why nsfw will keep thriving on the private web

September 14, 2010

In my humble opinion, all too many of Paul Carr’s posts on TechCrunch tend to be rather verbose exercises in self-centered navel-gazing about life in a wired world, social media, book publishing, and cynicism about the future of cutting edge medicine, which yours truly put through the grinder. But in a pleasantly surprising turn of events, Carr managed to pen an interesting column about censorship on the corporate web and how we shouldn’t worry that one day, giant social networking sites will crumble under user complaints and ban pretty much any controversial or adult-oriented content. His point is that the web’s privately owned portals make the conscious choice to be prudish and appeal to the widest possible audience to keep revenues flowing, hence you see temporary, permanent, or intermittent bans on just about anything that might get prudes in a tizzy. But when it comes to the diversity of the web, we needn’t worry, since the web will always have a place for what an enormous social network or a major news blog considers to be just too controversial to allow on their sites.

And this is very true. The more respectable you want to seem, the more you have to crack down on how much you let your users express themselves, and everyone from breastfeeding moms, to racy corset designers, to advocates of medical marijuana could get struck down by a moderator’s virtual hammer. Even when you’re on the biggest sites on the web, you’re still on private property, hosting data on servers owned and paid for by an entity which expects to make a profit on doing what it does. And if that entity doesn’t want your data hosted on one of its servers, it has all the rights in the world to ask you to leave. True, without that Facebook group or an extensive campaign on Twitter, you may not get the attention of as many people as you may have hoped since your reach is limited from potentially millions to thousands through a ban, but you will still find a space on the web to host your ideas, and another social network or forum ready to spread it. Places like Reddit have plenty of users and they’re very tolerant about potential, or actual NSFW content as long as you tag it properly.

There’ve been plenty of essays written about the potential for major sites or social networks to conquer what we know as the web due to their sheer popularity. A popular scenario describes how we’ll be logging into just about everything through Facebook, reading news feeds on sites partnering with social bookmarking forums we frequent, and purchasing everything we need through the sites to which we tether our lives. Since it would be so easy and convenient to whittle down the web to just a few pages worth of widgets delivering virtually all the content we customize to our liking, why bother going anywhere else? Well, how about because a friend of yours shared a link? Or you were surfing through a social bookmarking site and came across something that caught your eye? Yes, some social networks may look like they’re trying to create a closed ecosystem that will be regulated by their rules and policies for a billion web surfers, but they’re actually just portals to what lies in almost every corner of the web, customized by interests, personality, and culture. All those logins into partner sites do is open the door to data mining and further custom-tailoring of suggestions and ads. They don’t try to restrict or censor the web, or forbid you from venturing to NSFW sites if you feel like it.

And on top of that, there are plenty of companies for which NSFW content is crucial to their EBIT because adult entertainment is the the second most popular thing on the web, an intensely close second to social networks which have been spinning off into adult varieties for years, inviting web surfers to join and meet other adults in their city for no strings attached sex. Or more likely, a scammer trying to sell subscriptions to adult cam sites or get into your PayPal account. These sites will never go away because we’re drawn to what they offer with a powerful urge from our limbic system, and their business model is pretty solid because eventually, someone will buy something that nets these companies a profit, be it a premium subscription to a site, or some toy that would make for rather awkward conversation if it were accidentally left out when polite company came to visit. So don’t decry the supposedly increasing tyranny and censorship of big social networks and news outlets on the web. They’re just trying to avoid lawsuits, complaints, and unneeded attention from politicians looking for some red meat in a campaign speech during which they can pound themselves on the chest and promise to be the defenders of virtue and decency in the digital world. Right before they head on over to RedTube at their supposed bedtime to intermittently take notes about what they find offensive and indecent enough to warrant some in-depth research and viewing. But only for the public’s safety and protection, of course…

[ illustration by Tomasz Miazga, some images may be a tad NSFW ]

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