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Why AOL Journals Need a Rating System

Much has been made about the recent removal of content from a Dan Wheeler’s journal, prompting him to leave the AOL Journal community.

I have been doing a bit of research on AOL’s Community Standards, the very guidelines that apparently lead AOL to remove the content in question. First, I’d like to remind all of you what those standards are. I say “remind” because we all agreed to abide by them, whether we bothered to read them or not, when we became members of AOL.

This is an excerpt of the standards that can be found at Keyword: Terms of Service. Many of you will no doubt be reading this for the first time. My commentary appears below.

Appropriate online content.

By content, we mean the information, software, communications, images, sounds, and all the material and information you see online. It is provided by AOL, our international joint ventures, our members, or under license by our content partners. We do not pre-screen content generally, but our content partners are expected to ensure that their content on the service reflects our community standards. We reserve the right to remove content that does not meet those standards. Neither AOL nor its partners assume any liability if the content is not removed. Bear in mind that we can do this only on the AOL service: we cannot do it on the Internet outside AOL.

Members like you also generate content in chat rooms, message boards, Web pages, etc. It is essential that this kind of content also reflects our community standards, and we may remove it if, in our best judgment, it does not meet those standards. When we do, you may receive a warning about the violation of AOL’s standards if your account (any of the screen names) was responsible for putting the objectionable content online. If it’s a serious offense or you’ve violated our rules before, we may terminate your account.

AOL applies the same standards to its own and its partners’ content that it applies to member content. Remember that community standards vary from community to community. Some chat rooms may use stronger language than others. Obviously, some online areas may deal with more adult-oriented topics, such as sexual dysfunction, rape, or infidelity, and we offer our members Parental Controls so that you may ensure that kids who use your account can’t see that mature content. In most places on AOL, vulgar language or sexually explicit conduct are no more appropriate online than they would be at Thanksgiving dinner. So while the guidelines may vary a bit depending on the online area you’re in, in general, these guidelines apply:

Language: Mild expletives and non-sexual anatomical references are allowed, but strong vulgar language, crude or explicit sexual references, hate speech, etc. are not.

Nudity: Photos containing revealing attire or limited nudity in a scientific or artistic context is okay in some places (not all). Partial or full frontal nudity is not okay.

Sex/Sensuality: There is a difference between affection and vulgarity. There is also a difference between a discussion of the health or emotional aspects of sex using appropriate language, and more crude conversations about sex. The former is acceptable, the latter is not. For example, in a discussion about forms of cancer, the words “breast” or “testicular” would be acceptable, but slang versions of those words would not be acceptable anywhere.

Violence and drug abuse: Graphic images of humans being killed, such as in news accounts, may be acceptable in some areas, but blood and gore, gratuitous violence, etc., are not acceptable. Discussions about coping with drug abuse in health areas are okay, but discussions about or depictions of illegal drug abuse that imply it is acceptable are not.

Please bear in mind that these are only guidelines; there is always a “gray area.” Use your best judgment. Ask yourself if this is something that you would say in a room full of people you never met, or in the workplace. However, AOL makes the final determination about whether content is objectionable or not.

With all the content posted on AOL every day by our members, we can’t possibly monitor all of it, and we do not attempt to do so. Therefore, you might occasionally encounter something you don’t want to see. You can ignore it, but we prefer you report it using the Keyword: Notify AOL. Good judgment is important, especially when you encounter the opinions of others. AOL doesn’t endorse or oppose opinions expressed by our members, but we do sometimes take issue with the manner in which the opinion is expressed. Hate speech is never allowed.

The next to the last paragraph above sums up the problem that we’re facing here: there is always a “gray area.” Using one’s best judgement doesn’t always prevent something that another person would call objectionable from being published. AOL suggests that you ask yourself if you would say what you’re writing in a room full of strangers. I’ve been in church services where visitors applauded a soloist, to the horror of other members who feel it is never appropriate to clap hands in church. There’s just no way to please everyone.

The issue here, it seems to me, isn’t so much how hard a journal writer tries to please everyone, but instead what happens when AOL feels that the writer in question hasn’t done enough in the attempt.

AOL claims that mild expletives and non-sexual anatomical references are allowed, nudity isn’t allowed, and crude sexual references aren’t acceptable. This would suggest that everything that a television network would allow on a daytime soap opera is likely to be okay in an AOL Journal. (Although there are plenty of people out there who complain that even daytime television is too racy!) I don’t expect AOL to run a George Carlin-esque listing of words you can’t say, but I would expect them to be a little more tolerant when a “gray area” word would appear. Rather than deleting all content, I should think AOL would be able to “suspend” the offending entry — or the journal itself — and send a note of explanation to the journal writer. The journal writer should then have the chance to substitute a less-offending word or image. While it would still be a matter of someone else telling you what you should or shouldn’t say in your journal, you don’t own the software in which your journal is contained: they do. This would still be preferable to AOL simply stepping in and removing all graphics, including those that do not violate the standards of the community.

Anything less can lead to the very double standard that currently exists in what is left of Dan’s journal. When you visit the journal, you will notice in the title that there is still that certain word that would seem to be a violation of AOL’s language policy, yet the people who stripped out the graphics didn’t bother to remove that word. Even more strange is the fact that in June, Dan’s journal was featured in AOL Keyword: Men. He relates that he was asked to send a photo of himself working on his comic strip in this entry (with graphics still missing) from June 11, 2004. The graphics here are gone as well. So how could AOL have had no problem in June but suddenly had enough of a problem two months later to remove all content, including that which was featured withing AOL’s community by AOL itself? Does that make sense to anyone?

I don’t have a problem with AOL instituting standards within the journal community. Every internet provider has some kind of guidelines just to protect themselves from accusations of promoting indecency. I understand that. The rating system I propose would require that all users who are attempting to visit a journal rated to have “mature” content click an agreement that they are entering the journal at their own risk. Screen names created for those under the age of 18 would not be allowed to access a “mature”-rated journal under any circumstance. This is similar to criteria Yahoo uses for its online profiles: users who post more “racy” photos of themselves or questionable content agree to rate their profile as “adult.” Any user who attempts to call up such a profile must agree that they are willing to view potentially-objectionable material.

The question isn’t whether it’s censorship or not…we all did agree to be held accountable to community standards to begin with before we were allowed to create our account. It’s not fair for us to complain that they’re doing what we agreed to empower them to do. (If we want to say anything we want in any way we want, I suppose we could all go buy our own webspace and not have to report to anyone!) The real question is, how should it be done?

AOL could still be able to step in and tell us when we’re breaking AOL rules…and as long as they own the bandwidth, they should. But given that we would have warned potential readers in advance that all content might be objectionable to some viewers, it seems to me that AOL wouldn’t feel the need to take such an extreme — and unreasonable — measure to remove the offending content.

That’s why I call for a rating system for AOL’s Journal Community.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 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.