Deleted Does Not Mean Gone Forever

By Michelle Boule | Most of us know that things, once put online, have a way of remaining online, no matter how hard we try to delete them or forget them for that matter. In May of 2009, Jacqui Cheng of Ars Technica started an experiment to see how quickly deleted photos were deleted from social networking sites. In the original article, Twitter and Flickr both came out on top, with deleted content actually being deleted in seconds. Even direct URLs to content came back broken. Facebook and MySpace did not do as well.

Cheng has been keeping an eye on the photo and now, 16 months later, the photo is still accessible.  With the URL to the photo in hand, it is still viewable despite having been deleted almost 2 years ago. The problem is that a residual copy of photos stay around on Facebook’s CDN, Content Delivery Network, long, long after it has been deleted everywhere else.

In an email, Simon Axten of Facebook stated that, “...the person would have to know the URL, and the photo only exists in the CDN's cache for a limited amount of time. We're working with the CDN to reduce the amount of time that the photo remains in its cache."

There are two main problems with this response. As the article on Ars Technica points out, almost 2 years is not a “limited amount of time.” The second problem is that people save online content by saving links. We bookmark things, we tag things in Delicious, and we save emails with URLs we might need later. URLs are how we find things, so saying that only people with the URL can view a photo is like saying anyone who owns a book can read that book. No kidding.

Since the Ars Technica piece a few days ago, which caused a bit of a firestorm, Facebook has come out saying they are diligently working on fixing the lag time with their CDN. They deleted the picture that Cheng “deleted” in May 2009 from the CDN. The problem is that not everyone has a national platform for getting their photos deleted. The bottom of the Ars Technica article has some other examples from ordinary people who have not been so lucky.

What does this mean for libraries?

A few things, actually.

If your library is on Facebook, and many of them are, be mindful of what goes up. Most of us know this already, but especially when photos of patrons are included in our pages, we should use some extra caution. There are plenty of people out there in the world who do not want their pictures up online and they are perfectly willing to create a big scene if we slap one of them up. Pictures of kids, even in public areas, in public buildings, are always a tricky thing. Just be open with your patrons if you are going to photograph an event and then put the pictures online. Give them fair warning of your intent. I know some libraries and other organizations that work with kids often ask parents to sign a photo release before events. As a parent, I have signed a few myself.

As librarians, we work with our community and that community may be students and staff at a college, people in a geographical area, a business, or a school. Whatever our community, it is a guarantee that some, many, or all of the people you serve are on or have been on Facebook. This means we have some educating to do. People should be aware of how their content is stored online so they can protect themselves and make good decisions about what they put online. Your library may already have classes in which this type of information can be easily added. You may consider creating a class, a tutorial, adding the information to your Facebook page (or your library’s), or Twittering the original story. Whatever your method, just do what we librarians do best, spread information around.

As individuals, we can strive to make good choices and be good examples.

Deleted does not mean gone. It just means you have to look a little harder for it.