Facebook's vague rulebook helps only the creeps

Ryan McGinley's India (Coyote), 2010

Comic artist (and BB contributor) Wendy Pini was issued a second ban by Facebook today after posting a widely-shared photo to her wall. She was told that she faces permanent expulsion if it happens again—despite the social network's recent assurances that it only intends to block pornographic content, not legitimate artwork.

The suspension comes just days after Facebook temporarily banned The New Yorker over a cartoon depicting the biblical Eve's dot-nipples. Last month saw Pini's own first warning for posting a painting of Bunchh, an androgynous character whose ambigiously-gendered blue cartoon boobs ran afoul of the social network's ambigiously-defined porn policy.

Her latest troubles, however, come over something to be found widely at Facebook: the popular photography of Ryan McGinley, whose artwork may be seen from San Francisco galleries to New York art blogs.

"I know my own work is sexy, but this wasn't something I'd made. It's shared everywhere," Pini said. "What this is is someone out there targeting me, and Facebook helping them."

The latest warning message received by Pini.

The New Yorker's Robert Mankoff reported last week on how the magazine was temporarily banned from Facebook after posting Mick Stevens' Garden of Eden 'toon.

The two female dots, they were informed, were the problem: Adam's dots were just fine.

"Now, we could have fought the ruling on technical grounds, because, let’s face it, these female nips, by any stretch of the imagination, no matter how prurient, are just not bulging," Mankoff wrote, referring to Facebook's suggestion that the dots' 'bulging' quality made them unacceptably pornographic. "But rather than fight the battle of the bulge, let’s point out, that while female nipple bulging, or F.N.B. for short, is a potentially serious problem, with as yet no known cure, it also has no known victims. That is, unless you count freedom of expression, common sense, and humor."

The Daily Beast recently ran a gallery of Facebook-banned cartoons, including those from Pini and Stevens.

Earlier this year, Gawker's Adrian Chen reported on these and other absurd rules at Facebook, which permits images of crushed human heads while clamping down on suggestive depictions of female sexuality.

" 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.

These censorship scandals haven't been helped by Facebook's opacity regarding its content moderation process. Whenever Facebook deletes an image it deems objectionable, it refers the offending user to its rambling Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. That policy is vague when it comes to content moderation, and probably intentionally so. If users knew exactly what criteria was being used to judge their content, they could hold Facebook to them. It would be clear what Facebook was choosing to censor according to its policies, and what amounted to arbitrary censorship."

— Adrian Chen

Also banned, perhaps, at Facebook: anything depicting a sexual fetish, breastfeeding mothers, or cameltoe.

The most disturbing thing, Pini says, is that the photo for which she was warned Wednesday was merely shared from another person's own wall, where it still remains.

The problem with the guidelines is not only that they are evasively defined, but that they present an opportunity for malicious users to target their Internet enemies anonymously.

Enforced by Facebook's zero-tolerant bureaucracy at any troll's behest, discriminatory "standards" such as "bulging female nipples" become a speech-chilling limitation on what may be said and shared at Facebook.

Trying to figure out the specifics of Facebook's enforcement policies has even become something of a game, with The Guardian's Rowan Davies crowdsourcing a test of exactly what kind of breastfeeding photos it considers too smutty to stay up.

When challenged, Facebook only doubles down on vagueness: its current nudity policy is now completely devoid of any specifics that artists such as Pini and Stevens could work with—but ample opportunity for troublemakers to steer Facebook's outsourced moderation machine against them.

"Facebook has a strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and imposes limitations on the display of nudity. At the same time, we aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo's David or family photos of a child breastfeeding."

— Facebook

"There's no right to face my accuser," Pini said. "I know there are people out there who don't like me. But I don't think they should be able to use Facebook like this to get at me. And this story isn't just about me. It's about everyone who uses Facebook to promote themselves and their work. If anonymous complaints can shut you down, that's interference with your livelihood."

Wendy Pini is co-creator of Elfquest, the latest chapter of which is published weekly here at Boing Boing


    1.  Er what the hell is it with Disqus? Used to be you clicked the thumbnail and got the picture. Now you click the thumbnail and you get…..the thumbnail. What the fuck use is that? [yes, I know you can click ‘original’ then but I’m waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of doing all these things twice]

      1. Er what the hell is it with Disqus?

        Agreed, I noticed this new little glitch while verifying if my post was properly submitted.

        1.  Which is why I really appreciate that you linked to the original picture itself, I now right-click and open in a new tab to avoid the two-click thing and the ensuing wait.

          1. o 0 O 1 i

            ^Nope… comments (and post body?) used to use a font with those weird little half-size numerals.

            Also: I like the new design, but I have a suggestion. I know it’s a pain the arse but what about coding the blockquotes to have a drop shadow that falls outside the margins that contain the post text?

            What I mean is that currently the blockquote boxes are narrower than the paragraph width (for the obvious reason of needing that extra space to display the drop shadow) but I think it would look much better if the blockquote boxes were the same width as the paragraphs themselves and the drop shadow occupied space outside the paragraph width. I know this will essentially cost precious horizontal space that could be used for text instead, but in reality it’s only ~20px… 20px that people would likely never miss to create an overall flow that looks much prettier.

          2. Now that you mention it, it does look larger, though I don’t recall the previous font well enough to say whether it was the same.  Whatever you’re doing now results, at least on my screen, in the same faded-out look I typically see only on Microsoft’s pages.

    1. If that ever happens, Facebook will be replaced by something that will adopt like-minded policies as soon as sheltered suburban moms start using it and yelling in outrage at the decadence and perversity on display.

      1. To be honest, I don’t care what those sheltered people do online. My issue is that so many otherwise savvy people I like and respect continue to support the awful Facebook data mining scam.

  1. Ok, wait. People still use Fuckbook for some reason?? Jeeze, next thing you’ll be telling me is that American Idol is still airing. But no. That just can NOT be possible in a rational world…..
    Oh, and thanks for the picture. It is beautiful.

    1. uh… fuckbook(dot com) is a real site. [added: obviously, for many reasons, i don’t recommend visiting, but it’s a safe bet this rule wouldn’t bother you there.]

        1. I would bet not. I’ve heard of it only because I get their spam, for reasons I don’t care to speculate on.

        2. i have no idea, but its banner ads tend to show up in fairly seedy places (read: rapidshare link farms), so i’d be cautious.

    1. Superficially more convincing?

      A screencap is easy enough to fake, but you wouldn’t expect a photo of a screen to be faked… not that it’d be hard to take a photo of a fake screen image, but it’d be good camouflage…

  2. I’m willing to bet 100% of the inconsistency in FB’s sexual content policy is due to reporting. Nobody has the time or resources to troll all that stuff manually. It’s probably a good thing because in a couple of weeks they’d be down to banning skirt lengths above the ankle, just to be safe.

    Their policy statement is just a waste of syntax and equivocation, and I see no reason they can’t just come out and say: “We don’t care, we just ban anything that gets reported.” As if anybody could do something about it.

    When I think about it, I’m sure there’s at least one visible nip in a drawing in one of my galleries I posted when I first joined. But even now I only have a handful of friends, and no dedicated enemies (that I know of). So there’s some benefit to obscurity.

    1.  Oh my that brings back a good giggle. Back in the 70’s Dallas was so blue-nose conservative that not only were Blue Laws strictly enforced, they felt that the MPAA was just, HUMPF! too darn liberal. So they had their own film ratings board which was even more screwed up. Specifically, that reminded me of a Scott Biao/Willie Ames forgettable flick called Zapped! where the Dallas papers actually DID have to lower the skirt hemline in the poster so as not to shock delicate Dallasites sensibilities. http://www.imdb.com/media/rm3473980160/tt0084945

    2. I suspect you meant “trawl” in this case. “Troll” is, in fact, what most of the “report as pornography” crowd is doing and seems to be finding plenty of time for.

  3. Facebook and it’s sex-deprived readers: Leave Wendy Pini alone and take a look at your own distorted, antiquated and childish sense of moral outrage, which in fact is no morality at all. It is YOU who are immoral.

    1. The photo’s caption says coyote. And it’s bigger than a wild coyote, but definitely has the coyote face. The muzzle is too narrow, and the it’s got the shifty trickster look on it’s face that’s common in coyotes, but doesn’t really exist in adult wolves

    2. If that there’s a lady wolf in that picture…

      Look closer, are those coyote balls on the right side, about a third of the way down the tail?
      If they are, well… there are several elements in that picture that scream for attention.

  4. PS, I think all children should see this image because it contains a valuable lesson: If you’re going to handle a wolf you’d best wear some clothes.

    1. It seems like a very amiable wolf. He just needs a little more training on how to hold his forelegs; just a bit to the left and all the woman’s Facebook-unfriendly-bits would be decently covered.

      1.  I thought it was a boy from the haircut and the body hair, but that person should be too young for that kind of body hair, it’s too long and actually scratches. And I was wondering if they were tucking their boyhood.

        I didn’t even see the nipple between the wolf’s legs, I must be slipping!

  5. Wendy Ive read Elfquest on and off since the early 1980s and always thought it was a very special story.

    Screw Facebook – you dont need them.  There are many MANY sick, sad, and just outright disgusting pictures/posts on FB that they do absolutely nothing about.  They have a nice share of the online audience, but will alienate them all in droves as the years go by.  There is no reason at all in my opinion to even attempt to cater to Facebook.

    1.  Anyone can see that Facebook, being a big machine for selling personal info and ad space and having no interest in applying actual judgment to its moderation, is not the ideal venue for Wendy’s artistic expression. On the other hand, if your career might depend on you getting enough public exposure (forgive the pun) then it’s hard to avoid dealing with them.

      I sympathize but I don’t know what to say. If you’re trying to publicize yourself on Facebook, you’re going to have a hater or several. If you’re George Takei you have millions of hits in fan traffic to back you up, but if not… it’s a tough world.

  6. So I came to this link via boingboing’s RSS feed on facebook. Are they going to get banned too? The thumbnail shows the content which lead to the banning.

    Is someone working on an alternative to facebook? Diaspora? What happened to that? Did it fail? Lack of critical mass?

    1.  I was super excited before Diasporas launch, mildly interested after I tried it [rather sluggish and not really innovative when it came to interaction design] and a couple of weeks ago I’ve got a mail from the developers saying they were handing over the code to the community.
      Not sure if that means it’s dead or if it’s a wonderful collaborative experiment.

      1. The Diaspora guys were all about skinny jeans and Gauloises – the triumph of presentation over content. Such a disappointment. Have you tried http://friendica.com/ ? Much more open and inclusive from the start.

  7. We all know what this is about. It’s not Facebook – remember Janet Jackson’s clothing malfunction?

    Social prominence and tolerance for controversy are inversely proportional. IBM can’t display this image on their webpage, but Boing Boing can. Make of that what you will.

  8. Yet those that are exploiting children in pornography pics on FB and when reported they come back stating wasn’t blocked because of FB’s ridiculous policies. So, apparently FB is okay with exploiting children as long as a little bit is covering – just sickening!!!!! They are allowing sick-o’s get away as long as just a tad is covering here and there. If FB doesn’t change then saying good bye to FB.

  9. I clicked through to get a sense of the artist’s work.  Can anyone explain why so many of his models are severely hurt?  There aren’t that many models in his photos, and virtually all of them are photographed at least a couple of times with significant trauma.  What are the odds?  Is he purposely having them get beat up, or what is going on?

  10. I don’t actually find Facebook’s policy to be all that ambiguous: no (female) tits on Facebook, 2 warnings and then GTFO. “This shouldn’t count” counts. I don’t like the policy, but I don’t find it at all difficult to understand. But there’s a definite upper limit to how much you get to complain when you’re using somebody else’s server, and all the more so when you’re not paying for it.

    1. It would be unambiguous… if that were actually the policy.  The problem is, it’s not.  The actual policy is ‘some undefined number of nipples may or may not result in a warning, if we feel like it, except if you’re posting family pics or art, which is OK or sometimes not OK.  Mutilated human faces are fine, except if some stranger who doesn’t like you says so, in which case we’ll kick you off.’

      I don’t think the policy is as clear as you think it is.

      1. This strikes me as oddly parallel to an argument I keep having in other forums about bug-exploiters in online games. It is completely unambiguous how to stay safe: don’t post anything to Facebook that shows nude or semi-nude female breasts, period. Do anything other than that and your level of safety becomes indeterminate, yes, but how to stay safe is completely determinate. They’ve made it entirely clear what they want: no female breasts on Facebook. You want to know how far you can go in breaking that rule before the enforcement mechanism kicks in. Am I wrong here?

  11. I only use facebook as an alternative, I have no love for them or their policies. Let’s face it the only people who really care are those who are stricken fundies or hard line white knights.

  12. The coyote, the woman in the pic, and you, ALL STINK. It’s what we are. If you don’t accept your stink you’re in big trouble. You’ll pass your hatred of the animal YOU are to your children and those around you will sense that you are an inauthentic phoney.

  13. The dark realm of the Hooded One is rife with vague rules and inexplicable actions.  For instance, one can evidently be expelled for the crime of Liking too many pages.  And just how many is too many?  Ah, but that would be telling!  The rationale behind this curious policy involves the great, arcane plague of “Like Spam”, which I won’t attempt to explain.  However, one may be penalized even for Liking pages utterly incapable of partaking of the Like Spam phenomenon; e.g., Wikipedia-derived pages.  Makes no sense, but that’s the FB way.

  14. Huh. I didn’t notice until I got home and looked at this again that the model had scratches. When I glimpsed at it earlier I thought she (?) had belly hair of some sort. This makes me feel sad.

  15. Speaking of uncertain showing/hiding of photos, is it just me, or was the full photo shown on the BB main page this afternoon, and now it is cropped to not show the lower lady bits until you click through?

    1. We’re experimenting with how posts show up on the homepage  — at the moment it’s showing only a 6×4 thumbnail on the front door. Which does, I might add, contain the offending nipple.

      1. I’m all for nipples and other bits, but given that I sometimes look at BoingBoing at work I’d be happiest if the main page was SFW, with NSFW stuff further on in the article – that seems to be pretty common practice on other sites.

        1. I don’t remember anything on Boing Boing that was ever NSFW.  

          Oh, I take it back – once in a while they feature fetish articles about weapon design. Those are kinda creepy.

          1. Employers in Germany are legally required to let you look at nude photos while you’re at work? Sweet!

          2. I’m quite happy to criticize the US when there’s reason, but come on. That’s so much of a stretch it’s translucent. My Canadian, Israeli, or Russian employers would’ve been just as likely to throw a hissy fit over nude photos at work. It’s a question of the work environment and the boss’ cultural views, not the country.

          3. They are likely to start a hissy fit if you don’t work but browse, I agree on that.   

            Thing is, the picture above doesn’t really have a place at a normal workplace at all – with our w/out the nipple. 

            Otherwise it’s so harmless, it wouldn’t even raise eyebrows in elementary school.

          4. Sorry to keep replying out of thread, Peter, but you know how disqus is about its depth limits…

            I have friends who are school teachers. They cannot, for the most part, browse the web while teaching class. They *can,* however, take a few minutes on their lunch break to rest their brain and look at awesome stuff. Or rather, could. Because there’s no telling what will happen if a student walks in while the teacher happens to have the above, semi-nude, photo up on the screen.

            As for throwing hissy fits over browsing… A different friend’s corporate overlords (major multinational technology company) would have probably gotten moderately upset over the above image, but actively encouraged employees to monitor their retirement plans and other investments from work, on company time. Nor was browsing particularly restricted, so long as you got your work done. Do employers where you are require their employees to be consistently productive with no pauses, morning to lunchbreak and lunch to closing time?

  16. Nothing to see here. FB’s rules are no more transparent and no less capricious than the MPAA’s rules, and we’ve survived with those in place for decades.

  17. I’m not entirely  comfortable with how Wendy Pini is using Facebook, and so  am not very sympathetic to her situation.

    She has 1900 friends.  I have disdain for people that use their personal facebook pages as sales/work networking centers. My Facebook friends are, for me, people IRL that I have a relationship with and like, and who I believe like me. 

    Wendy Pini should have a fan page, except she wouldn’t have 1900 fans then.  She has 1900 friends, probably, because she madly friends every person she comes across and people are too awkward to say no.

    For people that use Facebook like this, in a predatory manner for marketing and sales instead of… just communicating with their friends… why should they not expect any negative experiences they receive?

    I think Facebook is trying to use similar standards for American television for public content – tits bad / violence ok.  Which I also disagree with from a content standpoint; I also wish American TV was not like this.  However, this is a policy for public pages.  I can post as many tits as I want to my 150 friends and no one will report me because they are my actual friends – they are people with whom I share mutual interests and likes.

    Wendy Pini is using what should be her private Facebook page as a public marketing platform, so she is being treated with the same content restrictions as such, which are pretty similar to those of a network television channel.

    Solution? Use the “Pages” section of Facebook to sell your books, Wendy, and start fresh with a personal page for just IRL friends and family.  You won’t get reported for tits again.

    1. “Wendy Pini should have a fan page, except she wouldn’t have 1900 fans then.  She has 1900 friends, probably, because she madly friends every person she comes across and people are too awkward to say no.”
      This is incorrect; Wendy “opened up” her personal account to friend requests from her fans relatively late; for the majority of her time on Facebook, her personal account had something like 2 “friends”, one of which was her husband Richard. After she shut down the personal page she had created to accept friend requests from her Masque of the Red Death fans, when it no longer made sense to keep a separate account, only then did she start accepting what turned out to be hundreds of friend requests from her fans. I’m fairly confident that 98% of the “friends” she has on FB solicited HER, not the other way around.

  18. I tried Facebook briefly only to be disturbed at how it had turned my friends (real life ones not FB ones) into right-wing nutjobs. The time I’d realized I’d had enough was when one friend ‘unfriended’ me over a comment, the kind that can easily be erased in a matter of seconds, since it might ‘potentially’ offend an extreme fundamentalist in her family. I can’t quote my comment word per word since it had been so promptly erased but, it was a silly, obscenity free, non-denominational announce of a comical apocalypse. It would have simply sufficed to delete the comment but, she went to the length of equating it with the most loathsome of pornography, and promptly unfriending me. She’s a Wiccan to boot! I’d already likened the Facebook world to the whitewash culture of the fifties, and now I’d witness first hand. I immediately closed my Facebook account only to be maginalized by my friends in real life since they never pick up a phone anymore, and only use Facebook. So much for real friends.

    I’ve come to realize Facebook is the #1 propaganda tool of the American plutocracy. It can turn friend against friend in a way that resembles McCarthyism. Creepy…..

    1. I immediately closed my Facebook account only to be maginalized by my friends in real life since they never pick up a phone anymore, and only use Facebook.

      You’re obviously a Luddite if you don’t want to be batch-processed by your friends.

    2. Email? Texting? Skype?

      If they don’t want to have any form of actual dialogue with you, they weren’t really your friends anyway.

  19. “…it only intends to block pornographic content, not legitimate artwork.”

    I remember Structuralism, when it was easy to tell what counted as legitimate artwork, or even “art.” Good times.

  20. And yet Facebook allows people to post pictures of the President and First Lady depicted as apes…and when one reports them, they say, “Sorry, but that picture is not in violation of our policy.”

  21. Wendy Pini here: a very few people on FB are my close friends. With them I publicly banter and we plug each other’s work. But we don’t ever make the truly personal side of the relationship public. THAT we save for old fashioned phones and emails and such. There are three Facebook pages on which I’m active every day: my Wendy Pini page, my official Masque of the Red Death fan page and the official Elfquest page. Almost all of the nearly 2000 “friends” on my Wendy Pini page, which I chose to make public, solicited me. These people are not my “inner circle” friends (though they’re damn friendly, polite, funny and interesting). A lot of them are industry pros, a lot more are fans of my work. It’s nice. I answer questions about Elfquest and Masque…post work-related news…share humor or beauty as I see fit. But, again, reveal nothing significant whatever about my personal life. Many of the people in my newsfeed seem to use Facebook to stay in close touch with family and friends. Their posts are often amazingly confessional. I would never do this…ever…on Facebook or any other social network where just anyone can pry vicariously into your personal life. I regard FB (for now) as a wonderful tool for visual and verbal hype. That’s all.

  22. In 2010, after I made a controversial political website, I had a similar problem on Facebook. Somebody who didn’t like me apparently flagged a photo which had been sitting in my photo album since 2008. It was a photo from a performance where I was being breastfed by an adult woman. I was locked out of my account for 30 days. By the time my account was activated again, I’d decided I was done playing in Facebook’s walled garden. 

  23. I’m not on FB any more, so I’ll ask here: Does the comic strip/panel “love is…” have a Facebook presence?

    You know the one I mean, the naked babies in love. Betsy Wetsy and Infant Ken (who is sometimes dead). BW’s lady dots are visible in just about every panel, in however many newspapers across the country never got around to cancelling the strip (which, since the original cartoonist seems to have joined her husband in Deadland, would logically be the adventures of a pair of consenting necrophiliacs).

  24. What do we expect from a website that also disables the accounts of real people without question when reported by strangers as fake?

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