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It's not OK, Dr. Phil

Deleting a tweet is social media's unpardonable sin

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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 screen-grab 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 celebrities' 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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2013 A2

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