The dilemma of ‘mature’ content

“We do permit mature content on, including text, images and videos that contain nudity, offensive language, and mature subject material. However, blogs that contain such content can and will be marked as Mature in our system”.

from WordPress Policies and Safety – Mature Content

I found recently that none of my posts were being made available to any WordPress readers who were searching by tags or categories. Essentially the only people who could see my posts were those who already followed JustAddPictures. On investigating, I found that WordPress had categorised JustAddPictures as ‘mature’, and it was therefore removed from any searches by tag or category. The reason for this was that some number of people (I don’t know how many) had complained that a recent post ‘Portrait of Hailey’ was mature and not suitable for general posting. I have now marked the post private so it is not available for general view and the mature category has therefore been removed. JustAddPictures is open for business again.

I should explain that ‘Portrait of Hailey’ was a photograph of a female nude from the waist up, which I took at a recent photo-shoot. The results of the shoot are still a work in progress but I posted one shot which I thought was quite dramatic in its composition. The picture was quite sensuous but certainly not erotic. It did however contain nudity and therefore fell foul of the WordPress policy quoted above. It was one post out of a total of more than 450 on the JustAddPictures website. 

My first reaction on finding out what happened was to be both shocked and angry; I felt violated and that I had been denounced as a pornographer. On discovering and reading the policy I calmed down somewhat because the policy is clear and straightforward, but I remain very disappointed. WordPress have followed their policy, but their policy lacks space for considering context or applying judgement.

Of course my first disappointment is that I caused offence to some people, sufficient for them to take the trouble to report JustAddPictures. If you were one of them, I apologise.

I worry though that we are too quick these days to take offence. Indeed it seems to me that individuals and groups increasingly define themselves by what they are offended by and object to, rather than what they stand for. As a consequence we have reached the point where something can be defined as offensive simply because someone chooses to say that it is. And where does that leave freedom of expression?

Of course, WordPress can accurately say that they do allow mature content. Anyone is free to post mature content, provided it does not stray into pornography or illegality. However, the freedom to post without the tools which allow new readers to find that post is not much of a freedom. It is like being free to publish a newspaper without being free to advertise or distribute it.

I also realise that nudity creates some particular challenges in this regard. I would argue strongly that to define nudity per se as ‘mature’ is absurd. Of course, nudity can be pornographic; it can objectify women (and men); and it can be offensive. But to assert that any and all nudity risks causing offence and must therefore be deemed as mature surely goes too far. A large part of the core canon of Western Art would be placed off limits on this basis. The National Gallery, The Tate Gallery and every other major gallery in the world would be off-limits to minors.

Recently I posted a review of an exhibition of paintings by a well-known C20 British artist, Laura Knight which included an image of one of her best known paintings, Self-Portrait with Model:

Self-Portrait, 1913
Self-Portrait, 1913

As far as I am aware, no-one took offence at this picture and it certainly didn’t cause my blog to be classified as mature. As it happens I have recently taken a photograph based on this same picture. If I posted that, would it cause my blog to be classified as mature? If so, is it because it is a photograph rather than a painting? That it has not been awarded an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery? That standards have become less liberal over the course of the last century? We are in difficult territory here where determining offence is dependent on context and judgement; two words missing from the WordPress policy.

I can understand why WordPress takes the position it does, because it wants everybody to have access to their content, and it wants to avoid causing offence. But I do think there are a number of things they could do to refine their approach. First of all, it would have been polite and appropriate for someone from WordPress to contact me when one of their ‘Community Guardians’ (what a wonderful job title) marked my post as mature, so I had an opportunity to change or remove it. Instead I had to find out myself when I noticed that my usage statistics were falling. Given that the problem was caused by one post out of 450, I could also reasonably argue that I deserved to have the benefit of a warning before the status of the whole blog was changed.

Secondly, it should surely be possible to tag a single post as mature, if necessary, rather than simply excise the entire blog from all the WordPress Reader tools. That would seems a simple and reasonably obvious change to make.

But in the end, this is all a matter of judgement. I guess that WordPress, like most business organisations, hates any situation which requires their staff to exercise judgement; they prefer a black and white rule. But there is nothing more requiring the exercise of judgement than decisions about what is offensive. So, my friends at WordPress, you have a great product and I love your service and approach. But please think through your policies again and please introduce the exercise of judgement before rushing to define anything which might offend somebody as mature. I can tell from your policies that you are fully aware of your responsibility for protecting freedom of expression. But freedom of expression without the freedom to share or be discovered is not really freedom at all.