Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Can you be deft with delete? Erasing the record in social media

That delete button's awfully easy to use--in fact, some social platforms help you out by automatically deleting certain drafts and other types of posts. But even without the help, the penchant for erasing or editing the record is a powerful reflex, and it's commonplace to see people deleting errant tweets, Facebook status updates, photos, and videos.

I use "see" for a reason, because no matter how stealthy you are, those deletions are in large part visible--which makes social deletions a double-edged sword. Sure, they get rid of the primary record, and to some, I think social media has an ephemeral feel. But other evidence lives on, and people are watching, able to serve as witnesses to the original. Under the microscope of social media, there's a whole lotta flinching going on when deletions are discovered.

I've been collecting string on deletions for some time. Here's the state of play I'm seeing, and I'd love for you to add some evidence in the comments:

The tweet, deleted

Maybe because they're short, or easy to send quickly, or reactive in nature, errant tweets are often deleted, for reasons as small as a typo and as large as a very public faux pas. But in the society around social media, deleting tweets is frowned upon, a blunt tool used where an apology, explanation or just plain silence would do.

The urge to delete tweets isn't unusual or limited to one group. Even editors at the New York Times have been known to delete staffer tweets they found inappropriate. Among Inc. magazine's top 12 list of social media blunders in 2011, misfired tweets (and some ham-handed deletions) made the list. Another high-profile whoops-deletion came from a Komen executive who posted, then deleted a tweet with a pointed, offensive comment about Planned Parenthood during the dust-up over the cancer charity's decision to cut off  funding to Planned Parenthood--a case of personal feeling overcoming a professional mien.  And presidential candidate Mitt Romney's new spokesperson went on a tweet-deleting binge the day after his appointment was announced. Jezebel blog kept track, as reporters are wont to do:
While he's done some writing on his personal site (which has since been taken down, but major props for using GoDaddy.com for hosting), the majority of his inflammatory comments were made on Twitter. On Friday (the day after his hiring was announced), his Twitter feed showed 7,577 tweets. By yesterday morning, he was down to 6,759 tweets. That's a little over 800 tweets he doesn't want us to see anymore—despite the fact that he once thought they were fit to post in a very public place.
Noted Internet researcher Danah Boyd, who had harrassing comments projected in a live Twitterstream behind her while she gave a keynote, had no documentation left when the harrassers deleted their tweets--but documented it in a forthright blog post, herself. This kind of deletion can be the most damaging kind, causing many users to question the victim of the attacks simply because the Twitterstream was changed by the deletions and no evidence remained.

Despite the apparent urge to correct via the delete button, there are more honest and well-received alternatives if you want to avoid committing two errors at once. In journalism (and perhaps for your communications office), when you need to make a factual correction to an errant tweet, the standard these days is to retweet the error with its correction--without deleting the error. Yes, you might take some hits, but you'll avoid the backlash that comes with attempting to erase what has already been seen--and the chance are very good that your deletions will get plenty of attention, and not the good kind.

Discovering deletes: Other media

Facebook status updates might be next in line for most-frequently deleted. In What would you do about this Facebook post?, a small-business owner thinks through what to do about an employee's disgruntled status update on Facebook, and gets some "leave it alone" advice from an HR expert. But if you look at the link above for the biggest social blunders of 2011, you'll find plenty of issues involving Facebook deletions, from ill-thought-out posts to issues around deleting angry comments from consumers on corporate announcements. And guess what? When you delete their comments, commenters take to their own platforms to report the deletion, sometimes making more of a splash than would the original comment.

Deletions in other kinds of media are being handled or discovered for you by technology, providing evidence in some cases. In some jurisdictions, video of police interactions with citizens are being taken with tiny cameras worn by officers. The video cannot be deleted while it remains in the camera. And YouTube will give you a heads-up when videos that you've added to a playlist are deleted, whether by the person posting them or due to copyright violations--in effect, a direct heads-up that perhaps someone thought differently about that video.

Recovering deletes

Recovery of emails can be important in legal and journalistic investigations, in which your internal business goes public. OneShar.es lets you email information that self-destructs after one viewing. Co-founder and CTO Jerry Thompson says "with the amount of free space offered by Gmail and other services, there’s little reason or incentive to actually delete these emails.” And the new Google Apps Vault is changing how emails get saved, searched and later deleted:
Gmail business customers are about to get some help. Google Apps Vault lets IT staff set make sure that all relevant emails are stored forever, then gives them an easy way to search those emails. Before, staffers would have had to download each user's inbox to a new location and search all of them manually -- and even then, users might have deleted potentially incriminating emails. Vault also lets IT staff set policies for when an email should be deleted. For instance, when an employee leaves the company, Vault could be set to automatically delete all emails to and from that employee within 90 days. That could be useful because Gmail (unlike traditional email systems) is designed to store everything forever.
In many cases, delete isn't as all-powerful an option as you may think. Deleted Facebook photos remain cached, for example. Even those deleted tweets don't disappear entirely, particularly direct messages, which can be found and published by third-party apps to which you've given permission. So much for off-the-record tweets.

Do you have a policy about how your company or organization handles deletions on social media? Is it clear to everyone who's posting? I'd love to hear about policies you use in the comments.

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