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When a user requests deletion on a Q&A site, the resulting process will delete their profile page and all associated content, and subsequently anonymize all of their posts and comments (except for negatively voted stuff which is deleted). This allows the content of questions and answers to remain for future readers who have the same problem to find it, while properly dissociating it from the original author.

What we don't properly handle at the moment is handling chat content. Chat content, to make sure people haven't forgotten, is generally completely public and even indexed by search engines - it's essentially just as accessible as the rest of the content of our sites. Chat is a slightly different kind of content from posts, though, in that it is very back-and-forth and conversational. It is much closer to comments.

How do you think we should handle requests for the removal of chat content? There are two cases to consider:

  1. A user requests removal of all of their chat content. Do we just anonymize it all, do we delete every message posted by the user, or something in between or different altogether?
  2. A user requests deletion of only a single site's Q&A account (and not other sites). Do we take action on all their contributions to chat rooms associated directly to that site, and if so, as with the first concern, what kind of action should be taken?

We had a short discussion on this internally and here were some of the salient points brought up.

  • The current behavior for deleting a chat user causes all of that user's chat messages to be deleted instantly.
  • Except for SO/MSO, remember that a chat user is independent from each site account. Deleting a site account does not directly affect the chat user in any way besides possibly breaking the current association.
  • If a user flags his or her own message in chat and requests its removal, we oblige it and delete that individual post. Chat content doesn't have as high a necessity for preservation as Q&A.
  • That said, when we delete a user on a site, comments are only anonymized, they are not deleted. In a consistency fashion, it would make sense to carry the same philosophy and simply bulk anonymize chat content.
  • No matter what is done, transcripts will be wonked. Anonymization or deletion, things may become weird to follow because of missing messages or because of nonmatching names. While it's at least reasonable to delete someone's posts upon their request, asking for all traces of your existence to be wiped from others' posts borders on insanity.

Since this has a lot to do with what the end-user expects and needs with regards to the removal of chat content (either through dissociation, deletion, or other means), then it seems to make sense to ask, indeed, what does the end-user expect and need? What do you feel would be the proper procedures with regards to handling requests for removing a chat user and his or her content?

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Another possibility: delete all chat posts, but add a placeholder indicating there used to be a comment there (but not what it was). –  Servy Oct 31 '12 at 21:04
    
I believe a user can delete their own chat posts manually, even after an extended period of time, yes? If they could delete them all manually couldn't you consider having SO actually delete everything to be just a time saver, rather than new functionality. Questions, on the other hand, can't (often) be manually deleted even if the poster tried; they could only be anonymized unless the community thinks it should be deleted. –  Servy Oct 31 '12 at 21:13
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@Servy Non-moderator users can only delete chat messages within a two minute window. –  Tim Stone Oct 31 '12 at 21:17
    
Does SE maintain that chat messages are licensed via CC-BY-SA as well? –  user149432 Nov 1 '12 at 2:59
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@Mark Yes. To quote the FAQ, albeit buried under the less-than-obvious "Be Nice" section: "All conversations here are public, and they are logged and licensed under the same cc-wiki license as The Stack Exchange Network." –  Grace Note Nov 1 '12 at 4:31
    
The current current behavior of "destroy user" in chat seems to not delete their messages. The messages are marked with the same username, with no gravatar (and no link to a profile) –  Manishearth Feb 16 '13 at 4:45
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3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

We now have the ability to (mostly) anonymize chat messages.

There is a new "anonymize messages" button available to chat moderators under "moderation tools" from a chat user's profile.

Here's what will happen when it's used:

  • All of the user's messages and all posting and editing events will be anonymized. This means in the transcript and in the message history, it'll say "userXXXX" with a generic avatar and no user link. XXXX will be replaced with the user's chat ID. This is basically the same behaviour as what happens to questions, answers, and comments when we delete a site user.
  • Any conversations the user had bookmarked (if any) will have the authorship removed, i.e. it'll say "bookmarked September 5th", without "by username".
  • If any messages are still visible in someone's chat window, they will not change until the window is reloaded.
  • Everything that has this user's chat ID on it will be deleted. In particular, if you still have an @reply message from that user in the "replies" tab of your profile, it will be gone. The message will still exist, but the fact that it replies to you will be purged.
  • Replies to messages posted by this user will be unchanged. (That is, we won't attempt to clean up references to the display name in messages by other users.)

The chat profile isn't automatically deleted when messages are anonymized this way.

Moderators can do the honours for users with less than 1,000 messages. If you're a more prolific chatter and would like your messages anonymized, give us a shout using the "contact us" link in the footer of any page instead.

We also have the ability to make the messages more anonymous by replacing display names with "Anonymous" instead of the user slug, so if that extra step is needed for whatever reason, contact us as well.

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Std. disclaimers apply: if you're posting stuff on The Internet, don't assume you can put the genie back in the bottle. We might delete or anonymize your messages as a courtesy, but these are public chat rooms and anyone on the 'Net can scrape, index, archive, spindle or mutilate as they please and if they snag something of yours you regret posting, there's not a lot we can do about it. If you don't want it in the public record, don't say it in public. –  Shog9 Dec 3 '12 at 22:32
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In my opinion:

  • We shouldn't treat chat accounts any differently from per-site user profiles. Users who want their (for example) Android account deleted but NOT their Stack Overflow account are obliged fairly regularly. Beyond that, chat is well-defined third space in our network. It is its own separate entity and has its own rules and account pages. We should treat it just as we would treat any other user profile.
  • Chat deletions are no different from when we do exceptional deletions/disassociations on the sites. Deleting individual lines from a chat transcript isn't fundamentally or functionally different from this.
  • Frankly, transcripts are almost useless as is. The handful of times I search chat, it's to recover an image (search "imgur") or to find a salient thing a specific user had said (usually Shog9) for reference.
  • When comments are anonymized, the @-replies in comments aren't anonymized in the current behavior. Anonymizing chat messages would have the same effect, which is fine.

Most users who request account/profile deletions are made aware that we continue to have the infinite license to their content. Chat is no different. I say we should anonymize chat contributions and ONLY delete a chat account when a user specifically requests it.

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Can you clarify what your first bullet point would mean in practice for the chat account? Are you saying that if one wants their SO account removed, they should get to keep my chat account if they want? –  Pëkka Oct 31 '12 at 21:14
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@Pekka Correct. Chat is kept separate (except for account associations). If a user has a chat account and only an SO account, we shouldn't delete their chat account. (Deleting their SO account will boot them from chat anyway.) –  Aarthi Oct 31 '12 at 21:21
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Bulk anonymize chat content.

The slight weirdness when reading transcripts á la

Pekka: Hi Pierre, where are you flying from?

user10249309294: Paris

is already something we are used to from questions and comments, and is the least painful option IMO.

Bonus points option: bulk anonymize chat content and all @user references where possible to provide total anonymity.

As to how accounts should be handled - I guess if I request removal from Stack Overflow, then my Stack Overflow chat account should be removed as well, by default, but not my gardening account.

Is that technically feasible at all?

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Part of the problem here is that, because people often name each other while chatting, changing the username doesn't actually, "anonymize " their content. –  Servy Oct 31 '12 at 21:10
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@Servy yup, that is true. It's the same with comments though, and if SE, Inc. is comfortable doing it there.... –  Pëkka Oct 31 '12 at 21:11
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the bonus thing would be... risky. Deleting an account named "Tim" or "Mic" could cause a lot of collateral damage! –  Shog9 Oct 31 '12 at 22:04
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@Shog hence "where possible"... ie. only where you're replying to a post using :postid –  Pëkka Oct 31 '12 at 22:05
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