Who owns and controls the content in online communities?

by Martin Reed on 3 June 2009 in Articles

ownership of content in online communities

When building online communities, you can’t forget the fact that you are building relationships and dealing with human beings. Consequently, people make mistakes – yourself included!

On occasion, you may find a member writes a post that they later regret, and want it removed. How do you react when faced with this demand?

Individual circumstances

How you proceed should depend on the individual circumstances. Some online communities have a policy whereby once the content is submitted, no changes can be made at all. For others, the software may allow unlimited removal or edits until someone replies to the thread. Some communities may allow members to add, edit or remove their own content at will.

Personally, I like to reduce the amount of member controlled edits or content removal. The sole reason for this is due to the fact that very often, by the time someone decides they wish to remove a post, others have replied. This, of course, leaves you with an entirely new dilemma – if you are going to delete content others have replied to, what do you do with those replies?

In my terms of service at Just Chat, I have the following clauses:

By submitting content to this website, you are granting Just Chat a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive right (including any moral rights) and license to use, license, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, derive revenue or other remuneration from, communicate to the public, perform and display the content (in whole or in part) worldwide and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed.

This is mainly inserted for legal reasons, however it also allows me to have the final say as to whether user submitted content can be completely removed from the community.

In reality, I prefer to always honour member requests for their content to be edited or removed. On Just Chat, members are able to edit their posts or profiles at any time, automatically. The only thing they can’t do is delete a forum post completely, once others have replied (although they can edit their post to remove all its content).

Please remove my post

When someone contacts me asking for their post to be removed, I take a look at the post in question. A member may be remorseful after posting something that breaks the community guidelines. In this case, I will most definitely honour their request for the post to be removed! In other cases, I will consider why they want the post removed.

It is very rare that members of my online communities contact me asking for one of their posts to be deleted. When they do, it’s often because they have said something that is:

1. Against the community guidelines (in which case the post will be removed)
2. Overly personal (regarding themselves or other members)
3. Overly controversial or will lead to arguments

As previously mentioned, if a post is against the guidelines it will be removed – I will also acknowledge the fact the member contacted me first and recognised their error.

If the member feels they have said something overly personal about themselves or others, I will judge each case on an individual basis. At this time, I’ll take a look at what people have written when replying. If members seem unfazed and I feel that the original poster is perhaps over-reacting, I’ll encourage them to keep the content intact. If I agree that their post is a little too personal, then I am happy to remove the post.

Controversy can be good for an online community – but it can also be bad; very, very bad. Again, you need to judge these cases individually. Some members will be a little more sensitive than others. You don’t really want to delete an opening post if it has encouraged a great discussion with lots of value (unless it’s against your site guidelines). In this case, again I would look at the situation and try to get the member to change their mind by reassuring them and congratulating them on the great conversation they have started.

Reducing abuse

Another reason why I include an ownership clause is because it prevents abusive users claiming they have the right for their content to be removed from the site. Of course, I remove abusive content – but only from public view. I keep a record of all abusive posts in case the member returns and tries to register under a different name, or they claim innocence to another staff member.

You also need to be careful about allowing members to edit information – particularly member names. Members in online communities are strongly identified by their choice of member name. If they change it without people knowing, it can create confusion. Your members have built up a lot of equity in their member names – allowing them to change them on a whim can have negative implications.

The survivors

So you decide to remove the opening post of a popular forum thread – now what? Do you delete all the replies that went with it? Ultimately, that’s your call. If the discussion was particularly popular, I would consider contacting those involved in the conversation to explain that you will be removing the opening post and it would be great if they could start a new thread to continue the discussion. You may be able to edit the opening post, remove the member name and content, and update it with a question or discussion point that is relevant to the consequent discussion. You may be able to completely remove the first post if the first reply makes enough sense to sustain the conversation – if not, try contacting the member that replied first, asking them to elaborate on their original post.

As you can see, it all gets very messy when you start deleting posts that have spawned conversations. That’s why I always recommend putting in a little extra effort to engage the member and try to get them to change their mind when they ask for their content to be removed.

Shared ownership

You want members of your online community to have a sense of shared ownership. They won’t feel like much of a stakeholder if you refuse to delete their content when they ask for that courtesy. Regardless of the scenario, if a member insists that their post is removed, I honour that request. At times I will try to change their minds, but ultimately I recognise and respect the fact that an individual who created content should really have the final say about its continued presence.

Delete all

If a member asks for ALL their posts to be removed, a different policy applies. It would be impossible to maintain the integrity of thousands of discussions if a prolific poster asks for all their content to be removed. Normally this happens when a member wishes to leave the community. In this case, I exercise the ownership rights from the terms of service, but I will offer the member the option to remove the member name associated with all their posts. That way, the member information is removed but the valuable content and discussions remain.

What’s your policy when it comes to ownership of member content in your online community?

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Nicole Price June 3, 2009 at 11:39 am

As usual, my perceptive is from the user’s point of view and I agree that your policy seems fair and one that I would have no problems following as a member.

Stephie June 3, 2009 at 1:52 pm

I agree with Nicole. Your policy is user and owner friendly, so that everyone have rights and ability to be equal member of your community.

P Tangney June 3, 2009 at 6:45 pm

We don’t remove content simply because a users ask us to do so. The user can decide to stop contributing to one of our news sites, but once they’ve added content it becomes part of our site.

Jonalyn June 3, 2009 at 10:22 pm

I agree that controversy can be good for your online community, and also can be bad. It is important to keep a very close watch on your community or it will fail.

Marian Boczek June 9, 2009 at 6:45 am

I remember in one of the communities I belonged to there was a guy who decided to delete all of his posts. As he was quite an active member admins did not allow it. He manualy edited each and every one of his posts to say “I left and I’m not coming back”. It was pretty weird.

Agent June 10, 2009 at 5:51 pm

I operate a couple communities but one is a bit different than the rest. It is composed of a forum and a guide section where players can write their own guides to the game and I upload them to the website. I make it clear in the forum’s terms and conditions that the opinions posted on the forum are that of the individuals posting them, not mine.

When a user writes a guide and it gets accepted to be uploaded to the website, the ownership becomes shifted from them to me. I of course give them full credit for writing it, but I won’t remove it on their request. These types of guides are vital to my community. Their forum posts, on the other hand, can be fully edited at any time. I try to get people not to remove their posts because it can really mess up a discussion if it’s suddenly a one person discussion, but allowing them the ability if they feel the need is a good touch.

I’ve never had a user request all his/her posts be removed, but I’d also assume the person wouldn’t want to go through hundreds or even thousands of posts to edit them all.

Joseph Bennett June 10, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Hey Marian, I can almost understand someone doing that, although it is definetly very weird. Out of spite no doubt heh.

Oh and thanks for the post Martin.

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 9:14 am

I only wish that I could count the number of times that we’ve had people threaten us, great post!

Jay July 9, 2009 at 7:10 pm

it’s hard to determine if someone should be able to delete their own posts. if posts are being moderated to begin with, anything offensive would get left off. otherwise, if you feel the need to post, it should stay. you can always follow up or reply if you wrote bad or remorseful information

Bethany Trinoble August 9, 2009 at 5:28 pm

I’ve been considering setting a limit on how long after a post is made that a user can edit it. We have one user who throws a tantrum and wants to remove years worth of his posts every now and then, when he’s told no he has a tendency to edit up to 50 posts to remove their content. Frustrating watching him decimate whole conversations, at the moment I’ve removed his editing abilities but do you think 12 hours is a big enough window for people to make all edits required before the post is locked?

Martin Reed - Community Manager August 13, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Bethany – It’s hard to say; remember that if you change your global settings you are affecting a lot of people in order to reduce the impact of just one person. I wonder if you could approach this member and see if you can resolve the root cause of the issue. Why do they feel the need to delete huge amounts of content on the odd occasion?

Tom August 13, 2009 at 4:23 pm

I tend to agree with Martin, as a former tantrum thrower on communities myself I think I can speak with some experience on the subject of editing/removing content ;)

The best way to handle this would be to PM them and ask them what’s wrong, in a calm and civil manner. If they send you abuse back, reply again – this time even calmer and enquire as to what the problem is.

While you’re doing this, he is busy replying to you – rather than editing/deleting his posts, and by the time you’ve finished PMing backwards and forwards he would mostly likely have calmed down!

This is the approach I take when someone says “I’m leaving forever!” or “I want my name deleted!” – I PM them and ask them what is wrong, if there’s anything I can do to help, and I talk to them.. not at them.. TO them.

After a while they simmer down and forget why they were so worked up in the first place.

I think it would be unethical to stop someone from deleting their own content completely. But there are steps such as the above you can take to minimize the chances of them resorting to do it.

Remember.. they are doing it to lash out, they’re doing it because they’re trying to tell you they’re unhappy, or angry, or hurtinig about something. So talk to them!

Paul November 17, 2009 at 2:57 pm

If someone is posting on your forum or community then it seems you own the content fully. If someone wants a post removed, you should just agree since it rarely happens.

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