Jerry Saltz, the new Internet content cops, and why if Facebook is network TV, Twitter is HBO
Last month, the Awl's John Herrman wrote a great and frightening piece called, "The Next Internet is TV." Basically Herrman argued that content providers' own properties -- their websites and even their apps -- will soon become obsolete as more and more content is discovered and consumed directly on platforms like Facebook and Snapchat. These are the channels.
Writers, editors, videographers ,and eventually entire newspaper staffs will be little more than Content Creators™ supplying "creative" to these channels. Anybody can still post their content to these networks, but only in the sense that anybody can show their content on Public Access Television -- albeit to minuscule numbers of viewers. If you want a significant number of people to see your Facebook posts, you need to either pay Facebook money or produce content -- like listicles and poorly-sourced sensational news stories -- that Facebook's algorithm likes to gobble up and spit back out to its users. And it's all in the service of selling more and more ads ads ads.
Here's the really depressing quote:
A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.So the Internet is TV, and these platforms are merely channels -- but they are not all the same. Snapchat, with its young audience, might be early MTV. Facebook's wild popularity and cultural acceptance across demographics makes it like NBC or CBS at their height.
It's not just Facebook's popularity, however, that makes it akin to network TV -- Facebook also shares broadcast television's standards of decency, which are often downright Puritanical. Facebook is famous for policing nude images, even when they are not shared for pornographic purposes. Most recently, the company suspended New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, who repeatedly posted photographs and other artistic representations of male and female genitalia and sometimes mutilation. We can sit around and argue about whether these images are "pornographic" or question the purity of Saltz's intent in posting them; nevertheless many of them have artistic or historical relevance, regardless of Saltz's desire to shock and offend.
Meanwhile, Saltz's Twitter account is still alive and well, hosting many of the same photos over which Facebook's content meddlers banned him. And indeed, Twitter says in its media policy, "We do not mediate content," and merely asks that users who regularly post images that some may find "offensive" to apply an account setting that warns virgin eyes before clicking.
And this is why it's foolish to complain about Facebook banning Saltz, or to complain about any of the other high-profile examples of content policing on Zuckerberg's platform. Because, to extend the television metaphor, Facebook is network TV and Twitter is HBO.
Zuckerberg has made it clear that it wants the biggest, broadest audience possible, and he cannot achieve this goal if Facebook doesn't feel like a safe space for suburban mothers and teetotaling fathers. That may make the social network much less interesting to you or me, but then again, I don't spend much time watching NBC or CBS either. In fact, the few times I look to either Facebook or the big TV networks is for the same reason: When there's a giant cultural event like a presidential election and I don't want to miss the conversation.
Twitter, too, wants to reach as many users as it can get. But its focus is less on user acquisition, and more on providing the richest, deepest experiences possible with users. And often, that means allowing challenging, controversial, or even offensive content to live in its space. That does not mean it should tolerate abuse and harassment -- but a photo of a topless woman taken with her consent for artistic purposes? This is exactly the type of content Twitter should embrace -- especially because you can't get it on Facebook.
That's not to say Facebook's standards of decency are not without issue. Its policing of content can be as hypocritical as that of network television, which will allow horrific violence on a show like Hannibal, but falls upon its fainting couch at the sight of Janet Jackson's areola. There was the time, for example, that Facebook banned a page promoting a womens' crew team's topless calendar it produced for charity -- the images left much to the imagination and were all PG-13 -- but did nothing to police a page promoting a similar calendar from the mens' team.
But assuming Facebook adopts more consistency in what it allows on its site, there's no reason to fault the company for removing graphic imagery. And while Herrman's vision of an Internet economy modeled after television is sufficiently nightmarish for those of us who think editorial policies should be shaped by journalists, not technology companies, with Twitter at least we know there's still a place for challenging content to live.