When is Inappropriate Content Really Inappropriate?


WordPress’s announcement that it purchased Tumblr resurrected a debate over inappropriate content — porn — that had previously been banned on the platform.

When you hear the phrase “inappropriate content,” what pops in your head?

If you asked a dozen people to write down their own definition, you’d get plenty of differing answers. You might even get close to a dozen…unless all of them simply wrote, “porn.”

WordPress recently announced it purchased blogging platform Tumblr from its previous owner, Verizon. Last year, Tumblr introduced a ban on “adult content.” The move angered some users who felt Tumblr gave them creative freedom with their content. Some posters found their content being flagged. Some of them had no desire to post porn.

To their credit, they were specific when they defined “adult content:”

Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.

Some content policies don’t go into detail.

That sometimes causes problems.

I’ve told this story several times before, I know, so if you’ve been a long-time reader, you know where I’m going.

This story dates back to 2004, the first year of this little blog. It didn’t happen to me but rather to a fellow blogger on the AOL Journals platform. This blog made its debut on AOL Journals before eventually moving to Blogger and then to WordPress.

The fellow blogger posted cartoons that featured simple geometric shapes to represent people. The posts occasionally contained language that could be a bit adult, but nothing too far over the line.

But someone apparently complained to AOL. AOL took action. By that, I mean they went in and deleted the guy’s entire graphics file.

They didn’t just delete the one graphic that prompted the complaint. They deleted everything.

What’s worse, they failed to issue a warning before deleting everything. If they had warned him, he would at least have had the chance to edit or remove the one graphic.

But he said there was no warning. Everything vanished in a flash.

The thing was, there was no explanation about what prompted the action. There was no codified policy like Tumblr’s that listed specifically what would be flagged.

All the blogger — and the rest of us — could do was guess what might have been wrong.

If you don’t have a list of offenses, you need to be more gentle in handling violations. Removing everything is always overkill when you haven’t explained what’s removable.

Of course, there will always be people who’ll scream about the First Amendment under the mistaken belief anything should be allowable anywhere.

It doesn’t work that way.

The First Amendment doesn’t apply to someone else’s website.

The same is true for sites like Facebook and Twitter. When you create an account on their service, you have to click a box that states you agree with their terms of service.

When you check that box, you put yourself in their hands. You agree to be bound by their rules. And if you break them, it’s all on you.

AOL’s problem was that by not spelling out the rules, they set up a situation where you could break the rules without realizing it. Their team of editors made it worse by wiping out entire folders rather than explaining exactly what the infraction was. To be fair, they might not have known what it had been.

Even on someone else’s blog, they have the right to decide what is and isn’t appropriate for their site.

Those choices will vary from site to site. You don’t have to agree. But if you don’t own the site, your agreement isn’t all that important.

There’s no right or wrong answer.

What you call inappropriate content might not raise an eyebrow for someone else.

And vice versa.

But all of us are required to do our best to understand what site owners think the term means…and govern ourselves accordingly.

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.