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How to Clean Up Your Digital History

Once you post something to the internet, it’s there forever unless you take steps to remove it (and even then, you may not be successful.) While keeping your digital history around in perpetuity can have its advantages—digging out those tax emails from 2006, looking back on vacations from half a decade ago—it’s also worth keeping some parts of our online trails as short as we can.

First, it means nothing from our past can come back and embarrass us. Second, it makes it harder for advertising companies to keep track of what we’re up to online. And third (in the case of files and emails at least), it frees up space for new stuff.

If you’ve decided that you’d rather not have decades worth of tweets and emails hanging around, there are ways to put limits on your digital baggage. Note this is slightly different to stopping sites and networks from tracking you as you make your way around the web, though the two are definitely linked.


screenshot of email inbox

Gmail can find emails older than a certain span of time.

Screenshot: David Nield via Google

With email services offering so much storage in the cloud now, you might never think of deleting a single email, just in case you need them again in the future—but when was the last time you went digging through your email archive to find something you needed? Deleting older messages frees up storage space and makes future searches faster too.

The process of clearing your old emails will depend on the client and the service you’re using. In the case of Gmail, there’s no automatic way to wipe old emails, so you’ll need to remind yourself to do it on a regular basis: the search term you need to put in the box at the top of the web interface is “older_than:” followed by your time period. Use “older_than:1y” to find emails older than a year, for instance, or “older_than:6m” to find emails older than 6 months.

With the search results on screen, you can select all the matching messages (use the check box to the top left) and erase them. If you don’t want to get rid of absolutely everything, combine this with other search terms—so “older_than:1y is:unimportant” will bring up all the emails older than a year that Gmail has marked as low priority. You can find a full list of Gmail search operators here.

If Outlook on the web is your email portal of choice, you don’t get the same intelligent search operators as you do in Gmail. You can however click on the Filter link at the top of any folder (such as the inbox), then choose Sort, Date and Oldest on top to find your oldest messages and get rid of them that way. Click on the first email to delete, then Shift+Click on the last email to delete, then select Delete.

Social Media

screenshot of Tweet Delete

TweetDelete is one of the best services for auto-deleting tweets.

Screenshot: David Nield via TweetDelete