Cleanup is an integral part of living online — so much so that some celebrities have deleted their accounts entirely, and politicians’ deleted tweets are meticulously tracked. And we’ve all had the moral hangover that comes when you remember that drunken Facebook post or overly emo tweet. But what ultimately compels us to go back and virtually purge? Communication researchers at Kent State University were curious, and set out to understand peoples’ motivations for deleting previously posted information.
In a new study, the researchers analyzed over 350 open-ended responses from bloggers — broadly defined as anyone that “actively engages and interacts with community members” (so anything from micro-blogs like Twitter to more traditional blogging platforms like Xanga) — to identify reasons for after-the-fact deletion or privacy adjustments, and the types of users that are compelled to do so.
“Our focus was really on ultimate post activity, recognizing that sometimes when people make choices, they still go back and decide their initial choice wasn’t all that wise,” Jeffrey Child, lead author of the study, told me.
Accounting for factors like gender, blog activity and general disinhibition, the researchers identified six types of user attitudes toward information disclosure: the self-centric, the utilitarian, the planner, the sharer, the protector and the unworried orientations blogger. Self-centric bloggers take the “I don’t give a f%$k” approach, whereas utilitarian types only post what they think is acceptable information. Planners put a lot of thought into every post, sharers don’t. The protector types rarely disclose any personal information, and the unworried orientations blogger is not easily embarrassed.
What’s interesting, though, is that people with initially more open attitudes toward sharing private information (the self-centrics, sharers and unworried bloggers) actually return to old posts and make deletions more than the private, protector-type users. This suggests that those with open attitudes toward sharing actually worry more about the ramifications of a post, and ultimately demonstrate a wider range of reasons for deleting posts after the fact.
The Seven Reasons for Deleting Previously-Posted Information:
3. 1. Conflict Management
Posts that reveals too much about someone else or discuss someone negatively — even Charlie Sheen — often get deleted.
4. 2. Protection of Personal Identity/Safety
Even though this wasn’t Justin’s phone number, he deleted the tweet with a prankster’s number shortly thereafter.
5. 3. Fear of Retribution
An exemplary “fear of retribution” post was Anthony Weiner’s infamous photo mishap, which was promptly deleted but never forgotten.
6. 4. Employment Security
People who post something that could jeopardize their job — i.e. getting “slizzard” while working at Red Cross — usually go back and delete that information.
7. 5. Impression Management
When people realize that posted information is inconsistent with the impression they want people to have, they’ll often delete it. Interestingly, this tweet from Ron Paul’s account was posted, deleted, and then re-posted.
8. 6. Emotional Regulation
The researchers describe this as a motive for deleting something posted “in a fit of passion,” or a moment of irrationality.
9. 7. Relational Cleansing
“When you break up with someone, people often find a lot of catharsis in deleting any evidence that the person existed. Digitally wiping them out,” says Child.
Managing conflict and protecting personal safety were the two most common reasons for deleting previously-posted information. Despite the prominence of celebrity gaffes, however, the typical blogger is much more thoughtful, cautious and proactive in weighing the types of information they disclose, says Child. They also tend to be more reflective on the repercussions of a post, adjusting or modifying privacy settings as they see fit.
“Most people don’t just put something online and never return to it, they actually reconsider the motive for why they were making that disclosure in the first place,” he says.
The study aimed to understand bloggers’ attitudes toward sharing private information and how they correspond with different motives for deletion. Utilitarian types, for example, tend to make deletions to regulate overly-emotional posts, whereas sharers make deletions more out of a fear of retribution. Understanding these differences might illuminate why “privacy mis-steps, miscalculations, and regretted disclosures” happen in the first place.
It’s funny how inclined we are to quickly delete anything mildly incriminating, rather than apologize or admit we screwed up. Even if it’s just a stupid typo or funny slip, trying to pretend it never happened is our first reaction — recognizing we’re human is an afterthought.