In defense of Facebook

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.

Editorial integrity

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.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. You write, “people ought to be encouraged to think before they post.” But much of the online world is ephemeral. Someone like myself, involved in online work since the early ’90s, is more used to data disappearing than being retained beyond my control. No one expects to be able to remove their comments in a forum. Everyone expects to be able to remove their email access, because you never know what kind of unpleasantness you’ll encounter from others. It may hurt to delete a profile you’ve invested in, but you do it when you need to.

    Facebook content should not be held to journalistic standards of consistency. First, the owners of Facebook are not responsible for my content, I am. They cannot morally claim credit or responsibility for what I say or do, even if legally they might be able to try. They are not my publisher, they are at best my writing pad or gaming board, and if I want to tear off the page and throw it away, or not play anymore, it should be allowed.

    Second, Facebook is a social network. In the analog world, if I remove myself from a social clique because I find them unpleasant, they don’t see me any more. If I want to remove the ability to contact me, I can do that. If I tell someone one day I’m fine, and the next day I’m not, and the next day I’m tired, it’s not necessary to record it for posterity’s sake. But Facebook apparently thinks it is.

    Facebook is more like an imagined secret society in a movie – once you’re in, you’re in, and you can’t take it back. Got a stalker? You can’t delete your profile. Get in and discover dirty chatters on Scrabulous and invitations to friendship from deceptive strangers aren’t what you want from a site? This is a place where people inflict countless invitations to movie quizzes, or to see their virtual pets. It’s unusually socially demanding and if you don’t have time to spare responding to all the emails and updating your profile, you can offend coworkers. But if you want to opt out altogether, you’re stuck. The reason – convenience in returning, which I’m unlikely to do if I leave in the first place – is ridiculously flimsy.

    Facebook forcing me to be “present” when I want to leave is like paparazzi invading the life of a privacy-seeking celebrity, or a stalker publishing an online blog of his observations, or an identity thief using my data to accomplish his own ends. It’s just plain wrong.

    I want out.

    P.S. I notice there’s an “edit” option on this comment. Are you sure you’re not encouraging people not to think before they post by providing this? Could this be an implicit acknowledgment of the fact people sometimes want to correct mistakes, or take things back? 😉