Not everything to do with technology means code. Curating a website means, often, you have to edit your content and your comments in order to foster the sort of relationship with your visitors that you desire. In doing so, are we censoring? How do you decide how best to handle comments that make you uncomfortable, and how do you allow yourself to question your ever-changing personal morals (because they are), while keeping the right ecosystem on your blog?
I am a censor
From time to time, I make people upset. This happens, and while I don’t go out of my way to piss people off, it’s just a part of life. No one agrees with me 100% of the time (heck, I don’t agree with myself from last year all the time). It’s just what it is. We grow, we evolve, we look at things differently. When people get upset with me they tend to act like assholes on my websites, insult me, call me names, or basically try to take over all the comments here. When they do, I block them out of my life.
Seriously. When people start that crap, I block them from commenting here, I block them on Twitter and Facebook and Google+, and blackhole their email. End of story, no chance to come back. If you’re the kind of person who’s willing to go that far and call me a “man faced dyke” then you’re not the sort of person I care to associate with, goodbye.
Most people don’t get that far, though. I’m all for hearing dissenting opinions, especially the thoughtful ones that point out fallicies in my logic. I would much rather people post replies to my blog posts as comments (not Twitter guys), because that removes the oft-crippling 140 character limit, and thus takes away much of the problems with discussing complex topics. I like long replies. I leave them often. This means that the vast majority of the time, even if you want to shout at me and say my understanding of XYZ is wrong, as long as you’re not being personally insulting, I’m going to leave the comment up. When you start belaboring the point (beating the dead horse, as it were), and refuse to agree to disagree, then I start moderating your comments and possibly deleting them.
Is this censorship?
At some point on Twitter I said “Deleting your comment on my personal site may be censorship, but it’s not against any law.” And my friend replied:
@Ipstenu There's a big difference between gatekeeping on your own private property and censorship.
— Jen Mylo/Jane Wells (@jenmylo) July 9, 2013
The reason I used the word may is that, for an off-the-cuff Tweet, I had not done any research into what is and is not censorship. I know that we use the term ‘Self Censorship’ when we’re trying to stop ourselves from enjoying a foot-in-mouth moment, but are we using the word wrong? When I decide to remove a post that I feel is detrimental to my site, how is that different from Google censoring your results from a search, or Facebook deleting your comments?
My rule of thumb for comments is this: If what you just posted is something that would prompt me to get out of your car, leave your house, or ask you to leave my house, it’s getting deleted. It’s pretty cut and dried, and if my hand ever hovers over the “Well, maybe this is okay” button, I tend to leave it alone. But, like Gunnar de Winter posited in 2011, I don’t know if I’m censoring or not anymore.
A generally accepted definition of censorship is along the lines of this: “the surpression of a text, or part of a text, that is considered objectionable according to certain standards.” One can argue that my site has my standards, and thus my suppression of a comment I find objectionable is censoring you on this blog. I’m inclined to feel that it is censorship, but I don’t think this is a bad thing.
When is it censorship?
There is a difference between gatekeeping and censoring. If I make a political agenda post about a hot-button topic, and then proceed to delete all replies that promote the opposition, am I gatekeeping or censoring? What about when I delete (or edit) comments left by people who are insulting? Is that inherently wrong? Where’s the line between “I don’t like it” and “I’m offended by it”?
One thing to keep in mind is that this is not violating freedom of speech. Or rather, it’s not violating your protected freedom of speech. Look. You have the right to say whatever you want. I have the right not to listen. In the US, the amendment is pretty clear in that the freedom of speech applies to talking about the government. So I can talk about how much I hate Obama if I want to, and the government has no law to stop me. At the same time, this does not give me absolute freedom of speech, it just means that I have certain protected rights. In 1996, the Supreme Court extended the full protection of the First Amendment to the Internet (it was a 9-0 vote, too).
So why doesn’t this cover your right to say what you want on my blog? My blog is a ‘private’ entity. So is a newspaper for that matter, which is why your letter-to-the-editor may never see the light of day. Neither the NYT nor I am obligated to publish your words. Besides, it’s not restraining your expression when I do it here, as you keep the right to go talk about me and how much I suck or I’m wrong to your heart’s content on your own blog. I tend not to comment on those posts anyway, so don’t worry about me.
What’s wrong about censorship?
If I said “Censorship isn’t all bad” I’m sure a lot of people would shout me down. But … it’s not. We censor pornography, private information, details of bomb creation (see Mythbusters) and so on. None of those things are really objectionable uses of censorship. In a perfect world, people wouldn’t break the law in the first place, so we wouldn’t have to censor anything (because we’d all be trustworthy). Sadly, that’s just not the case. In general, when applied fairly and justly, censoring might not be terrible. When it’s abused, though, and someone goes to the point where they block you from posting on the Internet as a whole (just pretend that’s possible), then we’re into a problem. Which means it’s not necessarily that censorship is wrong, but abuse there of is wrong.
So back to Jen’s point, it’s not really censorship, is it?
I do oppose blanket censorship. But I also believe that protecting my blog’s community, as well as my own mental health, means sometimes I have to make the choice to close the door on some people. As someone who runs community sites, the health of the community trumps my personal feelings, but that doesn’t mean I ignore them. Finding that balance, in yourself and on your sites, is not easy. It’s an ever changing landscape to navigate, and no one can tell you what’s 100% right or wrong.
Dare to Disagree
Just as I finished writing this, Andrea Middleton sent me a link to a TED video of Margaret Heffernan: Dare to Disagree. It’s hugely important, when you decide to censor any comments on your site, that you not stifle constructive conflict. The importance of being challenged and letting yourself grow because of it cannot be expressed often enough.
So Jen’s right. It’s not censorship, and I’ll keep on gatekeeping comments as I feel appropriate.