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If I leave, everything I've said will still be there and attributable to me long after my views might have changed

Sometimes you move on and exercise your RightToLeave a community or a locality. In MeatSpace, people eventually forget what you said and did, unless you erected monuments. In other words, our real self is gradually dissociated from the idea people in a community have of us. Conversely, in our new home we have a fresh start: people generally won't start calling our old home area to find out about us.

This is not so on an OnlineCommunity: wiki pages are always "fresh", forums and UseNet keep archives. It's impossible to tell a still-held belief from a once-held one. Furthermore, when we arrive in a new place in MeatSpace, people there don't generally know all about what we did and said in the past, which is something we have grown used to since the mass urbanization of society (previously, village life was more invasive). The internet being easily searchable, in CyberSpace our reputation may precede us. Conversely, our past follows us.

A peculiarity of OnlineCommunity is that context is often lost while words remain (ContextSwizzling). UseNet archives, for example, are notoriously spotty, due to propagation problems contemporaneous with the original posting, X-No-Archive headers, and retroactive deletions by others. Thus, the context of the original post is often unavailable, and even if present, may not be researched by all readers. On wikis, the most important contributions are most likely to be revised by future editors, while the irrelevant and uninteresting remains in its original form, ascribed to its original author.

Therefore, before contributing to a community, ensure that you have the right to vanish. You can PostAnonymously, or post via a disposable PenName (creating a new pen name for each community), or via a name that is likely to be very common (just initials, just first name, etc): all these things discourage SerialIdentity.

If you have contributed with your RealName, or a longstanding pen name, you can retroactively gain the right to vanish by performing some RemoveIdentity reworking: de-signing and anonymising your former contributions, or working them into DocumentMode replacements, or simply removing them - in extremes, this becomes a WikiMindWipe. An alternative on many online communities is to effect a username change on departure to some appropriate pseudonym ("anonymous former contributor", Wiki:SamGentle, WikiPedia:user:H.J., etc).

On your personal website or WebLog, this is easier still: delete the site. If you want to be thorough, ask the InternetArchive? to delete their archives of your site.

But, AvoidIllusion. In the former solution, it is easy to slip up and compromise your anonymity, or to grow attached to your PenName such that you no longer consider it disposable. In the latter solution, you can only vanish if the community consents. In many cases, rather than vanishing completely, you should be content to become significantly less visible: PracticalObscurity.

Note that, just as by moving house is expensive and inconvenient, the same is often true online: you probably won't be able to vanish on a whim, and this isn't a ReversibleChange.


People change. Communities change. Risks change. Technologies change. Societies change.

People change. I no longer want to be associated with the community I once joined. The Amish do not permit themselves to be photographed. Like an online contribution, a photograph captures a moment in time, and the photograph's subject goes on to become someone else over the course of days, months, and years. So too it is with online communities. I am no longer the person I was ten years ago, and I will never be him again, for I have grown, and jettisoned those character traits which I did not want and taken up others. So the fires of Pentecost burn within us all, whether we realize it or not, and we change. Absent the RightToVanish, we are shackled to our former selves.

Even in the real world, people will often seek to vanish after major life changes: divorce, bereavement, bankruptcy, a change of sex, being convicted of some crime, and so on.

Communities change. I no longer want to be associated with the community I'm now in.

Risks change: both actual risks, and the perception of risks. Perhaps I've had a run-in with a stalker, and I no longer feel safe here (WhatIsaStalker, UserStalking). Another thing that can significantly increase risk is becoming well-known, and thus in the public eye. For most people being boring is a good defence of their privacy, but celebrities lose that protection.

Technologies change. Perhaps when I joined I had PracticalObscurity, but new features such as a WritersLog or a better search engine have reduced that. It's important to think about ways to allow users to opt out of new features that impair their effective privacy.

Codes of conduct change. In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1950, it was not only permitted but expected that white persons would be racist. A nonracist white person was an affront to community mores. Speech and behavior from the time reflected this, and many casual conversations and events would be offensive to a present-day observer. A more recent example is the change in attitudes regarding homosexuality in the last ten years. Many orientation-based casual comments or insults from 1990 would be widely viewed as inappropriate today. For contributors who have produced a good deal of commentary, scores upon scores of posts, it is likely that casual comments are present that, though "edgy" in their time, are clearly out of bounds today. There are two things communities can do: 1) preserve TemporalContext, so that the date and thread context of a post are clear; 2) seperate permanent content from ephemeral discussion.

Language changes. Hacker, for example, was slang for a computer programmer with peculiar skill and an interest in operating systems; the term was co-opted by the popular press in around 1983 and has meant "one who engages in penetration of computer security" ever since (though vestiges of the original meaning remain). Of particular relevance is euphemism shift: words that start off as being polite euphemisms for more offensive ones, and slowly become offensive in their own right. Thus the same speech that is viewed as politically correct in the 1960s may be viewed as deeply offensive in the 2000s. Crippled => Handicapped => Disabled -- Feebleminded => Mentally Retarded => Special Needs.

Children grow up. Children experiment whilst finding their own nature and often struggle with coming to terms with what they use to be. This is accepted in UK law and socially, and should be considered by online communities, particularly those that focus on children and teenagers.

Why grant the Right To Vanish?

Most online communities will want to safeguard the right to vanish:

An only-UseRealNames policy hinders the RightToVanish by eliminating the pen-name based options. Communities with such a policy should aim to strengthen it in other ways:

Most online communities, with the exception of wikis, have quite strong technical restrictions on what can be edited and by who. The inability to apply RemoveIdentity is a real problem for the retroactive forms of the RightToVanish. However, most of these communities are very heavily focused on recent contributions, so a CommunitySolution is possible. Discourage new discussion about a person who has left as "talking behind someone's back" and thus inappropriate. Also discourage RecordKeepers from linking to past discussions featuring the departed user.


If a community or a GodKing does not grant the RightToVanish, whether by accident or design, then it will receive violence from former members who want that right and are willing to fight for it. You can reduce this problem by explicitly and prominently denying the right to vanish, but you cannot eliminate it, as people change in what rights they want over time. This violence will come in various forms:

Former friends make the worst enemies. Your attacker will know precisely how to accomplish hir aims, exactly where the weak points in your security are (both hard and soft). The better solution is to NameTheConflict, and take steps to allow that user to effectively vanish.


The earliest case of someone attempting to exercise a RightToVanish in an online community, that I am aware of, was the disappearance of a longstanding contributor to alt.sex.fetish (prior to its being overrun by spam and hence moved to a soc.subculture subgroup). She had, in her own words, "quit the lifestyle" and did not want her earlier contributions to be reposted (once a common practice before dejanews [later google groups] became available) or her name to appear in postings. She enforced this through an informal agreement with a a.s.f "regular" who would bring any such postings to her attention so she could contact the author.

This fits one of the patterns, that of an author wishing to vanish as a result of changes in that author's own world view. Such changes are not unique to sexuality issues; people repudiate prior statements on religion, politics, and mundane issues (favorite text editor?) with striking frequency when the time window of observation is large (decades).

Another instructive case is that of a former user at EnglishWikipedia. She holds a teaching position at a major college (university? I can't remember and the record of the facts has Vanished), and was a productive and authoritative contributor to that project. Unlike the preceeding case, her views did not change. Her perception was the community had changed. She had encountered an embarrassing situation when trying to get permission to republish some portraits. The rights owner had viewed a few random pages on the wiki and encountered material of questionable taste, and concluded therefore that the project was without merit, and denied permission. When this user sought policy changes at Wikipedia to prevent such content from being considered acceptable, she was rebuffed. She concluded that, in essence, Wikipedia was no longer a respectable undertaking for a professor to engage in, and so sought to exercise her RightToVanish (with considerable success). See MetaWikiPedia:draft_privacy_policy.

Outside the realm of online communities, Howard Ruff sought to purchase and destroy all unsold copies of his book "How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years" several years after its publication. The book, published in the early 1970s, predicted an upcoming collapse of the U.S. central bank and advised readers to store a year's supply of food for their family, to purchase silver and gold bullion, to consider constructing defensive fortifications as a part of one's home, and to have on hand a number of automatic rifles and a supply of ammunition.


At TheWell, users are permitted to "scribble" (redact) comments at any time. Some users leaving the community remove substantially all their contributions, Vanishing, in effect, at the cost of leaving gaps in prior discussions.

On UseNet, Google controls the only publicly available long-term archive, and will retroactively remove posts from public view upon request. There is a presumption that authors retain copyright. Private archives exist outside public view, and it is not possible to Vanish from these. For most purposes the point is moot, however, since absent prominent republishing, the presence of a post is of doubtful concern.

Most commercially sponsered listserv-type communities do not recognize a RightToVanish. YahooGroups?, for example, has a click-through TermsOfService? agreement that gives Yahoo perpetual rights to distribute postings as it sees fit. In practice, group moderators are able to delete posts, though this is rarely done as a result of a user's request to vanish.


Before seeing this page[*] it never occured to me that anyone might want to vanish, might want to retroactively take back everything they've said. Sure there have been lots of things I've said which I later regretted, but nevertheless I did say them. Having the ability through the RightToVanish to pretend that my views have never changed, that I've never made any mistakes does not enter into the decision process for whether I participate in any given community.

I can't take back the stupid hurtful things I've said to my family and friends and acquaintances. I can only say I'm sorry and endeavour to prove that xxx was the result of stupid neurotic pattern yyy and that I'll do my best not to let it happen again.

There are many book authors who cringe when asked about their first novels. Words from the past which no longer reflect a person's current views are not new to the internet.

So now I'm curious, how many people is the RightToVanish important to? Obviously more than one or two else this page wouldn't exist through 30 revisions.

Does your decision to participate really hinge on whether retroactive removal of identity and/or dialogue is possible?

Note: no "I'm right, you're wrong" moralising is intended. I'm genuinely curious. This is a new concept to me.

[*] not entirely true, I did see someone mask their identity recently because of an online stalker, but that is only once in 12 years (and only a month ago at that).

-- MattWilkie

Slight correction: vanishing is not about retracting prior statements - rather, it is about severing or attenuating the connection between a group of statements and your current identities. (plural: see WhatIsMultiplicity). For me, the RightToVanish is one thing I look for in a community. It's not compulsorary, but it is preferred. Doesn't have to be perfect, either - just sufficient to block casual searchers. --MartinHarper

I think vanishing means retracting your statements but at a much more extreme level--retract by removing all traces of the statement, not through recorded apology. Remember there is no time intrinsic to text (e.g. WikiNow). You can change the "past" by editing it; cf. wikis, Stalin, 1984. The only record of the past will be CommunityLore, and the community will eventually forget, both individually and collectively. The RightToVanish isn't about severing the connection between identities. It is about removing yourself from history. It severs the connection between your statements and everyone's identities; i.e. between you and the rest of society. As such, it is committing suicide vis à vis your LifeInText, which may be a selfless act of love towards your ideas (if you love them, let them go; i.e. give up ownership of them) at best or a cowardly act of retribution (holding your ideas hostage in a sad attempt to gain power) at worst. In between, there is a mixture where cowardliness and selflessness have given us a new philosophy of expressing ideas without ownership lest responsibility follow due credit. When this works, it is great; when it fails, it is terrible. -- SunirShah

Perhaps it can be like that too, though it doesn't have to be. Maybe we're conflating too similar groups of actions. --MartinHarper

The action is the same, the intents are various. The problem with the RightToVanish is that it is very hard to determine intent as one would have to start a dialogue whilst everything was being erased. That is, the purpose of vanishing is to reduce the amount of information and understanding, not increase it. -- SunirShah

A related problem is that the mindset of a community may drift significantly over time, to the point a past participant may no longer wish to be associated with it at all. I participated in misc.survivalsm in the 1990s, for example, and it finally became so littered with racism and violence that I no longer wanted to have a thing to do with it. While I ultimately decided to start the peaceful-survivalists group in response to that, I thought about trying to do some sort of a newsgroup-style WikiMindWipe before arriving at that more constructive alternative. --anon

That speaks to the mirrorworld pattern to this page, which is a dark pattern. What must we do to make people feel comfortable with leaving their contributions behind? -- SunirShah

I'm not sure that is possible. The fundamental issue is that both people and communities change over time. As long as we have change, we will have people looking for the RightToVanish. Maybe we could change that by some sort of vast application of ForgiveAndForget on a society-wide scale, but that's not going to happen. --MartinHarper

[Aside, delete at will] I think Sunir's point was to make folks comfortable; not to prevent leaving, but to prevent mind-wipes when they leave.

Sure, but I don't think that's possible either. Change means that people will leave, and further change means that people wish they'd never joined. --anon.

Not necessarily. People are comfortable that their works are given to a society that changes, and many hope their works are what causes the change. As long as you treat their contributions with respect and fairness, not many will want to erase themselves out of history. -- SunirShah

I agree that you can significantly reduce the amount of vanishing, certainly - but I don't think it's possible (or desirable) to try to eliminate it. So maybe we agree here? --MartinHarper

Eliminating it would be wrong, just as eliminating the ability to write at all for fear of libel would be wrong. -- SunirShah

I agree rather strongly with the comments at the bottom here, and therefore disagree with the concept of right to vanish. The only exceptions I would make are (1) for children. It is accepted in UK law and socially that children experiment whilst finding their own nature rather more than adults and struggle more with coming to terms with what they use to be (2) for people who wish to move on for other dramatic personal reasons. We are all human and not altogether immune from breakdown or unbearable grief which might lead us to wish to forget the past. --AndrewCates

See also: WikiMindWipe, WikiMindWipeDiscussion

CategoryIdentity CategoryRealNames CategoryConflict


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