A disgruntled ex-employee from oDesk, the company that moderates Facebook’s user content, has supplied Gawker with a copy of Facebook’s acceptable content guidelines. The guidelines, a recently updated version of which is now online on Scribd, reveal squeamishness about women’s bodies and sex, and an acceptance of blood and gore, traits in short, that one might expect from a teenager rather than the world’s dominant social network.
According to a one-page cheat sheet published by Gawker, “any OBVIOUS sexual activity, even if naked parts are hidden from view by hands, clothes or other objects” which includes “cartoons/art”, are banned. Also banned are “female nipple bulges” although male nipples are fine, “naked butt cracks”, “mothers breastfeeding without clothes on”, “digital/cartoon nudity”, and “blatant (obvious) depiction of camel toes or moose knuckles”.
Bizarrely, “images of drunk and unconscious people, or sleeping people with things drawn on their faces” are banned, but “deep flesh wounds”, “excessive blood” and “crushed heads, limbs, etc … so long as no insides are showing” are all “ok to show”.
So, let’s just get this straight: No pranks, no sex, no female nipples, but crushed heads and excessive blood is fine.
When it comes to managing a community, having clear guidelines about what is and isn’t acceptable is essential. But Facebook’s rules seem in places to be irrational and ill-considered. My guess is that no one ever sat down and worked through from first principles what should be moderated and why. Instead, the guidelines are a hotchpotch of rules that have accreted over the years, with new ones added when problems surfaced.
Such wide-ranging and random guidelines have lead to excessive moderation resulting in several outcries, reports Gawker:
[W]alking the line between keeping Facebook clean and excessively censoring its content is tricky, and Facebook’s zealousness in scrubbing users’ content has led to a series of uproars. Last April, they deleted an innocent gay kiss and were accused of homophobia; a few months before that, the removal of a nude drawing sparked the art world’s ire. Most recently, angry “lactivists” have been staging protests over Facebook’s deletion of breast-feeding photos.
In fact, ‘lactivism’ reaches back several years. In 2008, a petition protesting the banning of breastfeeding images garnered nearly 82,000 signatories. Said the Guardian at the time:
The actions of the group came to a head over the weekend when the protesters organised a virtual “nurse-in” on the social networking website where for a day angry supporters posted a profile picture of an image of a mother breastfeeding and changed their Facebook status to say “Hey Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!”.
But moderating Facebook is a thankless task, and would be even without opaque community standards that are too vague for users to stick to. Gawker talked to former moderators who said that the nature of the work was psychologically disturbing:
“Think like that there is a sewer channel,” one moderator explained during a recent Skype chat, “and all of the mess/dirt/ waste/shit of the world flow towards you and you have to clean it.”
Each moderator seemed to find a different genre of offensive content especially jarring. One was shaken by videos of animal abuse. (“A couple a day,” he said.) For another, it was the racism: “You had KKK cropping up everywhere.” Another complained of violent videos of “bad fights, a man beating another.”
One moderator only lasted three weeks before he had to quit.
“Pedophelia, Necrophelia, Beheadings, Suicides, etc,” he recalled. “I left [because] I value my mental sanity.”
It would be naïve to think that we could exist online without moderation. Sadly, there will always be those who want to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and they will always be in conflict with the very conservative elements of our society. Finding a middle ground is tricky, especially when the law gets involved.
Facebook’s prohibition on cartoons depicting nudity and sex, for example, may well be due to some high-profile court cases where comic book artists and collectors have been successfully prosecuted under obscenity laws for drawing or owning controversial images. As author and comic book writer Neil Gaiman wrote whilst discussing the issue:
The Law is a huge blunt weapon that does not and will not make distinctions between what you find acceptable and what you don’t.
There’s no doubt that parts of Facebook’s guidelines are designed to reduce the chance that they will be dragged into court and hit with the huge blunt weapon of the law. Other parts, however, are just illogical. It would be smart of Facebook, now that their guidelines have been published, to have an open discussion about their contents and tease out the sensible or legally unavoidable rules from the plain stupid. After all, is a camel toe really worse to see than a crushed head?