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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?