Am I Still a Bench?
Creative Commons License photo credit: mikecogh

Once in a while, a member will contact me and ask me to delete all of their posts on my forums, as well as their account. If you’ve run forums for any measure of time, you’ve probably received a request like this. Recently, Jeremiah Hester asked how I handled these matters, so I thought I’d write about it.

Mass Deleting Posts

One of the things that makes online forums special is the fact that they are shared spaces. This means that when someone contributes, their contribution directly impacts the contributions of others. There are no walls or profiles, no individual areas where you have to opt-in to a specific person (at least, not usually and not in a way that outweighs the shared spaces). There is simply a space that everyone shares.

How relevant is a post? How valuable is it? How enjoyable is it for the person who made the post and for those reading it? This is all affected by the posts that surround it. If you remove 10,000 posts from a forum, 100,000 posts and 10,000 members might be affected in a negative way.

If posts made by a member are simply mass deleted, with no discretion, it is very harmful. It harms the community, as a whole, because it lowers the value of other contributions, some of which are the reason that the deleted posts exist in the first place. It harms the community’s history, erasing data and making the community appear smaller than it actually is. It harms the owner of the community, who facilitated something that the member had derived value from, potentially for years, prior to requesting deletion.

Worst of all, it harms the people who interacted with the member, who wrote posts that will now either be removed or be less relevant and appear to make no sense in the context of the threads they are posted on.

Deleting Accounts

Account deletion is problematic because of how it messes with documentation and your database. When you delete the account, even if you leave the posts, the posts may lose association with a member account, meaning that they are marked as guest posts – no member made them, they simply exist. This makes it impossible to, in the future, look back on those posts and know what account made them.

This can really hurt your ability to look back on documentation related to that member, should you ever need to do so. I am a big fan of preserving documentation to ensure that no matter what happens, a year from now, 10 years from now, I can look back and know exactly what that member did, how we handled it, why we banned them, etc. It creates consistent moderation, allows you to know you did the right thing regarding them member and aides you in deciding if and when to unban people. It removes the failings of memory and the passage of time.

What’s the Middle Ground?

For these reasons, I don’t simply mass delete posts or delete accounts upon request. I can’t allow my community to be harmed in that manner. But, I also want to work with people to, ideally, find a solution that makes everyone happy.

With accounts, I don’t delete them, but what I do offer is account closure. This means that the username is changed to something non-descriptive, like username12345. The profile fields (email address, instant messenger names, website URLs, avatars, etc.) are cleared. The account is blocked from further usage (banned) and the member can no longer use it, as it is no longer tied to them or identifiable to them. They cannot sign up for a new account in the future and, once completed, the action is irreversible. This is to separate people who want to actually leave from those who just want attention and to waste my time (and harm the community repeatedly) by joining and then making me delete their existence, over and over again.

I explain all of this to the member and ask them to confirm that they want me to move forward with it. Once confirmed, the request is processed with all of the details documented.

Regarding posts, while I won’t simply blindly remove a mass amount of posts, I am happy to work with people on any sensitive or identifying information. I simply ask them what their concerns are and how I can help, while minimizing the damage to the people who replied to their posts. Maybe they said something that, in hindsight, they wish they hadn’t in one post and it is harming them in some way in their personal life. Maybe they posted a picture of their son or daughter that they don’t want on the forums. In those cases, I’m happy to help and simply to remove the sensitive posts in question.

From a legal perspective, it is useful to include in your guidelines or terms of service that, by submitting content, the member grants you a “perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license” to publish the content they submit (like this one). This means that you can publish it on your website, but the member who posted it still owns it and can reproduce it at their discretion. I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice, so you may want to have a chat with qualified counsel.

The goal, with requests like this, is to be both understanding and helpful to legitimate concerns and also protective of your community.