You've been there before. Maybe it was a fleeting observation or a comment you decided was better left unsaid. Whatever the reason, you decided not to hit Post after typing a status update or a comment on a friend's photo.
Reports swirled last month that Facebook was spying on its users by collecting these unpublished posts. The social network addressed concerns over the weekend by saying it does not save the content of these messages.
In December, a Facebook data scientist and a former company intern published a report on the topic of self-censorship among Facebook users. The researchers examined 3.9 million Facebook users over a 17-day period and found that 71% of users "self-censored" at least once. These users reportedly typed posts, status updates, or comments but deleted the text instead of publishing them.
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According to the report, content was tracked only if the user typed at least five characters. Identifiable information was not linked to the activity of users who were tracked. "Content of self-censored posts and comments was not sent back to Facebook's servers: Only a binary value that content was entered at all."
Charlene Li, partner and founder of Altimeter Group, told us that shouldn't concern users. "Facebook wants to know what it is that encourages and discourages people to post and what the tipping points are that make users start writing, then stop," she said. "For example, whether it's something in the user interface." Nevertheless, an online petition calls for Facebook to put an end to the practice and says its actions are a breach of privacy. The petition has amassed more than 28,000 signatures.
Facebook has said it is no longer tracking users' unpublished posts, though the technology to do so is reportedly still available. Tracking users, such as in this instance, is covered by Facebook's Data Use Policy. "We receive data about you whenever you use or are running Facebook, such as when you look at another person's timeline, send or receive a message, search for a friend or a Page, click on, view or otherwise interact with things," the social network says in the section "Information we receive and how it is used."
"The fact is that if you're posting to Facebook, the actual posts themselves have so much more meaning and value to Facebook," Li said. "That's what's really important to them -- your relationships, your comments -- those are how Facebook learns more about your interests. If users are uncomfortable with that, then [tracking unpublished posts] is the least of your worries."
Senior editor Kristin Burnham covers social media, social business, and IT leadership and careers for InformationWeek.com. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @kmburnham.