The late 2016 case of the Facebook content moderation controversy over the infamous Vietnam-era photo, “The Terror of War,” is examined in this paper for both its specifics, as well as a mechanism to engage in a larger discussion of the politics and economics of the content moderation of user-generated content. In the context of mainstream commercial social media platforms, obfuscation and secrecy work together to form an operating logic of opacity, a term and concept introduced in this paper. The lack of clarity around platform policies, procedures and the values that inform them lead users to wildly different interpretations of the user experience on the same site, resulting in confusion in no small part by the platforms’ own design.
Platforms operationalize their content moderation practices under a complex web of nebulous rules and procedural opacity, while governments and other actors clamor for tighter controls on some material, and other members of civil society demand greater freedoms for online expression. Few parties acknowledge the fact that mainstream social media platforms are already highly regulated, albeit rarely in such a way that can be satisfactory to all.
The final turn in the paper connects the functions of the commercial content moderation process on social media platforms like Facebook to their output, being either the content that appears on a site, or content that is rescinded: digital detritus. While meaning and intent of user-generated content may often be imagined to be the most important factors by which content is evaluated for a site, this paper argues that its value to the platform as a potentially revenue-generating commodity is actually the key criterion and the one to which all moderation decisions are ultimately reduced. The result is commercialized online spaces that have far less to offer in terms of political and democratic challenge to the status quo and which, in fact, may serve to reify and consolidate power rather than confront it.
It’s my great pleasure to announce the following event and related CFP. On December 6-7 2017, UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, part of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, welcomes participants to a two-day conference on commercial content moderation (CCM) of user-generated social media material.
At All Things in Moderation: The People, Practices and Politics of Online Content Review – Human and Machine we will offer a new forum bringing together those interested in the multiple challenges related to CCM, and to content moderation of all kinds. The goal of this foundational event is to map the current landscape from a number of perspectives. During these two days, scholars, students, journalists, policy makers and CCM workers will share their insights in order to generate a discussion about the challenges, methodologies and frameworks that are necessary to integrate a comprehensive, academic study of commercial content moderation, other kinds of online moderation, and its outcomes and implications into existing paradigms in labor studies, information studies, computing and internet history, public policy, internet governance and media studies, to name but a few.
Beyond analyzing the contemporary case of CCM across the social media and other digital industries, we anticipate that All Things in Moderation will require a look to the past and to other media sectors, as well as a gaze into the future, to anticipate the problems related to CCM and to our social media-reliant world, and to collectively think about solutions. We anticipate a fruitful gathering.
On Friday, March 10, I appeared on PRI’s Science Friday program to discuss commercial content moderation (CCM). Along with me was Rochelle LaPlante, who has been working on CCM via microlabor platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk for over 10 years. Of particular interest was a caller who dialed in from Iowa to talk about his own work experience as a CCM worker over the past six years. Followers of this site and my talks over the past seven years on the topic will know that my interest in CCM was first piqued when I learned of Caleris, an Iowa-based call center firm that has used “Outsource to Iowa, not India” as a tagline at various points over the years. In the world of CCM, being able to offer Midwestern people, along with their imagined attendant sociocultural positionality, as your internet gatekeepers sells -a concept I take up in my forthcoming book, Behind the Screen: Digitally Laboring in Social Media’s Shadow World.
I’m pleased to report that, after many, many months in the works, my article on commercial content moderation has appeared in the Atlantic today. The story has taken many forms over the past few months of work on it, and has undergone necessary evolutions in response to rapid developments in social media-related conversations, and public pushback against the incredible power these “not media companies” have over many people’s media environment. The addition of CCM to the discussion adds an important, yet frequently hidden, nuance to conversations of the social media production cycle, and making it known can only help the process of making the public debate around these issues more accurate and full. I’m pleased to have contributed in this way. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to not have received substantive responses from the firms I contacted.
For those wishing for a definitional primer on this topic that includes a broader discussion of content moderation, in general, please take a look at this short encyclopedia entry.
I am frequently contacted by press and by colleagues who ask me to define commercial content moderation, or CCM. In order to do so, it is also necessary to discuss social media content moderation, more generally – all of which leads to a need to historicize these practices in the larger history of the Internet. I am pleased to offer this pre-print of an entry on these topics, now in production for the Encyclopedia of Big Data, forthcoming from Springer (eds. Schintler and McNeely).
In light of the heightened awareness of these practices, particular given the recently filed lawsuit on behalf of Microsoft CCM workers, I hope this will be of use.
While this may be the first instance of CCM workers suing their employers, I suspect it is not likely to be the last. Indeed, this must be worrisome not only for Microsoft and other technology and social media companies who engage CCM for their platforms and services (e.g., Google; Facebook and their properties), but also those firms with whom they frequently contract in order to outsource such work – even if the workers themselves remain onsite to undertake their CCM tasks.Countless other web sites, social media platforms and apps also use CCM to deal with their need for user-generated content. What is particularly interesting about this case is the fact that the workers filing suit appear to be direct employees of Microsoft and not a third party, which will make it more difficult for Microsoft to appeal to the kinds of plausible deniability that such administrative and bureaucratic distance typically provides.
Although there are no definitive estimates of the number of CCM workers who toil on web and social media sites worldwide, the numbers are certainly well into the thousands, given the sheer number of platforms requiring adjudication in order to function. My own research undertaken with both Silicon Valley-based and Philippines-based workers confirmed that CCM work absolutely exposes workers to shocking and repulsive material, as a condition of their work, on a daily basis. The longterm results of such exposure are not yet known, but this new lawsuit will certainly contribute to the larger landscape of academic research and public concern over the issues it touches on, including worker safety, employer liability, social media policy and practice, legal responsibility and a host of others.
After three years as Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) at the University of Western Ontario, I have made an institutional change. As of summer 2016, I have joined the Department of Information Studies, a part of the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, at UCLA. I am an Assistant Professor here, and focus my instruction in the IS Department in Library Studies, while continuing my research on information work and workers, with a special focus on commercial content moderation (CCM) and social media, in general. I am grateful to my many colleagues and wonderful students at Western, and am honored to join my esteemed colleagues at UCLA in the diverse and culturally rich community of Los Angeles. Please find my faculty page here.
On March 22nd, I had the honor of appearing as a guest on TVO‘s The Agenda with Steve Paikin. I appreciated the opportunity to introduce the concept and existence of commercial content moderation to a wider audience. Here is the segment of the program in which I appeared.
“I had an empty shelf when I started this class and now it’s full of games.” –student in #lis9371 Analog Games in Libraries @westernuFIMS 2/26/16, 3:50 PM
This term, students in FIMS’ Master’s in Library and Information Studies (MLIS) program have the opportunity to participate in a new class I am teaching, offered as a special topic, entitled Analog Gaming in Libraries.
While video gaming has stolen the spotlight for the past several years, analog gaming – that is to say, non-electronic board games, card games, dice games and tabletop role-playing games – is experiencing a considerable renaissance, as evinced, in just one example, by the 60,000 players who flocked to GenCon, in Indianapolis, IN, USA in the summer of 2015 to participate in a four-day convention devoted to their play. The development and design of these games is the site of considerable artistry, creativity, sophistication and complex game mechanics, as well as a reflection of and commentary on cultural and political concerns and conditions. Indeed, one text describes these modern board games as “information-rich environments.” Their play is a hugely popular across many demographics, and their market share and economic impact is considerable, and growing.
Given these factors, this burgeoning area has significant potential implications across the practice and, therefore, for LIS students, particularly in the areas of information literacy and transfer, programming, information organization, information design, cataloguing and collection development. This course therefore serves two main purposes: one, to familiarize MLIS students with analog games (their play, vernacular, genres, mechanics, etc.) both conceptually and practically and two, to provide opportunities for MLIS students to think about analog games in the context of libraries and information organizations – their challenges as well as their opportunities.
Demonstrate familiarity with the contemporary analog games landscape (e.g., genres; taxonomies; mechanics; cultures) and knowledge of analog games history and their relevance to LIS contexts and institutions;
Assess and recommend games for collection using appropriate informational and evaluation resources;
Successfully develop and deliver modular curriculum designed to teach games rules, mechanics and concepts in an LIS setting;
Propose and program appropriate events built around analog games for a variety of LIS institutions and types of patrons;
Gain experience playing games and reflecting critically and thoughtfully on those experiences through multiple forms of writing.
On a weekly basis, students gather in gaming groups, sustained throughout the term, to play through a series of ten games selected to expose them to a number of genres, themes and mechanics. These play sessions are greatly informed by in-class lecture and discussion, focusing on topics such as:
The meaning of play
Games throughout history
Learning analog games and their culture (with a focus on board games, card games and tabletop RPGs) – including a significant emphasis on terminology!
Analog game design
Representation (race/gender/sexuality/ability/etc.) in analog games – we used the Said lens of “orientalism” to critique themes of colonial conquest and mechanics of domination as the go-to in many analog games
The political economy of analog games – a topic with almost no academic research ascribed to it; we are definitely covering new ground on this topic within the context of our class
Topics specific to the integration of analog games and gaming culture in an LIS context. To this end, we are talking about collecting games, programming around them, information transfer and instructional practices in and with gaming, demographics of gamers, and more. We are looking forward to welcoming two guest speakers, Michelle Goodridge of Wilfrid Laurier (a FIMS grad), and Nicole Dalmer, a current FIMS LIS Ph.D. student, to round out our in-class discussions on this topic
Students are also honing their writing skills by writing about games. Using Clara Fernandez-Vara’s text, Introduction to Game Analysis, we have adapted it to be relevant to the discussion of analog games (rather than video) as texts. Students produce weekly writeups designed to acclimate them to the rules and specifics of the particular game they are playing in class that week, which gives them a chance to practice both their information-gathering and analysis skills. They then are responsible for authoring five “session reports” throughout the term on games and play that take place outside of class. Conveniently, many students are accomplishing those play sessions via the FIMS Gaming Club, which meets weekly to accommodate student demand. Many session reports can be found there. The course was also featured in a recent Western News article by Adela Talbot.
Are you programming with games in a library or information organization? Are you an LIS instructor, wanting to bring these concepts into your program? Are you an LIS student or practitioner and also a gamer? I’d love to hear from you. The course will be offered again in spring 2017, and we are looking forward to keeping the energy going.