At first I was delighted when Blogger in August 2005 introduced "Flag as objectionable" - after all, I am sure I'm not the only one who's been urging them to add a button to their Navbar to let blog readers flag spam blogs.
Flagging spam blogs is one thing - but marking blogs as "objectionable" is another. I'm really not sure if that's going too far. No, this post hasn't been triggered by anyone flagging my blog - at least I hope they haven't been! It was the recent laudable step up in efforts to stamp out spam blogs which made me start wondering more about the whole thing. Yes, we all hate spam: but in extending flagging to "objectionable" blogs too, has Blogger gone too far?
Clearly Blogger are conscious that this is a potentially tricky issue - their first sentence in their Help page on the Flag button says:
The Flag button is not censorship and it cannot be manipulated by angry mobs. Political dissent? Incendiary opinions? Just plain crazy? Bring it on.
So why am I concerned about this? Well OK, this feature lets them identify blogs that many people don't like:
We track the number of times a blog has been flagged as objectionable and use this information to determine what action is needed. This feature allows the blogging community as a whole to identify content they deem objectionable. Have you read The Wisdom of Crowds? It's sort of like that.
But what bothers me is, is it really right to trust "the wisdom of crowds" on what is or is not objectionable? And secondly, is what Blogger do to "objectionable" blogs right, is it really the best way to deal with "objectionable" blogs?
I'll start with the latter.
What happens to "objectionable" blogs?Spam blogs (aka "splogs") are pretty obvious; everyone (except spammers of course) would be very happy for them to be zapped immediately. But what about the other blogs? The ones which express views the majority don't like, whether religious, political or sexual, whatever? Blogger say:
The "Flag?" button is a means by which readers of Blog*Spot can help inform us about potentially questionable content, so we can prevent others from encountering such material by setting particular blogs as "unlisted." This means the blog won't be promoted on Blogger.com but will still be available on the web — we prefer to keep in mind that one person's vulgarity is another's poetry. Or something like that.
So far so good. But what does being "unlisted" really mean? Is it really very different from being deleted altogether? Glance at the bottom of Blogger's help page about "unlisted", and you'll see that not only will the blog not appear against the owner's Blogger profile - it won't be crawled by search engines either (if the blog is using Blogger's BlogMetaData tag - which includes all blogs using one of their standard templates). And on the web, as everyone knows, if you're not crawled by the search engines you may as well be invisible. So, it's not very different from censoring the blog in question - to say otherwise is really being quite disingenuous. It seems to me the bottom line is: if you're unlisted, you're toast. Especially if yours is not already a hugely popular blog where zillions have bookmarked your URL (and how many of us have that?). Effectively you'll be silenced, and never have the chance to develop your readership.
The Wisdom of Crowds?Turn the clock back a couple hundred years, and the crowds thought slavery was acceptable. Even just a century ago - women shouldn't be allowed to vote. Germany during the second world war - certain kinds of people aren't really human and should be exterminated. Sorry, but when it comes to some things, trusting the "crowds" can be downright dangerous, in my book. We're supposed to be living in a free society now, well many of us anyway. It's not hard at all to envisage concerted flagging efforts by certain organised groups who object to particular forms of expression (or the people expressing them) resulting in some blogs being "unlisted": "Let's all go hunt down blogs about X, or by Y kinds of people, and flag them as objectionable".
It's great that Blogger decide to publish a list of deleted Blogspost blogs. It would be even better if they published a list of "unlisted" ones too. And info on how many people have to flag a blog as "objectionable" before they decide to unlist it. And how they decide what to do - if Z people flag a blog, do they just go with that automatically without thinking about it further themselves? If not, what criteria do they use to determine whether to unlist a blog?
It worries me somewhat that, despite Google's "Don't be evil" mantra, Blogger should be "unlisting" (or is it "delisting") blogs which are merely flagged as "objectionable" by lots of people, when they could address the issues by doing something short of unlisting.
A compromise?Could Blogger do something else that's more compatible with freedom of speech where a blog is not spam, but just "objectionable" to some groups? I think so. I suggest they could do any of these (or ideally a combination):
- give bloggers (via Dashboard) a checkbox to class their blog as "Controversial" (or the like), which should mean, NOT that the blog becomes unlisted, but that -
- it will automatically include a warning at the top of each page that says something like "Some may find the contents of this blog objectionable, if you might, do not read it!" (and make it part of their Terms of Service (or TOS) that any template edit that deletes that warning will render the blog liable to deletion), and
- the "Next Blog" link in the navbar will never, ever take anyone to that blog
- at least contact the blog owner and give them a chance to have their say, if enough people have flagged the blog as unobjectionable to reach whatever threshold Blogger has set
- if a blog is nevertheless deemed "objectionable" by Blogger, and they don't agree with the owner, then insert that warning at the top of the page (and delete the blog if the owner removes it) [inadvertent omission corrected 22 October, thanks Neddy!:] and make sure that the "Next Blog" navbar button can't take anyone to that blog
- unlist the blog from Blogger profiles, but at least don't stop it from being indexed by the search engines.
I would hope that sort of thing should deal with any serial objectors, while preserving some semblance of freedom of speech and allowing minorities to be heard. Maybe it's too much work for Blogger to implement something like that, but with Google's money behind them, why not show that they still care about not being evil?
Meanwhile, if your blog has been "unlisted" as "objectionable" - you can always delete the BlogMetaData tag and insert your own tags, so that your blog can hopefully still be found via the search engines (unless of course Blogger change their TOS to stop you doing that too!).
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