Category Archives: Political Obscenity

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

WordPress Terms of Service, Censorship and Community

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:

  1. WordPress (And Automattic, the hosting service) don’t screen content before it is posted. (TOS Item 3)
  2. 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)
  3. 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?

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Filed under activism, Art, censorship, community-building, Political Obscenity, public discourse, sex

The perils of posting naked pictures if you have tattoos, are not thin, and are married to the chief of police

“SNYDER, Okla. — The police chief, the mayor and a councilman in Snyder resigned Friday amid an uproar over nude photos of the chief’s 300-pound, tattooed wife that she posted on an adult Web site”

I caught a glimpse of this story while I was out of town recently. The wife of the chief of police in this small town posted nude photos of herself on the Internet, on an adult web site, and those pictures apparently outraged “dozens” of the town’s residents, who demanded that the police chief resign. He initially refused and, while the DA said the photos shown to him were “obscene based on local community standards,” the city council had supported the chief’s wife saying that the photos were protected by the first amendment. As a result of the hoopla, her husband (the police chief), the mayor, and a city council member all resigned their jobs. The chief and the mayor resigned over the criticism of the chief and his wife. The council member resigned because he didn’t want to be associated with those criticising the chief.

Let me be clear: Three people lost their jobs — and no doubt their families are suffering economically and socially — because “dozens” of people were offended by some naked-woman pictures. This is outrageous.

I’m angered by this story. First of all, if the photos were on an adult site, then whoever found them was also browsing adult sites. Why should it be okay for the viewer to view but not for the poster to post? And so what that the poster’s husband is the chief of police. Is his ability to do his job curtailed in any way by his wife’s use of an adult web site?

Then, worse, as if it weren’t bad enough that this woman’s nude photos were used against her husband at his job, the paper emphasizes the wife’s weight and tattoos. Why were those details included. Would it have been different in the eyes of the towns people if she had been 5’7″ and 130 pounds, with no tattoos?

The chief himself is quoted as saying, “My wife is 6-foot-3 and weighs 300 pounds. If there is somebody that thinks they can control her, have at it. I have tried for 11 years and haven’t been able to.” Apparently the criticism of the townspeople accomplished what the chief claims he couldn’t do. The 43-year-old woman — clearly an adult — took her photos down as a result of all the negativity.

“Local community standards” often reflect the standards of a vocal minority. In this case, they reflected the standards of “dozens” of vocal residents in a town of 1,500. Did the others remain quiet because they agreed, and thus found no need to speak out? Or did they remain quiet because it is too difficult to support something that is being loudly condemned as “obscene”? The latter seems much more likely to me, given the numbers of people who quietly cruise the Internet for sexual connections or information or stimulation.

In the end one person’s freedom was curtailed, unnecessarily and unjustly, by the outspoken voices of a few and the silence of many. And many others received a clear warning that, should they consider posting photos of themselves, they will be considered outcasts in their community.

This might seem to be trivial to some who say, “look it’s only a bit of nudity and it isn’t that important,” but this silence is the same silence that makes it so difficult to fight for the rights of sex workers, of gays and lesbians, of BDSM practitioners, and others who explicitly challenge the dominant sexual culture. In fact, I’d bet that the vitriol spouted in this case was all the more venomous because this was a woman — the wife of the chief of police — who was counted on to visibly support that restrictive dominant culture. If such respectable folks continue to make public their departure from that dominant sexual culture, even in the face of such criticism, imagine how quickly it could be replaced by something much more interesting!

I wish the police chief had not resigned, and that his wife had not pulled her photos. I wish they had posted more photos, perhaps together, and challenged the “dozens” and the DA. But given the norms of silence and repression it’s easy to understand their fear. It’s a difficult cycle to break. And it must be broken if we are all to be able to conduct ourselves as adults, openly and unafraid. We need cultural change and legal change, neither of which will be easy to achieve.

Sex bloggers and sex-radical writers who make what is assumed to be private public are certainly in the vanguard of this change. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is fighting too. But more of us need to challenge the silence by speaking up for ourselves an by speaking up for those, like Doris Ozmun and her husband, who are stigmatized and publicly condemned for using what should be every person’s right to sexual expression.

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Filed under News and politics, Political Obscenity, public discourse, sex, sexuality