The recent fracas over the Facebook terms of use revision, user revolt, then re-revision raises interesting questions about who owns community content?

The company paying to warehouse it? The person who uploads it? The whole community? No one has it figured out, and there’s a range of opinions. My sense is that it’s a reasoned, practical combination of all three.

I’m no defender of exploiting users. It’s bad for business and all round inexcusable, especially when there are smart alternatives. My perfect world is filled with innovative, collaborative business models between enablers and communities that gives commerce, passion and citizenship equitable weighting (and spawn a new economy of awesome t-shirts and life changing micro-loans, among other things).

But I feel for Facebook. I’m not convinced they did anything wrong and I’m impressed at their prompt response to user backlash. I know what it’s like when users turn on you, and they often forget there’s real people pulling the levers behind the curtain.

Most major online communities have sweeping licences granting them expansive rights and privileges with user content. You know them – those catch all, perpetual, give us your first-born, ominous sounding agreements that make you grimace, but you sign off on anyhow.

There are some good, fair reasons for these terms. If you’re sinking considerable investment into building and resourcing a digital enclave, you have a stake in the content people publish within it. I’d argue you’re entitled to benefit from it.

User content as public history

You also need to preserve collective rights to content, and the shape of these should be dictated by the nature of that community.

The custodians of an online community dedicated to sharing advice or answering questions cannot reasonably permit every user to delete and remove every one of their contributions from that community if that user leaves. The purpose of the community collapses, discussions would be irreparably cannabalised and the greater harmony compromised.

User content is part of the public history of your community, and I’d argue every community member has a stake in its preservation, and a right to access.

A community devoted to artists uploading and selling their creations mandates different preservational groundrules. A social network like Facebook (a cluster of sub-communities) probably demands yet another approach.

Remember too that even ‘amateur’ communities are often bound by content policies – seen or unseen. A user run fan community on a popular blogging or community platform may not have its own EULA or licence agreement, but they are beholden to the terms of the site they exist upon, and whatever that site has to say about the content they upload.

How do you treat content in your community? As a community member, how would you prefer your contributions be treated? And as a Community Manager, how does this debate impact your mediative role between organisation and users?

I don’t buy into conspiracy theories about Facebook making an underhanded content grab and I’m loathe to second guess them.  Generally speaking, they were levelling the playing field with their competitors, who don’t offer the ‘expire upon exit’ clause. The battles they fight with spam, scams and other disruptive user behaviour may have forced them to pivot on ToU to retain data for legal purposes. Either way, it’s not the end of the world, nor even Facebook as we know it.

Where Facebook did fall down was talking to users before and during the update. For whatever reasons (and I won’t presume to know them), the amendment occured with minimal deliberative fanfare and apparently no attention to managing user complaints or queries around that change. I will assume they were worried about creating an uncessary panic or fuss. Clearly, that didn’t work.

If they had only handled the language amendment as they did the rollout of their new layout. That change generated considerable blowback, but the Facebook team went out of their way to signpost when, where and how things were occuring, talked to people along the way, and even gave users the chance to wean themselves into the new environment.

The wrong fight

The dramatic reactivity to the notion Facebook suddenly owned personal data was intriguing to me.  The outcry suggested a wide-spread sense that ‘something’ significant had changed or transformed; that this step was unexpected, frightening and signalled a troubling precedent. Surely this is dangerously naive. The precedents are everywhere already. Facebook is a soft, lazy target.

Are we worried about unflattering photos living long and large online? Or a serious threat to privacy and dominion? Conflating the two infantilises the argument.


Social networks are not our parents. They are made and run by people with goals that include making money.  Those agendas, and the leadership that sets their course, can change on market whim.  As they change, a particular ethos or attitude to user generated content can be rewritten. Ideally, companies adopt a forward thinking roadmap and forge fair, reciprocal, collaborative relationships with their users (evidence suggests this is better for eveyone). But many aren’t, and won’t.

One blogger cuts to the quick: if you were honestly worried about companies grabbing at your content in the wild, why are you publishing a relentless stream of intimacies to indexable social network warehouses? And I would add, are the people who were furious about the Facebook terms in any way disturbed by the data other digital entities aggregate and own about them? (Google, as an obvious example).


Furor is good. It’s activated and engaged. It means you’re paying attention to the epic changes to information and society going on around you. I’m for an empowered, wised up cyber-citizenry, but I’d prefer to see the energy directed at the bigger issue: a handful of companies will own and manage a great gob of our personal data in coming years. Are we ok with this? What do we need to agitate for now to ensure something truly damaging doesn’t occur?

Let’s focus on making sure that, as businesses aggressively pursue the monetising might of social capital, they don’t lose sight of those investing the capital.


6 thoughts on “The ‘O’ word

  1. There is definitely a certain stupidity in the way FB decided to handle things, but I think people’s reactions were way OTT. It’s definitely the ‘O’ word. I know better, and it was still jarring to read at first, but then logic took over. Realistically, what is FB going to do differently?

    I think one of the interesting contrasts between FB and the data management companies you referred to is accessibility. It’s not only that FB is an easy target, it’s a comprehensible target. I don’t think people are able to consider the idea of a large company that manage their personal data. It is too indirect, too behind-the-scenes. As you said, it is easier to rally against something that we interact with everyday and can specifically target. Really, can most people name such a data management company? Is there a centralised forum in which people can protest?

    Though FB instituted (and rescinded) this new rule, they were very helpful in providing the means that brought about its demise.

  2. Also, and this may just be me, I think there is a certain arrogance to people’s reactions. In this era of everyone getting their 15 min, people freaked out that FB was going to do something with the photos or whatnot that they posted and profit. It came down to ‘What are they going to do with MY stuff?’ It seems that some people frame it as a personal issue rather than one of principle.

    Honestly, does anyone see FB publishing a book of random middle school photos culled from alumni groups? Not likely.

  3. Great points Beth. There is definately a vanity bubbling away here. A generation of self-publishers and content creators are born and amplified, without the process or rigor to filter out the inane 🙂

    Obviously it’s different if you’re publishing content that you hope or expect to derive income from – a photographer publishing samples in FB, for example. Can of worms…

    We’ve been discussing this in the Online Community Manager group on LinkedIn. There’s a variety of perspectives on the issue, including ‘community buy in equals a legal and regulatory minefield’, and ‘community members need to be responsible when clicking ToS’.

    The delightful Gail Williams, Director of Communities @Salon.com also points to the equitable (and relatively unique) terms of The Well: http://www.well.com/member_agreement.html

    “The WELL… is a passive service for storage and dissemination of the works that WELL members may choose to post and distribute via The WELL”. She points out that not selling ads against community content may make a difference here.

  4. When members ask me to delete their accounts, I tell them they can set their profile to private. As a community manager who is responsible for culling content and creating long-tail content with user-generated material, I depend heavily on contributions from others and cannot let them arbitrarily delete items that may be part of larger projects like image galleries, recipe galleries, photo galleries, movie reviews or other content I’ve created using their contributions. Now, it is clear in our guidelines that we can and will reuse their contributions as we see fit so it is known from the beginning. And you’re right, users do revolt and they do it with a vengeance. I just had a big revolt last week that has finally died down, But you stand your ground, be transparent with your answers and hope for the best.

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