Social software has opened doors to new levels of information sharing. One of the positive benefits of this sharing is reduced censorship of materials. If people want to see the horrors of an Al Qaeda beheading or have unfettered access to pornography, the World Wide Web offers it in all its glory. Even when policy makers try to subdue this information, the rapidity of information sharing through social software tools is bound to overcome the limits.
My view on pornography is this: offensive content on its own is no reason to censor. But if the production or distribution of the content equals harm to human beings (and to a lesser extent to other animals), then it ought to be banned. If someone wants to watch disturbing, or sexually inticing content and no one is harmed in the production, then I have no complaints.
But the harm factor does matter to me. Child pornography is the most common example of how the production or distribution of information is tied directly to the harm of human beings. Hate literature, meaning, specifically, literature intended to incite violence against groups is another example.
There is another, more subtle, ethical question I have recently about video sharing and harm. My stumbles have taken me to site that feature the videotaping of disturbing materials — car accidents, footage of Iraq and so on. Out of an odd curiousity for reality in all its uglyness, I occassionally click “play.”
A sub-genre of these videos is the displaying of typical high-school fights. In terms of “offensive” factor, these videos are about a 3. They are violent, but mostly childish and stupid. But the harm factor, to me, is sitting at a 7 or 8. The demand that I create for video footage of after-school fights creates a demand for after-school fights. The videos seem to confirm my suspicions in this realm. The camera starts, two kids are introduced as if they were from the WWE, and then they fight.
One video is quite poignant to me. It is of a young man being attacked by a group of 4 or 5 others. He keeps asking “what’s wrong here?” “What did I do?” It is clear that the young man did nothing — the other 4 simply wanted footage of a fight that they could share via peer to peer. In other words, we may have reverted back to the age of gladiators — involuntary ones even. And as I watch out of curiousity or keen interest and whether I am offended or not — it hardly matters, I perpetuate this reversion.
I have stopped watching anything that suggests “street fight.”
But here is the other crux. What are the implications for libraries? As strong anti-censorship advocates, can we make the distinction between the obscene and harmful clear? I think it is fair for policy to restrict the production of street-fighting tapes. Or maybe to make the video-maker liable for any harm that should come to the participants in the video and/or society at large.
Where I live there has been a noted increase in swarmings over the past few years. I wonder what role, if any, video sharing plays in this increase. I do not think this is a far-fetched hypothesis. Therefore, I think public libraries with youth engagement strategies ought to know that this sort of activity goes on, alongside all the cute lip synch videos found on YouTube. What can we do about it? Well, not much, except to identify it as a social condition and be a part of positive change to counter-act it. But this suggests a new model of librarianship — that of community role model — like a community police officer armed with knowledge rather than a billy stick. They sure didn’t tell me that I would have to be a role model in library school!
I love Video Sharing and all its possibilities. I do not believe in censorship, except in cases where harm to humans and animals is tied directly to its production and distribution. But to love a technology, I think you have to see it for all its foibles; because, in the end, it is not the technology that has the foibles but the humans with technology that have the foibles.