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.

November 5th, 2007 by