Why Censorship is Bad for Community

You Have Been Banned From Deleteme

About 2 and a half years ago I helped start the first “uncensored” group on Flickr. What is an “uncensored” group on Flickr? It’s a group (or forum) where group participants are allowed to participate in and effectively say anything that they want without any fear of being censored, moderated, banned, booted, etc.

The group that I helped start (Deleteme Uncensored) subsequently spawned hundreds of other groups on Flickr with the name “uncensored” in the title. Much of the rise of the “uncensored” groups on Flickr came from group participants in various Flickr discussions who got tired of being “moderated” by various group administrators who routinely deleted their words, locked their threads, or kicked them out of groups entirely — usually in the name of being nice, making a forum more readable, or just pure dictatorial fiat.

In my case, the group I helped start, Deleteme Uncensored, was a spin off from another popular photo critique group game on Flickr called Deleteme. The deleteme game is played like this. Group participants put a photo into a group pool. The group members then take turns critiquing the photo in the pool. If a group member likes a photo, along with their critique, they give it a “save” tag. If they don’t like it, they give a critique with a delete tag. If a photo gets 10 saves before 10 deletes it’s put into a special new group of winners. If a photo gets 10 deletes before 10 saves it is kicked out of the group and the photographer can play again another day.

The idea with both groups is that critiques aren’t supposed to be nice, they are supposed to be brutal, honest and raw.

The original deleteme was part game, part photo discussion group. But the discussions, as they are apt to do in communities, quickly drifted off topic. As members took group threads in different directions, the group administration decided to lower the hammer and threaten certain members with expulsion.

Instead of being expelled, these members spun themselves off and created a much smaller group devoted to the same game, Deleteme Uncensored.

Today both the original Deleteme group and the Deleteme Uncensored groups are active and popular groups on Flickr. Both essentially play the exact same game the exact same way. Both are populated by many of the most active members of Flickr.

But what is interesting to me (after almost 3 years after being spun off) is that the uncensored version of the popular flickr deleteme group has become far more popular than the original version where group members are censored.

One way to measure activity in a group on Flickr is to simply see how many group conversations have been started in a given group. Even though the original deleteme group on Flickr is older than the newer uncensored version, it has far fewer conversation threads.

In the case of the uncensored version of the group there are 17,845 conversations. The original censored version has 1,473 conversations. Or 90% less. Now certainly you have to factor in that the original group can and has deleted conversations that they don’t like, but still, the uncensored version is far more active.

Another way to measure the activity of the two groups is by looking at how fresh or recent their conversations are. On Flickr, a group’s discussion forum’s first page shows the last 20 conversations. In the case of the censored version of deleteme the last 20 conversations span a period of the last 3 days. In the case of the uncensored version the same last 20 conversations span the last 2 hours.

What’s more, the actual game that is played in both groups has been enjoyed by both, although the original group has been around longer, the new game has been played almost as many times.

If you do a search for the tags that the two groups use in your game you find the following.

Deleteme Uncensored (uncensored)

photos saved still tagged save10: 3,570.
photos still tagged delete10: 11,576
Total: 15,146

Deleteme (censored)
photos saved: 1,471.
photos still tagged deleteme10: 20,265
Total: 21,736

What is interesting though is to try to account for delteme’s longer history and compare only photos taken since January 1, 2008. Here you have the following:

Deleteme Censored
Photos saved: 44
Photos deleted: 919
Total: 963

Deleteme Uncensored
Photos saved: 663
Photos deleted: 1,779
Total: 2,442

What I would argue is that in general communities and forums flourish best when community members are allowed to operate in an uncensored environment. Contrary to claims by many who would “moderate” or censor comments in a community saying that it makes the community stronger, I would argue that moderation or censorship actually hurts communities and makes their members less active.

A similar comparison was brought to my attention by one of the deleteme uncensored members Slowburn. Slowburn pointed out that a story recently posted to Slashdot told a similar tale between two forums focusing, on of all things, polygraph exams. Two nearly identical groups devoted to discussing polygraph exams were compared. One group a censored group, the other an uncensored group. Here too, the uncensored group proved to be the more active and popular.

Two other interesting factors to note.

The first is that the Uncensored version of the deleteme game is largely invisible on Flickr. What do I mean by this? Well Flickr has deemed the group an “adults only” group and has marked it NIPSA (not in public search areas) so it’s not very easy to find of Flickr. Only Flickr members who change their default preferences to “allow adult content” can access the group and non Flickr users can’t access it at all.

The second thing to note is that even though the uncensored version of the game prides itself in allowing free speech, there have been members in the group who actually have been censored over the past three years. Specifically one of the group members with a Republican outlook, in a group largely composed of more politically liberal members, has in fact been banned in the past and censored by the uncensored group’s administration. This shows that in certain cases still a group administrator’s passions can run so high that the censorship button is still pushed. Members who have been banned from the group summarily have been reinstated by other administrators in the group committed to a censorship free environment. 99% of the group still has remained censorship free.

On final warning, if you check out the uncensored version of delteme, note that it’s very
likely you will in fact run across things that could offend you.

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  1. DerekL says:

    An interesting assumption you make there – just because a group is Busy and Popular it Must Be Good… And I can Prove It Too!

    Not one word dedicated to whether or not the group(s) are actually fulfilling their purpose…

  2. You couldn’t tell Boingboing.net all this could you Thomas?

  3. TranceMist says:

    We need only to look back in history to see that Censorship is always bad and eventually fails.

  4. Yuvi says:

    It’s all fine and dandy, EXcEPT for the fact that I’m not allowed in DeleteMe Uncensored. Why? ‘coz I’m 17. What is that called?