I like WordPress. A lot. I like that it is based on an open source platform. I like that it is independent, that is, not owned by a monstrously large corporation. I like that as a community it is generally very open.
That is why I’m concerned about a storm that is brewing over issues of censorship and community control among we WordPress.com bloggers. The controversy began when Janie and Kate noticed that their blogs had disappeared from tag pages. I’m writing about it here because, predictably, it began with some beautiful, erotic, sexual content. (Their blogs do contain erotic content. That’s not all they contain, but they do contain that, so if you’re bothered by that kind of thing, don’t click those links.)
The WordPress Terms of Service — you read them, didn’t you? Certainly you got your treat, right? — makes the following things clear:
- WordPress (And Automattic, the hosting service) don’t screen content before it is posted. (TOS Item 3)
- Bloggers must agree not to post illegal content like spam, obscene material, fraud schemes, etc. (Note: there is in the law a significant difference between obscenity and indecency. Obscenity is not protected by the first amendment.) (TOS item 2)
- Automattic (the host of all our content) reserves its right to remove or refuse any content that, in its “reasonable opinion, violates any Automattic policy or is in any way harmful or objectionable.” (Note: Harmful or objectionable are certainly very subjective terms, but we did agree to this when we accepted the TOS and put up our blogs.) (TOS item 2)
The content that started the uproar was not removed from the site. Instead, it was subject to a policy not described in the TOS: “reporting as mature.”
WordPress users all have the ability to “report as mature” any blog that they think, for any reason, is not suitable for a non-mature audience. This is, also, incredibly subjective. (You can also report a blog as spam.). The drop down menu on the upper right of your window, the one that says “Blog info” has an item called “report as mature,” and another called “report as spam.” The TOS is silent about how this process works. Is a single report automatically enough to get one’s blog listed as “mature”? Is the “mature” label applied to the entire blog or just to the “mature” posts? Is there a review process, or is this simply an automatic function of some reader hitting the “report as mature” link? These things are not spelled out.
I first noticed the “report as mature” system a while back when reading a question about the “next blog” link — you can read through blogs by just clicking the “next blog” button, and this can, obviously, lead one to stumble randomly onto content one might find offensive. Since WordPress is open to kids, some community effort has been made to prevent kids from stumbling upon “mature” blogs by removing those “reported as mature” from the “next blog” rotation. That much seems logical, even if the need to protect people from such material is debatable. But the “report as mature” feature also had an illogical effect, as the two blogs whose authors started this new discussion so quickly noticed.
The illogical effect of being reported as mature is that one’s blog is apparently unlisted from the tag pages that would be surfed by people looking for mature content. Let me back up.
Bloggers categorize their posts with “tags.” Tags are categories that bloggers assign to their posts to help readers find specific kinds of material. WordPress has a system where posts are then collected on pages dedicated to specific tags. So when you surf the “Photography” tag page, you see all the recent posts tagged with the word “photography.” Likewise, if a post is tagged as “erotic” it shows up on the “erotic” tag page. The “erotic” tag page has lots of posts. It’s clearly a kind of material that lots of people write, and that many want to see. So, why remove a blog reported as mature from the tag page where it should logically be found? This doesn’t make sense at all.
Of course many posts have multiple tags. A photograph of a nude woman might be tagged “photography” and “erotic” and “art.” If WordPress is actively trying to “protect” unsuspecting viewers from stumbling across erotic material, would it be wise to remove a post tagged “erotic” from any other tag page, but leave it on the “erotic” tag page? Perhaps.
I’d love to see the answers to these questions spelled out in an updated Terms of Service. For some reason, the WordPress folks seem to think that if they spelled out the process, people would “game the system,” and the process would be ineffective. But given that this issue has come up before, and has not been clearly resolved, I’d encourage them to make the process clearer. In this blog I post a lot of material that I tag with ‘sex.’ Some might find it suitable only for “mature” readers. I’d like to know what happens – ahead of time! – if my blog is reported as “mature.”
In the meantime, if you want to be part of the discussion, check out this forum and participate. That’s how the public square works, right?