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AOL J-Land Reality Check

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OK, I admit it: I’m confused. You might be, too, when you get to the end of this essay!

When I first heard about the removal of Amused‘s Journal from AOL’s Editor’s Weekly Picks because of “masked profanity,” I almost thought it was a joke. Ironically, the furor it has spawned all began when Musenla quoted a joke. Comedian Chris Rock‘s comment that started it all is at the bottom of her entry, “LA Confidential.”

Note the “f” word and the asterisks.

The next day, Musenla got a letter from the editor of AOL J-Land, informing her that because of “masked vulgarities,” her journal had been stripped of the honor. “Due to our membership audience,” the editor explains, “we cannot feature journals with vulgarity, masked or otherwise.”

Musenla says she has no grudge against the Journals editor(s). But she is quite correct when she adds that a warning would have been reasonable. She should have been approached about the problem and given the chance to correct the problem. If she had used the “F” word itself, the editor’s action would have been more reasonable; that she intentionally obscured the word to prevent it from causing a problem shouldn’t have caused a problem in itself!

AOL J-Land has has a lot to say about the incident, and the issue of censorship. John Scalzi at “By The Way,” says, “I don’t particularly see this as an issue of censorship (note that the offending entry in question is still up), just AOL exercising its judgement as to what’s appropriate to provide a link to.” (Scalzi is an employee of AOL, it should be noted, but he has a good point.)

Over at “This Sublime Dance,” Jamie says he’s sick of the mood of censorship that is done to “protect our children:” “I learned my first swear word from my grandma. My dad offered me a sip of beer once and I nearly died on the spot. I learned what sex really was…having a goofy conversation with other members of my fifth grade class. I fired my first gun in Boy Scouts. When I was growing up my mom’s best friend was gay. One of the first girls who liked me and I liked back was black. My best friend was Jewish. The girl I walked home with every day and who showed me hers in exchange was Mexican. And I grew up in Iowa. So what are we protecting our children from really?”

As someone who works in the media, my livelihood depends on the First Amendment. So I’m not about to say that censorship is right, though I often agree that things that others say should be censored probably don’t belong on public display.

But is this really censorship? Not really. AOL didn’t come in and delete the “offending” entry, or the portion of it they had a problem with. They didn’t shut down her journal. They simply chose to stop advertising it. Was what she said inappropriate? Definitely not. She took the effort to “mask” the word so that it wouldn’t be vulgar. We all know what the word means. And even if she had removed the word and asterisks altogether, we all know that Chris Rock uses language you’re not likely to hear in Sunday School. Who are we kidding?

The fact is, AOL has a right to enforce its rules. They aren’t the government, after all. They have a “Terms of Service.” We all had to agree to it at one point or another to be able to get an account. So we’re pretty much bound by its rules. It’s just unfortunate that the rules are apparently so open to interpretation. They shouldn’t be.

Does that mean that “Patrick’s Place” will never be a top five pick because I’ve referred to the offending word as the “F-word?” Apparently. If the letter “F” and a string of asterisks is masked vulgarity, I suppose the “F-word” must be, too, by AOL’s definition. But there must be a way to talk about an offensive word without being offensive. I’ve heard my preacher talk about bad language during a sermon. He referred to the same word as “the F-word.” No one stormed out of church. It wasn’t a “masked” obscenity, you see: it was the self-censorship of a bad word to make it understood without being a bad word. When I hear the term, “masked vulgarity,” I think of double-entendre. I don’t think of blocking up a swear word to avoid using the swear word itself. And I don’t think anyone else does, either.

I noticed something interesting in this week’s Editor’s Picks. Thelist contains four journals that are little more than a consumer commercial for AOL. The top pick belongs to AOL’S Money Coach, Jean Chatzky. There’s nothing wrong with this choice, per se, except for the fact that Ms. Chatzky’s journal has a single entry that is little more than a commercial for her service on AOL. There is no information about cutting debt, saving money or smart shopping…topics we might expect from a money coach. Instead, in the single entry, she talks about how excited she is to have been chosen as “Money Coach.” Congratulations to her.

The next three journals are written by people who went to New York to meet with Ms. Chatzky personally. (I’ll not link to them…you can find those links on Chatzky’s journal.) It’s interesting that only one of those journals has more than ten entries: two of them have only three. The third has exactly ten entries. All of them refer to how the Money Coach is helping them get out debt and refocus their finances.

The best journal of the five is relegated to the last spot. Lisa’s Life has nothing to do with AOL’s Money Coach, and is instead the kind of journal you and I would write (or already are writing).

Is this really reflective of the Journal community, or is it a self-serving promotion? We all know the answer to that.

By the way, the featured journal over at Keyword: News Community now belongs to Aaron, a husband, Democrat, and Church Elder. It’s odd, but when I click on the “Click into Aaron’s Journal” link on the keyword window, I’m taken not to the journal’s front page, but to a specific article that quotes the outspoken Michael Moore. The first sentence states:

“I have never seen a head so far up a Presidential a** (pardon my Falluja) than the one I saw last night at the “news conference” given by George W. Bush.”

Except that here, the asterisks are mine. Aaron uses the actual word itself. I’m “masking” a vulgarity…he’s flat-out using one. He’s in the Spotlight slot, while Musenla’s journal was removed from the top five picks. Like Musenla, the words aren’t his (whether he agrees with them or not), he’s just quoting someone in the public eye.

Anyone care to explain the difference?

(Incidentally, some of you may know that my journal had been the featured journal at Keyword: News Community just prior to Aaron’s. I was told my journal would be there for a week. It stayed for three weeks! I was grateful for the exposure and this isn’t about sour grapes at all. I’m just trying to understand what the rules really are. What’s allowed, what isn’t, and where do we go from here?” That’s all I’m asking.)

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.