Recently I posted a sublime, cheeky photo on Facebook. The reaction from my friends was swift: Everyone loved it! Within just a couple of hours it had been liked by more than 100 people and shared by 50. It was very quickly going viral and from past experience, I know that within three days it would have been liked and shared by more than 1,000 people.
The photo was taken at the Louvre in Paris. Four women with their backs to the camera are standing in front of Henri Regnault's "Three Graces" -- a painting which features three nude women. In the art gallery three of the four women have stripped off their clothes to the point where their bottoms are showing. It's very tasteful, and very funny. People described it as delicious, delightful, hilarious. Friends in the art community all across Canada loved it. Reaction from francophone friends was overwhelming -- the French, of course, have such a strong joie de vivre and appreciation of the finer things in life.
You can imagine my surprise when I logged onto Facebook the next morning and found the picture (I'm including a second and different URL in case the first gets censored for any reason) had been removed due to its violating community standards. Whose community? Whose standards?
My community of friends on Facebook loved this pic. It got incredibly positive feedback. And the comments were funny: "If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth two!" "Where was the security guard?" "Beautiful art mixed with realism!"
During the week that Facebook is launching its IPO -- this is all the more disturbing. Where will Facebook draw the line on standards? Is Michelangelo's "David" obscene? Will a photo of David be arbitrarily removed from Facebook? In the past I have posted an image of David and it wasn't censored. Now that I have drawn attention to it, will I log on tomorrow to find it mysteriously gone?
In reacting to Facebook's censorship, friends have said: "That was a harmless picture by my standards;" this smacks of "right wing morality;" "unbelievable;" it was a "harmless picture;" "what's the big deal?;" "would it have been removed if it was just the painting?"
This last point is interesting, because two of the maidens in the painting have their bottoms showing, but one is facing forward so it involves frontal nudity. By this standard, the maidens in the photo looking at the painting are more modest.
And let's face it, the average Calvin Klein ad is far more sexual and provocative. And these days, PG movies include nudity. One distinction made in film classifications is if nudity is sexual in nature or not. Clearly in the image, the nudity wasn't sexual.
Facebook as far as I can determine, provides no mechanism for appeal. The only procedure I can find is for appealing claims of copyright infringement.
From my understanding, Facebook's procedure is driven by complaints. That makes sense because with more than 250 million photos uploaded every day (as of August 26, 2011), so it's too overwhelming for Facebook to police it.
So somewhere someone complained. It may not have even been one of my friends, it may have been someone who shared the photo and one of their friends complained. We will never know. And that's just the point. How can some anonymous individual trump a community that finds something funny, delightful, enjoyable? And what is the level of complaints that triggers censorship? A single individual? A tiny percentage?
Since thie incident, I have looked into Facebook's policies, which state that users will not post content that "contains nudity" but the policy is clearly complaint driven for compliance. And what's the difference between a painting that is art and a photo that is art?
So what's the solution? Facebook should give the user the right to choose. It should warn me that "an individual or individuals has/have found this picture offensive" -- and then give me the option to either delete the photo, or unfriend whoever complained. I know that if I were given this choice I would have chosen to unfriend those who complained, then everyone would be happy.
On Facebook I have seen far more provocative pictures -- and those who post them I simply unfriend. I have unfriended individuals on Facebook whose opinions were racist, sexist, and violated my personal standards of decorum in the past.
And so dear reader, I look forward to your thoughts on this. I would very much welcome your comments and will be happy to respond!
Follow Jim Harris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JimHarris