“Protection,” “freedom,” “community” and control

A quick update to my previous post: Dr.Mike left a comment directing readers to Mark’s post from last August, which raises many more question than answers. (This is actually, I believe, the same post that is mentioned several times in the forum I linked to earlier. The link given in that forum does not work any longer. The one above does.) Check that out and let’s discuss!

Meanwhile, I’m prompted to think about the overarching question of how much we ought to be protected from in terms of public discourse. Up front let me acknowledge that while the blogosphere might *feel* like a completely public space, it is actually a complex conglomeration of privately-owned spaces that blend together and feel more public than they really are. So, I acknowledge that WordPress.com, and Automattic, the hosting service, has a right to set the rules for conversation as it likes, and I agreed to the Terms of Service (and even got the treat) when I signed up.

So here’s my first question: Given the quasi-public space we have here in the blogosphere, or at least in our own corner of it at WordPress.com, how much ought we be protected from content we might not like? And, given the wide range of content people might not like, how should we decide which are “bad” enough that people need to be protected from accidental contact with them, and which are not so bad?

And, then another question: If protection is deemed necessary, what level of protection should be offered? For example, there is a little arrow at the top right of my WordPress screen that will take me to some randomly chosen “next” blog. I usually find this uninteresting, so I don’t usually click on that button. But let’s say I did. Am I not, by clicking on it, acknowledging my willingness to be exposed to something I am not expecting? I can protect myself by not clicking on that button in the first place. Or, should I expect that any randomly selected blog will be a reasonably bland and unlikely-to-be-offensive bunch of writing? Since it’s random, perhaps erring on the side of caution is worthwhile, given the incredibly wide range of users that WordPress generates. There are so many ways for WordPress users to judge the content of what they’re about to see before seeing in “in full” that this “next” button seems to be the only way to be truly randomly exposed to something you don’t want to see.

Even if we agree that sexually-explicit material is something that some people should be protected from seeing, (and I, for one, would not tend to agree), certainly we would also agree that people who are looking for it don’t need that protection. If I’m a person who writes erotic blog posts, and I want to do some tag surfing to see who else is writing about similar material, why should I be “protected” from seeing the kind of material for which I’m looking? In the tag surfing module I actually have to enter the tags indicating the kinds of posts I want to browse. Likewise if I purposefully browse the “sex” tag page, why should I be “protected” from posts about sex? Isn’t it counterproductive if I’m kept from seeing them? Doesn’t it do a disservice to WordPress blog readers by getting in the way of a free exchange of ideas among people interested in the same topic?

Would it be more effective to encourage WordPress bloggers to use tags that do identify their content as “mature” and then show those only on the tag pages for those “mature”-content tags? People would know where to look, bloggers would take responsibility for their content, and we would come to a solution that might make most members of the community happier than they currently are. Remember, the current system relies largely on unhappy users, by waiting for them to be randomly offended. (You wouldn’t be flagging something you were looking for, would you?) Essentially this system depends on exposing people to things they don’t think are appropriate and then waiting for them to complain. And it results in a very uneven blocking of material from certain parts of the WordPress site. Thus it is neither very effective nor very efficient.

What is the answer? I don’t know. We don’t even all agree on the question! But I do know that what is happening now seems arbitrary and over-reaching, and while I agree WordPress has the “right” to do it, I also think they are not achieving their own goals — providing a community for bloggers, and “protecting” bloggers from material they find offensive — as well as they might if they had a more nuanced and rational policy.

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16 Comments

Filed under censorship, community-building, culture, Personal Reflections, Political Obscenity, public discourse, sex, sexuality

16 responses to ““Protection,” “freedom,” “community” and control

  1. Well said, Elizabeth.

    I’d also like to point out that if an erotic story is labeled “erotica” and “literature”, the erotica tag shows up even on the literature category page.

    If mature material is clearly labeled as such, then what exactly is the problem?

    By de-listing entire blogs that are only partially made up of “mature material”, WordPress is throwing the baby out with the bath water in addition to your point that bloggers are specifically looking for the bath water in the first place.

  2. We’re still figuring all of this out, our current measures aren’t part of any grand plan or scheme, they’re just a collections of reactions to various situations we’ve been faced with in our short history. Most of these decisions were made with the short-term in mind, and just stuck around longer than we expected as other parts of the site demanded attention from our development team.

    Thanks for your thoughtful writing on the subject.

  3. Fair enough Matt.

    But let me say that a little bit of communication would have gone a long way here, and we would not be at a point where I, as one of the biggest fans of WordPress, would not now be considering leaving.

    Answering the blogs who were protesting rather than de-listing them as well would have been more of a move toward resolution rather than exacerbation of the disagreement.

    How about adding a section to the dashboard with filters out posts marked with particular tags as entered by each user? Is that doable?

    Like the friend surfer, it would require a user to plug in the specific tags.

    So if I didn’t want to see any posts that were tagged erotica, I would plug in “erotica” and no matter what category page I went to, I wouldn’t see any posts that had that tag.

    In this way (assuming that’s technically feasible), no one sees content they don’t want, but no one is denied seeing content they do want.

    It also has the advantage of not excluding bloggers from the WordPress community, and not excluding entire blogs whose content runs a large gamut of topics because of one or two particular posts.

    Could this be accomplished?

  4. Matt, perhaps it is a testament to WordPress’s appeal, and it’s success, that it has outgrown some of the early decisions that guided its growth. In any case, it seems, now, that there is a significant need for a coherent and sensible policy, one that works for the community of bloggers who write and read here. And you’re welcome to my thoughtfulness any time! Thanks for reading.

  5. Another thought, Matt, for further protection of bloggers who do not wish to see mature content:

    Also in the blogger’s dashboard, a radio button or checkbox to the effect of “filter out all blogs with mature content”.

    I wouldn’t be opposed to that if there was a statement warning the blogger that they would be filtering out all content on every blog with any mature content.

  6. As usual, your posts are thoughtful and thought-provoking. And as is often the case, I don’t know the answer. And personally I welcome the “random blog” button; that’s how I found yours in the first place.

    I think there are two issues at hand. One is to provide a mechanism whereby adults who don’t wish to view objectionable material need not be exposed to it. I for one find violence objectionable (in fact the mixture of sex with violence is my definition of “obscene”), but I’ve gotten used to the fact that it’s all over the place, especially on my TV. I’m an adult, and if I choose to surf the web, or hit the “random blog” button (or watch TV), I have to accept responsibility that I might encounter advocacy for, or glorification of, violence. If adults wish to avoid exposure to objectionable material, then labelling sites by their content should be sufficient for them to choose (as long as the labels are honest).

    But another issue is the exposure of children to material their parents deem objectionable. We can’t expect kids to exercise good judgement web-surfing, and we can’t expect them simply to “deal” with it. Many will state that parents should supervise their children’s web time, but that’s a lot easier said than done in the real world. In my opinion, adults surfing the web are subject to caveat emptor, but kids surfing the web need protection.

    Now if only I could convince the world that it’s not sex that our kids need protection from, it’s violence.

  7. Tamino, I’m glad to know it was the “next blog” button that brought you to Sex in the Public Square. As a person who doesn’t generally click that link, I clearly need a reminder that people find it interesting. I’m glad to have you as a reader and I enjoy your work.

    The question of protecting children is a thorny one. Of course I agree with you that they need less protection from sex than from violence (or less protection from sexaul content than from violent content) but I struggle with the question of whose responsibility it is to protect them in the first place.

    WordPress is a very open space, and that means that children might be here. On the other hand, it is not a place that caters to children, and so I don’t know if we should hold ourselves strictly to standards that are suitable for children. Also, “child” seems to refer to quite a broad age range. I wouldn’t consider a 16-year-old to be the same as a 9-year-old in terms of need for protection from all manner of content.

    Janie, those modifications to dashboards sound like interesting ideas. As an idea-person and not a how-to-person I have no sense of how feasible they are. Anything that lets us more clearly customize the content we browse is a good thing, to my mind, and first on my list is that all posts that are tagged in a particular way show up on the relevent tag pages.

    Perhaps the more appropriate “report as” instruction would be “report as incorrectly categorized.”

  8. Now if only I could convince the world that it’s not sex that our kids need protection from, it’s violence.

    The world might then begin to make sense.

  9. Janie, those modifications to dashboards sound like interesting ideas. As an idea-person and not a how-to-person I have no sense of how feasible they are. Anything that lets us more clearly customize the content we browse is a good thing, to my mind, and first on my list is that all posts that are tagged in a particular way show up on the relevent tag pages.

    Perhaps the more appropriate “report as” instruction would be “report as incorrectly categorized.”

    I’m in the same boat. Since the answers seem to have stopped here, I’ve gone to the forum you linked above and began asking the questions there, but again, sudden silence.

    I’m personna non grata these days.

    🙂

  10. Well, Elizabeth. There was some discussion on the forum about this.

    Unfortunately, the issues are still being ignored in favor of Time Thief ignoring the issues and the facts, and just screaming for my deletion because I said bad words.

    (sigh)

  11. Janie, your attack on Mark was pretty out there, and I’m glad you apologized. It’s true that namecalling doesn’t generally advance serious debate.

    I did read the forums and it does seem like there is confusion about what the issues really are. To my mind, the “correct labeling” issue is moot: you labeled your posts “erotic” and “literature” and other things, and all were both correct. As I’ve said before, I don’t think “mature” as a category label has much meaning because it means too many things. “Erotic” on the other hand, is pretty specific. I’d rather see posts tagged “erotic” confined to an “erotic” tag page than lumped onto a “mature” tag page which could refer to things ranging from issues of aging, to political discussions, to posts about violence, to posts about sex. I wouldn’t know *what* to expect there. But “erotic”? I’d know what to expect.

  12. I know that, Elizabeth. I was angry and getting no response. In fact, I’d say I was angrier about being ignored and dismissed than I was about being de-listed.

    I have always made sure to properly label my posts. I want people to find me because I have what they’re looking for.

    Contrary to TT’s accusation about hits, I’d much rather have loyal readers than lots of people popping in to see that they’re in the wrong place.

    And she’s flipping out that I’m lying about being de-listed, and pointing to all the erotica still found on WP’s category pages… which is exactly my point. There’s plenty of it on the category pages – just not mine. The arbitrary and selective de-listing of blogs is exactly what started this whole thing.

    She actually did a wonderful job of proving my point.

    Truth is, I’ve always liked her. She’s usually kind and helpful, and she was one of the first people to link to one of my articles when I first moved to WP.

    How’s that for irony?

  13. i’m glad to see someone really take this on. personally, i left blogspot because if you’re flagged as mature there (unlikely as that may be), you stand to lose your blog, IIRC. I think wp.com’s solution still plays into the hands of those who would shame anyone who speaks openly about sex.

    but i don’t think the current method actually harms the blog. sure, it cuts you out of the global tag system, but that’s not necessarily bad. i know plenty of people who would love to have the links below their own posts link to more of their own posts, rather than posts by anyone and everyone who uses that tag, irrelevant as those posts may be.

    the tag system (and the next blog link) do drive a fair amount of traffic by themselves, but most of the traffic i see comes from wordpress’ built in semantics and search-engine-friendliness.

    nonetheless, if toni + matt can find a way to designate ‘mature’ tags which show all posts, ‘mature’ blog or not, i think that would benefit the community here. the problem would revolve around the same global/local tag links issue though.

  14. if toni + matt can find a way to designate ‘mature’ tags which show all posts, ‘mature’ blog or not, i think that would benefit the community here. the problem would revolve around the same global/local tag links issue though

    IMO Adam has correctly identified the crux of the issue. JanieBelle and Elizabeth can tell by your dashboard that I’m not adverse to reading your blog posts at all. The only thing I’m adverse to is the linkage of violence and/or psuedo violence to sex.

    Based on my own limited experience most bloggers are “hit – whores” however like any generalization or label I recognize it doesn’t “fit” all bloggers. I accept that neither you nor JanieBelle were posting to the forum to troll for posts. I do believe you are focused on building a blog community instead of faithful readers instead. But I also believe that if I hadn’t spoken up as strongly as I did that others who were trolling for posts may have done so.

    The points I was trying to make in the forum are (1) policy decisions are not up for “voting” by bloggers and ought not to be posted in the forums (2) IMO username links (re: mature blogs) should “broken” in the forum so clicking the username does not project one unsuspectingly into a mature blog.
    (3) Programming changes must be made so using the “next link” button does not project one unsuspectingly into a mature blog.

    I’ve had some time to think about this now and it seems to me that if search engine spiders can crawl blogs and find mature, erotic, sexual content that wordpress ough to be able to come up with spiders that behave likewise. From there certainly some kind of programming could be devised with regard to tag page categorization.

  15. I wish we didn’t, collectively, continue to believe that erotic or sexual content was deserving of a special kind of segregation. I agree with many who have emailed and some who have posted comments that violence is more objectionable than sex, for example, but sex is what we protect “young people” from — and perhaps even more often, we protect adults who object to open expression of sexuality. I hope to post on this again soon.

    The word “mature” is still quite vague to me. I agree, completely, with timethief that policies here are not decided democratically, nor should we expect them to be. But I’d like them to be rational and not arbitrary, and I believe that the folks at Automattic — and by extension at WordPress — also want to be rational and not arbitrary. So what does “mature” really mean for the purposes of segregating some blogs from others?

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