#etiquette: Lena Dunham tweeted an offensive joke, then deleted it. Good call or not?

This is an occasional feature wherein we discuss a bit of online etiquette currently in the news. You can find all our #etiquette posts compiled here.

Lena Dunham — fan of fake burqas, perpetual nude and purported voice of her generation — is not one to shy from off-color humor. But on Twitter last night, she crossed a line that even her devoted, 1.45-million-strong fan base was unwilling to cross with her: She made a joke about molestation. And then deleted it.

Let’s start with the obvious here: First, Dunham’s joke is neither funny nor particularly clever. Second, her excuses ring desperate and a bit flat (“sleepiness” does not compel most people to forget basic social boundaries), though no doubt she’s legitimately embarrassed by the whole thing. To top it all off, Dunham deleted the tweet — a tacit admission of guilt.

Which raises the relevant Twittiquette question: When you tweet something you shouldn’t have (bad joke, typo, factual error, Weiner-style selfie) should you deal with it … or delete?

Frankly, “social media gurus” (air quotes obligatory!) don’t all agree on this score. They note, rightly, that nothing you delete from Twitter ever disappears entirely — your mistakes live on, zombie-like, in other people’s retweets and screenshots. So there’s often no use deleting something if you’re planning to pretend it didn’t happen. The truth could come  out in the end, making you look like a liar and/or idiot.

But deleting something will slow its spread, which can be really important. If @WashingtonPost somehow garbles an important breaking news tweet, someone should probably delete (and correct) that tweet before the misinformation gets around. Likewise, if I accidentally post some compromising photos to Twitter, I don’t want those hanging out in my feed for all eternity. Deletion, followed by a quick “whoops, sorry about that,” would obviously do nothing to sooth my humiliation … but I would, at least, stand a shot of watching the whole thing disappear.

TL;DR: It’s okay to delete tweets, as long as you’re transparent about it. In fact, since transparency is more or less an essential tenet of the web, you might want to bring that ethic to everything you do online. Dunham got that part right, at least.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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