One my student editors here at OJR forwarded to me at New York Times piece reporting the latest complaints about Facebook’s policy toward its users who wish to cancel their memberships and delete their profiles.
Facebook does not provide a “one-click” solution for leaving the site. Members may delete content they’ve submitted to the site, one item at a time. For active users, tearing down all that content could take dozens of hours. And even then, Facebook retains much of your basic contact information, making it possible for other members to contact you through the site.
The frustration, even anger, that many such users feel toward Facebook is palpable. The Times quoted several readers who had attempted to delete their information from Facebook, with varying, but never total, success.
Facebook began as a social network for college students, many of who believed that what happens on Facebook, stays on Facebook. But as the social network has opened membership to those without .edu e-mail addresses, it’s become a much broader community, with many professional organizations maintaining groups and contact lists through the site.
Put it this way: Imagine you are a journalism student and you join OJR’s Facebook group in order to connect with editors whom you might be sending your resume and URLs in a year or so. Do you really want those editors on OJR’s Facebook group to be one click away from pictures of you, drunk, at some party last semester?
(Not that I am trying discourage journalism students from joining our Facebook group, of course…. Heck, there are likely a good many photos from various industry conferences that I am sure that those editors would not want one click away from a journalism student’s eyes, either.)
As a website publishers and editor, I’d like to offer a few paragraphs in Facebook’s defense, however. Granted, my defense is not absolute. Facebook has done many things over the years worthy of its member’s criticisms. (Beacon, anyone?) But publishers do have reasons to limit their readers ability to control information published on a website.
Not every website that accepts and publishes user-generated content (UGC) is a pure social network with no interest beyond providing registered members a place to chat amongst themselves. Many websites rely upon UGC to power wikis, discussion forums and other collaborative publishing forms that are read by a much larger number of individuals than ever post to the site.
Empowering registrants on such sites to delete all their submitted content with a single click threatens the integrity of those collaborations. How difficult would it be for readers to follow a discussion thread where every fifth response, say, or even the parent post, was deleted? No, this is not a problem on websites where discussion threads have no archival value. But that’s not always the case. Publishers who are attracting fresh traffic, and advertising revenue, based on informative discussion threads have powerful incentives not to allow readers to destroy that content.
I’ve lost count of the number of discussions I’ve had with colleagues in this industry about protecting the quality of interactive content by preventing access by those who would harm it with their contributions. But deletions can cause grave damage to online content as well. (See two past OJR articles on this topic, here and here.)
Deterrent against abuse
Here’s a scenario: You require readers to register in order to contact other registrants through the site. Someone registers, spams selected readers with who-know-what abuse, then immediately deletes his or her membership. It’s the online equivalent of a drive-by shooting.
If the publisher does not retain some of the offender’s information after his or she deletes the account, there might be little hope of ever catching them. Readers can figure that out, and sites that allow verbal drive-bys become far more attractive targets for this sort of behavior.
That’s why a policy of retaining user contact information, under certain circumstances, can help encourage more civil behavior on the site. Such a policy can also help a publisher resolve claims of impersonation and identity theft, since the publisher would have a record of who was behind an account that posted certain information, and when.
Publication is, well, public
All that said, Facebook’s argument in favor its retaining member’s information, that it makes reinstating an account easier, makes a much weaker argument. Members should learn that actions on a website have consequences. Quit, and you lose your profile, your lists, your blog. If you decide to rejoin later, you’ll have to do the grunt work of recreating all that you’d built before.
Yet keeping some of that content on the site, and public, can promote that same lesson, as well. Publication is just that… public. Therefore, people ought to be encouraged to think before they post. Maybe they take the time to adjust their account’s privacy settings, as Facebook allows one to do, to limit the information that people outside their approved social circle may see. Or, maybe, they decide that certain personal information ought not be on the Internet at all.
Of course, this is a lesson that ought to be taught before a person stats posting on a website, and not after that individual decides, “Um… maybe that online rant against my advisor wasn’t such a good idea, after all.”
Online publishers need to do a better job of promoting media literacy in the Web 2.0 world. As Newspapers in Education programs introduced kids to the content available in their local papers, perhaps we need a new program that introduces beginning Internet users to online publishing, to what happens to information that they post online, and what they can and cannot do to control that.
A publisher’s decision
A publisher could decide that he or she will allow readers to have complete control over the information that they publish to a site. Some websites explicitly cede ownership of and copyright over UGC to the users who created it. In those cases, publishers, to be consistent, should stay away from the Facebook model, and instead enable easy, user-controlled deletion of their content.
Whatever approach publishers choose, they can best protect themselves from Facebook-style criticism by taking every opportunity to communicate their policy to their readers, in plain language.
Some readers want an anonymous community that easy to join, and easy to drop. Others desire an online community with thoughtful comment from identified correspondents. There are as many options available online as there are publishers. Let’s just not lead readers to believe that their community lies in a different type of neighborhood than its publisher envisions.