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.