Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Facebook's moral colonialism

If America's social conservative prudes and overprotective "won't someone PLEASE think of the children!" parents were ever to combine forces and impose their sensitivities on the world, it would probably look a lot like Facebook.

I've written before about Facebook's war on breastfeeding pics, as well as its battles with topless women's protest group FEMEN. Now there's a new target. And for a change, this one is in trouble for featuring naked dudes:

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Swedish underpants brand Bjorn Borg has been running one of those user-generated content promotions that everyone wants a piece of these days. They challenged their fans to send in pic of themselves in their Bjorn Borgs. The funniest, and most popular, was a cleverly-posed photo of two naked guys in need of underpants trying to reach a clothesline full of designer gitch.

According to Adland, this picture in particular got the Bjorn Borg FB admin, Micke Kazarnowicz, banned for posting "pornographic content".

Silly Swedes. Pornography is NO LAUGHING MATTER!
At first the FB admins simply deleted the photo. But when Micke then attempted to play ball by posting a "safe for work" censored version of the picture, he had his PERSONAL account blocked.(Although the censored pic is still on the page.)

In his own words (translated by Adland's Dabitch):

"The crux of the matter is: Facebook apparently has a very different assessment than we do about what is 'pornographic content'. There is no defined line, and when you're a brand engaged in underwear, this boundary drawing is at the same time vague and sometimes arbitrary. What is "offensive" here? Like other large companies (hi Google!) Facebook is a faceless giant that you can never talk to. Policies and guidelines applied from a tricky arbitrariness which often are based in the American mainstream morality. In this case they have fuzzy consequences if this would be repeated again. Will my personal account will be permanently blocked? Or will they erase Bjorn Borg's Facebook page, in which we have invested money in several ways?"
Whenever I post these rants, I get the same response: "Zuckerberg can do whatever he wants with his social network". And this is true.

But what is also true is that of the more than half-billion people who have opted into the free network, the most prudish Americans have become a minority.

Facebook insists that it moderates content of a sexual nature to protect children who are part of the network. The problem is that not everyone in the world considers nudity in itself as damaging to teens (Actual children, BTW, are not supposed to be on Facebook.)

And so you have the culture clash between suburban American ideas of obscenity and those in other parts of the world. In Europe, nudity is simply part of the landscape — on the beaches and in the media. It's not that people there ignore nudity. They like to see attractive bodies just as much as everyone else. They just don't consider nudity as something dirty that corrupts the young.

And this is Facebook's problem. It is an international community that enforces (what I consider) the lowest common denominator of prudishness on everyone. It's like the moral colonialism Americans imposed on Japan after WWII, or Korea in later decades (like outlawing dog meat).

But in this case, they are not a victor or an occupying force. Facebook is something people have embraced with a passion. And in doing so, they have unwittingly embraced a double standard of censorship that allows highly sexualized and objectifying images of people (particularly women) as long as no nipples, buttocks, or pubic areas are shown.

Facebook is nothing without its users. They are its entire value to advertisers. The larger, and more diversified, the community gets, the more Zuckerberg has to lose from an organized user revolt or boycott. Apple has learned similar hard lessons. While the product may be in private hands, the brand is in the hands of the people who chose — or chose not — to use it.

The Bjorn Borg incident is even more dangerous because it involves an international consumer advertiser, rather than a cause or not-for-profit. And companies like that are the ones Facebook depends on for actual revenue. Note Micke's veiled threat: "Or will they erase Bjorn Borg's Facebook page, in which we have invested money in several ways?"

I'll be watching this issue unfold with great interest. And I hope Zuckerberg and his people are, too.

You are an international brand now, Facebook. It's time to leave your outdated and small-minded moral standards behind.