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Slipping down the slope of YouTube's new sex and language guidelines

December 3, 2008 |  5:25 pm
Profanity
Bad stuff.  (Photo courtesy Flickr user solidstate)

In an official blog post Tuesday, YouTube announced that it had enacted a new set of guidelines to sanitize its most viewed lists by cracking down on videos with "profanity" and "sexually suggestive" content.   

The changes, YouTube wrote, are meant to "help ensure that you're viewing content that's relevant to you, and not inadvertently coming across content that isn't."   

Let's remember first of all that YouTube has had trouble luring big bucks from advertisers, and so this clean-up undoubtedly has two eyes on the bottom line.

The way it works: If a video violates the guidelines, it will be demoted -- removed from the front pages and marked as "age restricted" -- so only registered YouTube users who claim they're over 18 can watch. YouTube's Most Viewed and Top Favorited pages are often where videos go to become mega-viral sensations, so if you want your vid to qualify for this viral launch pad, you'd better not break the rules.

That is, if you can find them.

YouTube is specific about what it means by sexually suggestive. But it says nothing about what profanity might mean in practice. (The site offered a similar nondefinition back when it banned drug-related videos.) Staying mum is a PR tactic, of course, because obscenity and profanity are notoriously fluid and slippery concepts. Any attempt to nail them down will bring a wave of examples the definer forgot to outlaw, or couldn't foresee. And that's why the definitions you do see ...

... skip specifics in favor of uselessly abstract notions of public taste.

Take this oft-cited attempt from an 1972 decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is sometimes employed by the Federal Communications Commission. Profane terms, it says, are "construable as denoting certain of those personally reviling epithets naturally tending to provoke violent resentment or denoting language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance."

Whoa, that sounds bad. Does YouTube really think its users find four-letter words -- like those for poopy, peewee, peepee, and whoopee -- "grossly offensive"? In all my YouTubing, I can't recall a single instance of YouTubers becoming "violently resentful" upon seeing a dirty word. By and large, actually, it's YouTube members that are using the dirty words.   

Even a cursory glance at the content of many original videos, and the comments on every video, shows that questionable language is baked into the YouTube aesthetic. Which means that if the company wants to help its users find content that's "relevant" to them, then burying that content may not be the best way to do it.

But most community-unfriendly of all is that YouTube is offering absolutely no hint to its users about what counts as profanity. Besides the refusal to offer a definition, guidelines or examples, it won't even send violators a message when their video gets the scarlet letter. It just happens quietly and automatically. So, basically, the idea is that you have to follow the rules even though the rules are secret, and when you're punished you won't know why or when. Sort of makes it hard to be a good citizen.

— David Sarno

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