• 05.05.09

Facebook: The Arbiter of Modern Morality? Let’s Hope Not

Facebook employs "Porn Cops," who roam the digital corridors of the social networking site and make sure no one’s posting pictures with too many pink pixels and the like. This team’s work is being profiled over at Newsweek, but it raises a scary thought: Is Facebook a new arbiter of social morality?

Facebook wants to avoid slipping down the same porn slope that MySpace lost its footing on, which is why it employs this team of 150 people to keep the site clean.


Check out Newsweek‘s description of the work of team-member Simon Axten:  

Next up: a young woman in panties only, covering her breasts with her hands. “That’s pretty close,” Axten says, pondering the image. There’s nothing arbitrary about his judgments: at Facebook, they have developed semiformal policies like the Fully Exposed Butt Rule, the Crack Rule and the Nipple Rule. In this photo there’s no visible areola, he decides, so it stays.

Sounds relatively inoffensive doesn’t it. But, and this is critical, it’s Facebook that sets those rules–there’s no Cable TV Watchdog equivalent, no law requiring Facebook to delete someone’s offensively name-calling comment, or to can a photo of a “girl blowing an epic cloud of pot smoke” (which Axten did.)

That Nipple Rule already upset hundreds of thousands of people recently when it was used to remove photos of women breastfeeding, but just those with a hint of areola showing. That rule book also seems U.S.-centric, which is at odds with Facebook’s global audience. For example, photos of underage drinking are ditched if people complain, but the legal drinking age across the world varies considerably–in Portugal it’s just 16. Similarly, a photo of public pot smoking would be of an entirely legal act if it were taken in Amsterdam.

In our digital world, where millions log on to engage in social networking on a minute-by-minute basis, do we want Facebook, to become the model for moral standards across the globe? Most certainly not. The site’s rules are effectively arbitrary, despite what Newsweek says, and they’re designed to appease corporate advertisers as much as protect the public. The only issue is that there are just two clear alternatives: Public regulation (which just wouldn’t work, given how out-of-touch public bodies often are…remember the hilarious over-reaction to Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl accident?) and no regulation at all. Net neutrality thinkers may prefer that option, but with millions of dollars to be made from advertising, it’s clear Facebook wouldn’t go that route. 

[via Newsweek]

Related: Facebook: Stop Acting Like a Nation-State
Related: 7 Anti-Social Facebook Apps
Related: Triumph of the Design Haters: After Facebook and Tropicana, Whose Redesign Is Next to Go?

About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.