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Editing: Is social media realtime or permanent?

As social media has (somewhat) matured, an interesting culture has grown up around the idea of editing social media content. And for reasons that I don’t understand, it isn’t one culture–it seems as though every kind of social media has developed its own culture around editing content. It is as if we can’t decide whether social media is a realtime force that is stream of consciousness and should never be changed, or it is a permanent record of activity that ought to be updated as it changes, or something in between. Some kinds of social media (Wikipedia) couldn’t exist without editing while others (Twitter) do not even allow editing. What gives?

Image via Wikipedia

To me, it shows both that we use different kinds of social media for different purposes (think Wikipedia vs. Twitter) but it also shows an ambivalence over what we expect social media to be. So, while it is perfectly reasonable for most people to say that Wikipedia is all about the editing–what we want to see is the latest groupthink on a subject–Wikipedia also contains an exhaustive revision history for every page for transparency into how the page has evolved over time.

But most social media venues fall far short of that kind of transparency. As the founder of the Biznology blog, I struggle with exactly how to handle edits. Very frequently, I see typos, broken links, or other problems crop up on blog pages–sometimes freshly-minted posts and sometimes posts from years ago–and I usually just change them without documenting the changes. One exception is when a commenter points out an error–then I thank the commenter and note that the change has been applied.

Now, if there is a substantive error–a fact is wrong or a breaking story needs to be updated–I change the post and clearly mark that it was updated, along with the date it was changed. This has evolved as the way to edit posts in the blogging world. But I struggle as to when to do that. I have many posts that give advice that is now outdated because it was good advice in 2006, but not terribly relevant now. Those posts are still out there and they come up in search results. Often, much of the post is still good advice so I am not sure I should remove the posts, but some of the advice is not helpful. Should I go back and edit those? There is no clear blogging editing norm for outdated posts.

How about YouTube? Mostly videos don’t get edited. They just sit out there forever and you can upload a new video if you want to cover the same subject again. Does that make sense? I don’t know.

But social networks are my favorite. Facebook and Twitter allow no editing at all. So, you can post something that gets retweeted a hundred times and notice there is a huge, dumb typo in it and you can’t change it. You are forced to leave it out there or to delete the tweet. How many stories have you read about someone tweeting something embarrassing where the offending tweet has been deleted by the time the story runs, leaving you with the obligatory screen shot of the rogue tweet to prove that it really happened, because Twitter now has no record of the exchange. There is something wrong when the most newsworthy things that happen are lost to history. Bloggers can take down their own content also, so it’s not just Twitter and Facebook, but bloggers could edit a post to add an apology and they can answer comments with new comments.

Google+, ostensibly the same type of social media as Twitter and Facebook, does allow editing. While Google+ has not caught on yet, I think that Google will stick with it until it finds a following, so it will be interesting to see if people take advantage of being able to edit an embarrassing Google+ post, and how transparent they will be as they do it. Does Google show everyone that you edited your post? Or, like blogging, is it up to you how transparent you are?

Message boards are equally schizophrenic. Some do not allow any editing of posts. Some allow editing whenever you want. Some allow editing, but only within a short window and then the post becomes permanent. As with blogging, it’s up to you as to how transparent you are about your changes.

One of the reasons editing is so important is that social media often starts a conversation. If I write something and ten people start talking about it, then is it reasonable for me to edit my original post even if it makes the conversation that already exists look weird?  Wikipedia hosts a discussion about improving the page which obviously becomes outdated as those improvements are adopted, but at least you can look at the version of the page that people were talking about if you want to.

I don’t know what the answer is here, but it strikes me that as social media ages, we’ll need to make conscious decisions about which content needs to survive for years and create a record of what happened, which content needs to be updated to remain accurate, and which ought to be deleted as too ephemeral to be relevant. And all of it needs a transparent method of editing it. Where is a good historian when you need one? Calling all archivists and librarians: Big opportunity here…

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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