Today’s News Scrum Discussion: Why You Should Never Just Abandon An Online Community, by Jamie Condliffe at Gizmodo.
Condliffe’s quick-and-dirty analysis of today’s XKCD comic poses an interesting question about online etiquette in the social web world: When you leave a community, should you clean up after yourself? Condliffe thinks so:
Maybe you should do something about it. After all, it's like forgetting to get mail sent to your new address: there's a constant stream of information and news, slowly building up at your old place, that you'll never be party to ever again. And while it may mean nothing to you, it could be breaking somebody else's heart. You're better than that, right?
He makes a valid point. By choosing to use a service and connect with friends on it, you’re setting up relationships with people that mostly exist online, and in the context of that network. You should probably get used to using it. There are few things more annoying in the online world than a friend who misses all your parties because he doesn’t check Facebook messages, despite the fact that he’s been on the service since 2009.
The problem is, we don’t have a real online etiquette for un-using services. Maybe we need companies like Facebook and Twitter to start sending inactivity warnings to users who try to contact their idle friends. Or what about an "end of life" feature for social networks that helps you slowly wind down your activity, notifying friends that you’re leaving, posting updated contact info for you, and then eventually closing your profile?
A network that provided that kind of service for its users might actually encourage more active usership by ensuring that all of your current friends are active users instead of zombies. Until then, we should probably work on developing the same goodbye habits for friends on social networks we leave as we do for friends we leave behind when we move. Speaking of which, I’ve got an about.me inbox to clean up. — Gabe Stein
I love Gabe’s suggestion for an "end of life" feature for social networks because I’m the kind of guy that likes to keep an organized and tidy digital life. However, as helpful as such a feature would be, there is no way any social network will ever have a clean and clear "exit strategy" for its users. After all, social networks brag about numbers first and active users second.
But this XKCD does hit home on the social etiquette front. In the past I’ve noticed one less Facebook friend from time to time, and when I realized who it was the last time I got quite worried that I had offended them or done something terribly wrong to hurt our real-world friendship. But the next time I talked to them in person they said, "You thought I deleted you as a friend? No, I just closed down my Facebook account." A nice goodbye notification in this case would have avoided a lot of unnecessary grief. — Michael Grothaus
Does it take an old fart like Professor Walrus to point out that there is no debate, here, that Condliffe’s point is pointless (beyond the humor of such a suggestion)? Online social communities are NOT genuine communities, they are services; and rather faceless services at that! We observe certain social norms, netiquette, when using such services, because our posts become our online persona. This is a much more public persona than most of us would ever have managed in the days of telephones-with-cords and letters-on-paper-in-envelopes-with-stamps.
In those bad-old-days, if I affix a stamp to an envelope with your name on it and you fail to reciprocate in kind, that was either bad manners or a brush-off. If I ran a bunch of postcards through an addressing machine and sent very private and important time-sensitive material to every member of the Flat-Earth Society, I’d be lucky to get 0.01% of the members writing back to me. It’s a numbers game and the old social norms do not apply across the new social services.
Social Web Services are like junk-mail companies. The bigger their numbers, the more successful they are. Similarly, the "information" we generate while using such services pretty much amounts to junk mail. The value for us is in the interactions and much less so in the content. By all means, when you enter the room you’ll want to say hello with all the social grace you deem appropriate. When leaving, don’t even bother to close the door behind you. — Professor Walrus
I also like the "end of life" idea, which would be the digital equivalent of a forwarding address. Ideally, I would like to delete my account, leaving only the end of life message for a certain grace period until that also disappears. At the same time, I am not sure that this is a very serious problem. You should be in touch with most of your real friends via multiple channels, so if you stop using one, you won’t suddenly drop off the face of the Earth.
A related issue is what happens when some company buys your service/community and shuts it down or completely alters its nature. To quote from a recent interview with a developer who created a personal cloud:
I have seen so many services over the years where people people put in energy and effort and build their brand, their page and their content, and then it’s all gone. This Tumblr acquisition by Yahoo! or Posterous by Twitter and now Posterous is closing.
In this case, the effort you have put into building up relationships and contributing to a community was enabled by a service. You can’t buy a community, but you can buy a service.
I think Professor Walrus is contradicting himself a bit here. If there is human etiquette and context attached to sending letters, why doesn't interacting on a social network constitute participating in a community? It seems to me that ignoring a letter is similar to ignoring a DM on Twitter. That being said, I agree that leaving a social network doesn't have to be a big deal. As long as you notify the communities you are a part of, what does it matter if your ghost personas continue to float in cyberspace?
My real question about this XKCD comic is: Where is everybody going? I don't join social networks that I don't feel fairly committed to, and if I do, I don't make enough connections for it to matter if I am dormant for long periods of time. For example, I don't think any of my 18 Foursquare friends particularly notice my perpetual inactivity. And when my Facebook or Twitter connections have gone off the grid for a period or deactivated all together, they've always given some warning or I've been able to figure out that they were gone and not specifically ignoring me because their profile was . . . no longer there.
Whether we are over-invested in certain social networks is a different question. For example, the fact that pretty much everyone is on Facebook makes it difficult for any of us to leave without making certain sacrifices. As this Atlantic post from February puts it:
If we lose reliable obscurity protections, individuals and society as a whole will bear the cost. Forget Lolcats. We'll miss opportunities for self-expression, personal growth, learning, support, and civic exchange.
In terms of the etiquette of shutting the door, it seems like you should apply the same standards to social networks as you do anything else in your community sphere. Send or post a mass message about what's going on and then mosey. My 2003-2005 MySpace profile, may it rest in peace, eventually dissolved into the ether like my Friendster account and my Excite.com email. They all went away without incident, and to my knowledge no one thought I hated them. —Lily Hay Newman
[Image: Flickr user Matt Pratter]