Don’t delete that tweet? The debate rages

Yesterday’s “Don’t delete that tweet” post occasioned a great debate in the comments. (Go read it now if you haven’t, then come back for my thoughts.)

There are valid cases on both sides of this issue. It seems to me that how you come down depends on the relative weight you choose to place on (a) the short-term benefit of restricting the repetition of erroneous information vs. (b) the long-term benefit of preserving the integrity of a historical record and the accountability of a news source.

Danny Sullivan’s argument for deletion is sensible. The screenshot tactic is intriguing but, as Paul Watson points out, a screenshot is a poor substitute for the original data in context. Given the current state of Twitter technology and tools, I wouldn’t fault any news provider for deciding to delete an erroneous tweet, provided some good-faith effort was made to admit the error rather than hide it.

But — as someone who immersed himself for several years in the history of blogging — I can’t help viewing this subject in the longer context of the evolution of Web media. And the pattern here is hard to miss.

Every new style of online participation is born dangling from a “just.” It’s “just” a tweet, so why bother worrying about deleting it? But every wave of Internet-based communication that preceded Twitter arrived on the scene with a similar sense that it was more ephemeral than what preceded it. Save your e-mail? Why bother? Hey, edit your Web page at will — it’s just data on a server!

Each time, we gradually discover that what we thought was casual has become an essential part of the record of our time. And each time we scramble, belatedly, to retrofit some responsibility onto our practices. Maybe this time we can at least shorten that cycle.

Public tweets play an increasingly important role in our news ecosystem. They tell stories and are part of the story, too. We should minimize tampering with them. We need better tools that might let us correct them responsibly, whether this takes the form of fixes auto-propagating to retweeters or correction notices or revision tracking or all of the above.

In the meantime, we’ll all need to keep improvising. As we do, I hope we’ll all think twice before deleting.

VALUABLE CONTEXT: NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard has a great column documenting how the incorrect reports of Gabrielle Giffords’ death started. (Hint: It wasn’t Twitter.)

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