Unintended Consequences of The Social Web

At the Nebraska Library Commission we have a flickr account to which we post photos of NE libraries, and NLC-related events. As we don’t post daily, or even weekly some times, we’re generally happy to find out that someone has added one of our photos to their favorites.

This morning one of our staff noticed that one of our library photos was added as a favorite by another flickr user. She clicked on the link for that user’s photos and was presented with the "this account is not within your safe search settings, do you still wish to see the photos" page and she clicked ok. The photos were, as you may guess, rather pornographic. So, technically, there is a link on one of our pages in flickr to a page that would be considered rather inappropriate to many possibly even offensive.

In flickr one user can block another. By doing so, they can still see your photos but they are not allowed to add any of your photos as favorites thereby removing the link. We have since blocked this user but doing this raised some distinct and important issues in my mind. I asked that we discuss this and here’s the two original responses I received from coworkers: (quoted with permission)

There is also the issue of people who don’t understand the internet and don’t understand that things like this can happen purely by accident, and that we (the NLC) did not have any control over this.  Some of these same people will simply see a state agency linking to a full-on porn site, and nothing else.  I’d hate to be the person who has to take that call.  Or who has to justify the expense to the auditors (NLC has paid for a pro account).

We all know that when people use the internet and tools like flickr, there is no guarantee that they won’t stumble on sites/pictures that are offensive.  But why would we leave a link in our NLC account that would directly lead viewers to something that most would probably agree to be inappropriate for a public forum?  If we want libraries to use Flickr and they see something like this and think it might happen to them and think there is no recourse, I am afraid they will be scared off. 
Social networking sites provide users with tools like privacy settings, blocking capabilities, etc.  so that they can use the services in a way that’s comfortable for them.  What’s wrong with using them?  If we don’t think that’s appropriate, why should we leave this link when there is something we can do about it.

Here is a list of my initial concerns and some additional questions that we’re raised when we talked about it verbally:

  • Since we’re a government agency could this be considered censorship?
  • If we block this one user, what’s to stop up from blocking others and who gets to decide who’s blocked and who isn’t?
  • Does allowing this link give any sort of validation to the content of the other user’s account even if the system created the link and not us?
  • Would a link to said content in a blog comment post be any different?
  • In a Social Web world, do we need to allow for links that we wouldn’t create ourselves? Should there be more latitude?
  • Should these sorts of links be removed out of fear of those that control the money might react badly or should we take a chance and use it as a teaching opportunity?
  • Does the appearance of the click-through warning page remove us from any perceived liability? Is the warning page irrelevant? What if the user following the link has turned off safe search in their account (as one co-worker had)? Does that change the situation?

Debate on my blog has been lively of late and I’d love to keep it going. So, library-land and other readers, what do you think? How would you handle this situation? Should we have handled it differently and not blocked the user. Please, let us know.

6 Replies to “Unintended Consequences of The Social Web”

  1. 2 Things –

    • I think that definitely it is censorship. So someone who enjoys images which you do not enjoy or condone as an organization isn’t allowed to also enjoy images which you present to the audience enough to mark them as a favorite? That doesn’t seem right to me.

    • Anyone who has a flickr account makes the decision, as did the viewer of the link initially, to choose to view the stream which is clearly labeled as outside of your safe search restrictons. Anyone without a Flickr account isn’t able to see the images anyway. Therefore, if you are an aware Flickr user who has your safe search restrictions set, wouldn’t the impulse be to click ‘no’ when presented a stream which is outside of those? And if you click yes even though the stream is clearly marked outside of your safe search filter, isn’t it then on you that you saw images which you do not condone or enjoy?

    If presented with the option of limiting what you see to only images which you are comfortable with or approve of, and the user clearly has their images marked appropriately, and the likelihood of someone who would be insulted by this user’s images very low due to Flickr settings and safe search filters, why then take the extra step of blocking someone who enjoys your content?

    This year has brought the advent of a lot of features on Flickr which allow each user to surf within their comfort range, so as long as users are appropriately marking their content, I don’t understand the issue. Now, if the user hadn’t had a stream prefaced by the ‘outside of safe search filter’ warning, the response would make more (not total, but more) sense to me.

  2. sure people will say it’s censorship, but the rules of the flickr service say it’s okay to do, so you can do it without feeling any guilt. you aren’t blocking access to the internet; you are using tools within a service. as long as social networks are separate from the Internet as a whole, then you can always ignore the censorship accusation. but bottom line, anyone saying you censored wouldn’t be wrong (but I’d be able to live with that in my library).

  3. Interesting.

    I do not think it is censorship. You are a single government web site removing a single link. You are not suppressing the material there nor anywhere else. It is still freely available and the government is not suppressing it.

    Further, government resources are to be used for certain purposes. I’ll bet providing access to such material is not one of those purposes. There may even be a law that may be violated by providing such access.

    Let’s think more. Often such web sites containing such material are loaded with computer spyware and viruses that will expose the user to serious concerns of information theft and other serious vandalism. Government computers should not be exposed to such dangers voluntarily. Indeed various countries have developed branches of the military devoted to infiltrating our government computers. Preventing access to potentially harmful web sites from a computer security point of view cannot possibly be considered censorship.

    I just do not see this as censorship.

  4. I think it’s pretty simple. Look at it in a collection development way and have a straight-forward policy about it.

    Do you recommend the contact as a resource? If not, then there is nothing stopping you from blocking them. You are not keeping people from reading that resource, you are keeping your organization from appearing to condone the resource. Two totally different things. There are certain things we do not allow on our bulletin boards, there are certain things we do not buy for our collections, and there are many things we ask folks to stop viewing because they are inappropriate in a public space.

    And frankly, it’s SPAM. You wouldn’t let spam hang on your blog comments, why would you on your Flickr account?

  5. Can you set it up so that no one can link to your photos in Flickr? (I am not that familiar with Flickr…) If so, that may be the best bet….

  6. You know, I think Michael hit the nail on the head by calling this an unintended consequence of the social web. Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter were designed for individual use, not necessarily organizations’ use, though Facebook has rectified that, but this is a very real consequence of using flickr in our institutions.

    My personal opinion differs somewhat from my professional one. As a librarian, I don’t want to censor anyone’s information–you can do what you want in your stream as long as you’re within the laws of whatever country you occupy–but as a mother and woman, I personally don’t want to be confronted with what I consider porn while using flickr.

    My profile states that I block people whose content I find offensive and that my decisions are totally arbitrary. My grandmother and daughter both enjoy looking at photos on flickr, and due to flickr’s very nature, it’s up to me to keep them from running across what *I* judge to be questionable content for both of them by blocking people who have porn in their streams *or in their favorites.* This goes a step beyond the perhaps obvious blocking for stream content, but I have felt it necessary: on more than one occasion, someone has added one of my photos to their favorites, and so I click to view them all, only to see my precious little girl’s face next to somebody’s hoo-hah. Yeah, yeah, block block block. The world keeps turning.

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