Self-Censorship on Facebook: Exploring Unposted Thoughts

People often think of content they might like to share on Facebook but then decide not to post for various reasons.

What is this unshared content? Why do people decide not to post it? How much of it would people post if they could be sure that only the people they wanted to see the items would be able to see them?

Participants chose to post, or decided not to share, different types of items during the study.
Participants reported posting, or deciding not to share, different types of items during our weeklong study.

Over seven days we asked eighteen Facebook users to tell us everything they thought about posting on Facebook but decided not to post.  We found that they:

  • most commonly chose not to share because of issues related to how they wanted to present themselves to others
  • would have shared about half of the unshared items if they could have only shared them with specific people or groups of people

For the unshared items participants would have preferred to share with specific people, our participants often wanted to share with or block ambiguous groups of people.  These ambiguous groups were defined by attributes or by the group members’ relationships to the content.

One participant, for example, “had tickets to an advanced screening of The Avengers and almost posted about how excited [she] was to see it using a bunch of profanity.” She would have posted the item if she could have only shared it with her friends who liked comic books and video games, but chose not to share because she didn’t clearly know her friends’ interests.

Another participant wanted to share “articles [she] read on NPR and – very political stuff” but wanted to block her conservative friends, including her boyfriend’s father, from viewing the items.

Groups like these would be difficult to define using Facebook’s current tools. It might be possible to improve the ability to share with such groups by providing grouping tools that targeted content based on attributes or peoples’ relationships to posts.

For more, see our full paper, “The Post that Wasn’t: Exploring Self-Censorship on Facebook.”

Manya Sleeper, Carnegie Mellon University
Rebecca Balebako, Carnegie Mellon University
Sauvik Das, Carnegie Mellon University
Amber Lynn McConahy, Carnegie Mellon University
Jason Wiese, Carnegie Mellon University
Lorrie Faith Cranor, Carnegie Mellon University

About the author


I am a third year PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University advised by Lorrie Cranor. My research focuses on usable security and privacy.

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  • An interesting exploration I haven’t seen before. May I suggest you add a “share” button to blog posts so we can easily share to Facebook and Twitter? 🙂

  • This is fascinating research. Diary studies were a great choice for collecting this type of hard-to-get data. It would be fascinating to compare your findings to a large-scale quantitative analyses from Facebook logs. For example, perhaps Facebook keeps logs of the content people create and later delete. I also noticed Facebook recently introduced the ability to edit comments on others’ profiles, complete with inspectable edit histories.

    You might be interested in some research I did with Paul Andre and Michael Bernstein called Who Gives a Tweet? We built a site where people could rate tweets and get feedback on their own tweets. Our focus was on analyzing what makes a valuable tweet, but one of our early motivations was to help people self-censor boring tweets before sending them out to all followers.