinity, and doing shots from a flask on a wine bar patio.

Crown Royal and Merlot, I should mention, do not mix.

I was trying to be Houston’s version of nationally known Twitter personalities who got endorsement deals and YouTube channels. Come to think of it, if I’d kept it up, maybe one day I could have been the President of the United States. The current one is pretty good at spewing his id all over Twitter. That’s all I was really doing.

But at some point the character I’d developed online melded with who I was in real life. And along the way, I actually hurt people and caused emotional damage.

“Is broken heart one word or two words?”

—Craig Hlavaty (October 16, 2010)

Today I’m a semi-sober 36-year-old living in Montrose with an elderly dog, a person who gets frightened at the sight of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and wouldn’t be caught dead outside his apartment after midnight on a school night. Most of my friends are married with kids now, anyway, so I’m not missing much.

Maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but as I read my old tweets, I could see my future going up in flames. I saw everything great and kind that I wanted to do in Houston—things like sitting on charity boards and mentoring kids—disappearing with a whimper.

Going back through my chronicles of decadence real and less so, I began to see things clearly. And I didn’t like the picture I’d been painting for the world to gawk at, one full of desperation and self-importance. What I wanted most was to incinerate it into nothing.

I began to push the delete button.

“All Friday means to me is that it’s amateur hour at the bars. Real men and women get tanked on Tuesdays. And Mondays. And Wednesdays. And now.”

—Craig Hlavaty (April 30, 2010)

I learned a lot about myself during the purge. While I chuckled at my ham-handed love for Motörhead, Christina Hendricks, and Popeyes Chicken, I knew that I’d engaged in attention-seeking behavior, trying to self-medicate with people and chemicals instead of looking inward.

Many of my tweets from a decade ago were exaggerated, though, particularly the ones about narcotics use. I knew at the time that the shock value of it all was priceless. I was presenting to everyone a funhouse mirror of who I thought I wanted to be.

Sure, it got me a cool job covering concerts and reviewing bars during Houston’s recession. I also made some dear friends along the way. But I likely burned a lot of bridges and pushed kinder souls away.

It wasn’t long before my avatar became oppressive, and people began to take it at face value. When I did need help, I’m sure many thought I was crying for attention. In this case I was crying for rehab.

“Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be @ symbols.”

—Craig Hlavaty (September 19, 2010)

With each deletion I waved goodbye to a little bit of My Chemical Craig. I was fine with that. None of these declarations, I realized, meant anything in the first place, although there were twinges of sadness when I observed my own drunken cries for help.

A few close friends told me I shouldn’t have deleted my old tweets. They saw it as giving in to an imaginary Twitter mob. But I saw it as taking my mental house down to its studs to begin renovations. Mucking out the bad to make room for the good. Preparing myself for the future.

We’re now nearly two decades into this great social media experiment. In a real sense I grew up on Twitter. I’m still on there—hey, it’s free—and I still tweet random nonsense, sharing my thoughts with thousands. I’m just a lot more careful these days.

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