#etiquette: Everyone’s retweeting that former Paypal exec’s deranged tweets. Is that immoral 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.

Now-former Paypal executive Rakesh Agrawal is in the throes of an Amanda Bynes-level Twitter meltdown … and it has not gone well.

On Friday night, a “sleep-deprived” Agrawal — at the time, Paypal’s director of global strategy — tweeted a string of bizarre, misspelled and profanity-laced insults about several of his colleagues.

On Saturday morning, he tweeted an apology and explained that he had been (mis)using a new phone, whose privacy or messaging settings he apparently didn’t understand.

And shortly thereafter Paypal tweeted that Agrawal and the company were parting ways.

Agrawal’s meltdown is, needless to say, not the subject of our etiquette quandary today; in fact, if you need guidance on the wisdom of publicly tweeting insults to your co-workers and/or bosses, better just delete ye ole Twitter now. But the aura of spectacle and schadenfreude that quickly enveloped the whole affair does merit some discussion. After all, Agrawal’s deranged messages racked up dozens of retweets. His follower count spiraled into the nine-thousands. Tweeted Wired’s Mat Honan, in an unsubtle critique of the gawkers:

But when a train wrecks right in front of you, should you really look away?

On one hand … Agrawal is (er, was) a high-profile figure at a high-profile company. His actions are interesting and newsworthy — a.k.a., retweetable — pretty much by default. That may be even truer when he’s making frank statements about the competency of his colleagues. After all, Paypal is owned by eBay, which is a publicly traded company. People invest in Paypal! They want and deserve to know if there’s tension among its executives, or if one of those executives is prone to bouts of late-night, public rage.

On the other hand … many of the people gleefully wtf-ing over Agrawal’s tweets are surely in it for the circus, not their interest in e-commerce. And as author David Giles said of Amanda Bynes last April, when Bynes was on a deranged Twitter bender of her own:

If she continues to self-publicise in this way there’s not much the media can do apart from a) ignoring her, which they clearly don’t want to do; or b) pointing out that she’s clearly in need of psychological help. Ultimately it depends on the frame that they are applying – if it’s one of ‘look at the madwoman!’ then it’s not very ethical, but if it’s one of ‘Bynes’s problems continue to mount’ then I don’t see anything wrong with that …

The same logic should apply not just to the media media, but to social as well. Intention, and tone, make all the difference here. “Look at the guy’s hilarious public breakdown”? That’s gossipy, ambulance-chasey, and arguably immoral. But “a newsworthy excutive just got fired, this is why”? That’s clearly a different ball of wax. (This all presumes, of course, that Agrawal is having a breakdown — which Agrawal himself insists he is not. Per his weekend tweets, he resigned from Paypal before the Twitter screed and is pursuing other projects. Who knows.)

TL;DR: Gawking at someone else’s problems is gross, on Twitter or anywhere else. As long as you’re not gawking, though, feel free to RT.

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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Caitlin Dewey · May 5