Dr. Phil

Delet­ing a tweet is so­cial me­dia’s un­par­don­able sin

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - ONCE OVER - By Mon­ica Hesse

DR. Phil, drawl­ing psy­chol­o­gist to the masses, re­cently posted a tweet some in­ter­preted as, at best, tone- deaf and, at worst, a tacit en­cour­age­ment for date rape. “If a girl is drunk, is it OK to have sex with her?” some­one from his ac­count tweeted at 5: 49 p. m. “Re­ply yes or no to @ dr­phil # teen­sac­cused.”

“If Dr. Phil is drunk, is it OK for him to tweet?” re­sponded one fol­lower. An­other won­dered, “If a per­son is a mysogny­ist [ sic], is it OK to just re­fer to him as ‘ Dr. Phil’ from now on?” Within a few hours, Oprah Win­frey’s for­mer acolyte be­came thor­oughly de­tested on­line. Then, he com­pounded the sit­u­a­tion by com­mit­ting what has be­come an un­par­don­able sin in the pub­lic venues through which we con­duct dis­course: He deleted the tweet.

On his timeline, the comment no longer ap­pears, but other Twit­ter users quickly made sure it wasn’t gone.

“Hey, @ Dr­Phil, if some­one deletes his tweet, is it OK to post a screen­shot of it?” queried a user who at­tached a cached im­age. Oth­ers were more di­rect: “@ Dr­Phil is a bloody coward and has since deleted the tweet.”

While some users ap­plauded the at­tempt to re­move what they saw as garbage, the pre­vail­ing no­tion was this: Dr. Phil McGraw had cre­ated the garbage, there­fore he should have to sit with the garbage, a scar­let garbage let­ter af­fixed to his chip­per, fam­ily- ex­pert pro­file. The dele­tion be­came, for some, nearly as ob­jec­tion­able as the orig­i­nal mis­sive.

For half a decade, we’ve is­sued on­line play­books to teenagers, warn­ing them against post­ing tipsy pho­tos on Face­book or tex­ting com­pro­mis­ing im­ages by cell­phone. It’s com­mon knowl­edge that noth­ing re­ally dis­ap­pears on­line: En­e­mies might cut, paste and screengrab your worst mis­takes into in­famy.

What’s in­ter­est­ing is the way this warn­ing — noth­ing dis­ap­pears on­line — seems to have be­come law. This is an era of no take- backs, and those who at­tempt them are viewed as ei­ther id­iots who don’t un­der­stand the sys­tem or weasels who are try­ing to game it.

It can’t be gamed: Web­sites col­lect ce- lebri­ties’ deleted tweets the way they once col­lected side- boob shots: Ash­ton Kutcher’s, Cee Lo Green’s, Kanye West’s. The de­signer Ken­neth Cole was ha­rangued in 2011 for tweet­ing that Egyp­tian up­ris­ings might be due to hordes of peo­ple try­ing to score items from his new col­lec­tion, and then he was ha­rangued for re­mov­ing the tweet. Pa­tri­cia Heaton, the ev­ery­mom of “Ev­ery­body Loves Ray­mond,” deleted not only in­di­vid­ual tweets but her en­tire Twit­ter ac­count af­ter post­ing a se­ries of rants against San­dra Fluke, the Ge­orge­town Univer­sity law stu­dent who ad­vo­cated for in­sur­ance cov­er­age for con­tra­cep­tion.

“Delet­ing a tweet is not an apol­ogy,” says Steven Petrow, who writes a dig­i­tal eti­quette col­umn for Pa­rade mag­a­zine. “And if that’s the thing you’re at­tempt­ing to do, you need to make an apol­ogy.” That, he spec­u­lates, is what makes peo­ple so an­gry about deleted tweets. It’s not aton­ing; it’s re­mov­ing.

Amer­i­cans like re­demp­tion nar­ra­tives, but they must hap­pen in the proper or­der: ac­knowl­edg­ment, shame, apolo­gies, soul- search­ing, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

Twit­ter, un­for­tu­nately, is a very dif­fi­cult medium for the re­demp­tion nar­ra­tive. It doesn’t lend it­self well to th­ese stages. Each set of 140 char­ac­ters is taken as a dis­crete oc­cur­rence, di­vorced of larger con­text. The co­me­dian Pat­ton Oswalt re­cently con­ducted an ex­per­i­ment in how lit­tle peo­ple seek con­text on Twit­ter, post­ing a se­ries of two- part tweets that were in­nocu­ous if read to­gether but di­abol­i­cal if read in­de­pen­dently, as many peo­ple did.

If there is a larger con­text in the Dr. Phil de­ba­cle, it’s this: His en­tire Twit­ter feed — chin- up apho­risms and pop psy­chol­ogy — is ded­i­cated to pair­ing in­ti­mate ques­tions with hash­tags and en­cour­ag­ing de­bate among his fol­low­ers. His other re­cent tweets:

“How young is too young to have ‘ the talk’ with your kids — and why? Re­ply with @ dr­phil # preg­nant­tween.”

“If you knew you’d never be caught, would you cheat on your part­ner? Tweet your an­swer to @ dr­phil with hash­tag # cheaters.”

In this con­text, Dr. Phil’s “drunk sex” tweet might still have been read as prob­lem­atic. It tar­geted in­tox­i­cated women in­stead of in­tox­i­cated peo­ple, and it pre­sented the sit­u­a­tion as if ei­ther choice might be cor­rect ( Why, yes, it is OK to have sex with a drunk girl!) in a post- Steubenville era when peo­ple should be bet­ter in­formed about the rules of con­sent. But, in this con­text, a reader prob­a­bly also would have re­al­ized the tweet was meant to be a dis­cus­sion topic rather than a per­sonal mus­ing. That’s how Dr. Phil’s team is ex­plain­ing it.

“This tweet was in­tended to evoke dis­cus­sion lead­ing into a very se­ri­ous show topic based upon a re­cent news story,” read a state­ment from a spokesper­son. “Dr. Phil deleted it the sec­ond he saw it. It was clearly ill- ad­vised. We sin­cerely apol­o­gize that it sug­gested any­thing other than what was in­tended, data gath­er­ing. As you can imag­ine, Dr. Phil is very up­set that this hap­pened.”

The apol­ogy was not, how­ever, posted on his Twit­ter feed. Which raises the ques­tion, if it had been — if he had apol­o­gized in­stead of deleted — would peo­ple who retweeted his mis­take also retweet his mea culpa?

— The Wash­ing­ton Post

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