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The Terrible Secret of Livejournal, part 2: avoiding notice

Thu 9 Aug 2007 by mskala Tags used: , , ,

Link to Part 1.

In the previous section I mentioned that fandom itself is considered a perversion. I don't think most people in fandom are willing to admit that they know that. It might be another terrible secret - the terrible secret of fandom. The thing is that fandom is about creating a line that separates Us from Them. That's the point. That's why you joined - remember? You wanted to be among your people and escape from the ones who aren't your people. The trouble is that when we separated ourselves from the mainstream, we created a really good reason for the mainstream to separate from us too.

Fandom is not acceptable to the mainstream

In fandom we have our own standards of what's normal.  Those standards are different from the standards of the general population.  What we consider normal isn't normal by, well, normal people's standards.  Suppose I start talking about the story in which Paris and Chakotay are caught in the strange transporter accident that turns Tom into a girl and they fall in love and she gets pregnant and has an abortion and then when they repair the machine and he's a man again they try to continue the relationship but discover that although they still love each other, it just isn't the same anymore...

There are people who will react by saying something like, "Yeah, my favourite part was in the sequel when they found a new use for that Klingon liquor."  There are other people who will react by saying something like, "Ha, ha, what a funny joke you made up!" Someone who has one of those reactions will NOT be accepted as perfectly normal by someone who has the other reaction.  That person's interest will not be acknowledged as mainstream and okay and non-freaky.

It's not necessary to go too far into the darker side of fandom (which means whichever parts of fandom you think are weirder than YOU), before we hit stuff that's outside the mainstream.  As soon as you get into anything that can reasonably be called fandom at all, you're already pretty near the far side of the grey area.  Livejournal is about text (mostly), but fandom creates visual material too.  Hey, where would you go to post and look at fan-created drawings and paintings and stuff?  Quick, name a fanart Web site! What's the first one that comes to mind?

"Deviantart." Deviant.  Art.

Riiiight.

So we've got a lot of fandom material that's illegal under the child pornography laws.  We've got even more fandom material that's probably illegal under the intellectual property (copyright and trademark) laws.  And then we've got pretty much all fandom material falling into the category of "freaky and perverse" by mainstream standards.  And all this in a world where social networking sites in general are being looked on with disfavour by legislators, because they're supposedly havens for freaky perverts, and there are serious proposals in State legislatures right now to attempt to outlaw social networking sites.

And in the middle of this, you want Six Apart to take a stand on your behalf, with their already-failing social networking site, by making affirmative declarations that specific material, including material that is illegal, is okay with them.  Corporations do not do things like that.  That is an unreasonable demand.

Six Apart is a better friend of fandom than you think

When I read the whining from members of fandom about the current situation, I want to ask, "Okay, what do you WANT from Six Apart?"  Often it's not at all clear what people think ought to be done, but as far as I can tell, what most of fandom wants from Six Apart is something like this:

  • A precise public description of objective criteria for what's acceptable content on Livejournal.
  • That description to include declarations that the kind of material considered okay by consensus of fandom, is in fact both legal and acceptable to Six Apart.
  • Assurances that people can post the kind of material that's considered okay by the consensus of fandom, with no fear of punishment.
  • If the commentator admits that any real legal problems might actually exist, then cargo-cult or lucky-charm measures, such as extra disclaimers or age verification procedures, which are claimed to be sufficient to solve whatever problems are admitted.

The trouble is, the kind of material that's considered okay by the consensus of fandom, actually includes illegal material.  That's the terrible secret of Livejournal.  Because a significant fraction of fandom material (NOT just the lunatic fringe) really is illegal, it's impossible for Six Apart to give fandom what fandom wants.

Just imagine what would happen if Six Apart complied with the first demand while attempting to also obey the law.  Suppose they spelled out an objective standard of acceptable content, and suppose that objective standard was "We will permit everything our lawyers say we legally can permit," with a description of what the lawyers do say is legally safe.  Sounds reasonable, right?  That would satisfy you, right?  The trouble is, that would mean no more fanfic or fanart on Livejournal at all! It's all illegal under copyright law, or close enough that no corporate legal department can authorize it.

And that's before we even think about the child pornography thing - it's just on the relatively low-stakes intellectual property point.  If Six Apart even hinted at what the law actually says with regard to child pornography, they'd instantly be in the middle of a million-woman hissy-fit as all the fandom users organized to push their individual nonsense legal theories, attempting to deny that the consensus-accepted "mainstream" of fandom might contain illegal child pornography.  Fandom people steadfastly refuse to believe that the law really means what it says; and nobody wants to be called a pervert, especially not if they have good reasons to fear they might be.  So for Six Apart to publicly acknowledge what the law really says about copyright or child pornography, would be business suicide.

So could Six Apart make a noble stand against the unjust laws?  I don't think that's a realistic possibility either.  It's not what corporations do, and Six Apart is not in a good position to do it.  Suppose they tried.  Suppose they took some sort of poll of what fandom people consider acceptable and published the kind of standard that fandom really seems to want - something along the lines of "You can post your fanfic here, but you mustn't make money from it, and you have to acknowledge where you got the characters, and if it's got underage sex in it then you have to state an excuse for why it's not REALLY underage sex, unless it's totally hot, in which case, hey, maybe you should put an LJ-cut on it or something, and if a lot of people complain we might ask you to make it friends-only."  That seems to be more or less the standard that fandom wants.  (Members of fandom who are over 18 themselves might add a clause about forbidding persons under 18 from reading erotica; members who are under 18 generally don't think that's necessary.)  A standard like that also seems to be what most people in fandom honestly believe the law permits.  Suppose Six Apart did that and stuck to it.

In that case Livejournal would last about two seconds.  Barak and his friends would go straight to Federal prison for basically forever, and their user database would be seized and searched and a lot of fine upstanding members of the fic community would very likely end up in jail too.  Forget the Warriors For Innocence; there are much bigger evils moving in this world, like for instance Focus on the Family.  They'd just love to have a social networking site to make an example of.  Do you realize the magnitude of the Christian Right's influence on US society at this time?  Do you realize just how much fear there is of all social networking sites right now?  Do you know what they're saying about MySpace and Facebook?  Do you have any idea how your precious fanfic and fanart would look to Joe and Mary Whitebread?

After the feeding frenzy had abated a little, strict laws would be passed across the USA to make sure that no evil like Livejournal was ever permitted to exist again.  A massive witchhunt would ensue and all of fandom, including YOU, would be the victims.  All die, oh, the embarassment.  That's not the good outcome.  Don't wish for it.

The best thing Six Apart could do for fandom is basically what they did.  They said "We will obey the law."  They have to say that.  They didn't say what the law actually entails, which means they didn't admit to knowing what the law actually entails, and they didn't force us all to have the very unfortunate discussion of how much fandom material is actually legal.  They said "We will ban anyone we know is doing illegal things through Livejournal."  They also have to say that.  They didn't say how strongly they have to know you're doing illegal things to warrant a ban.  They didn't say it - because it would be suicide - but they came as close as they possibly could to saying, "If you make sure we don't see it, we'll let you post what you want to post.  And we'll try hard not to look until we're forced to."

They're cutting fandom a huge amount of slack there.  They're cutting so much slack that they're actually incurring some serious risk already.  They left open the possibility for fandom to continue to use Livejournal more or less the way fandom has always used Livejournal, provided everyone uses just a little discretion in not posting things that freak the mundanes where the mundanes can see them, and provided everyone accepts that there are risks Six Apart can't and won't shield us from.  But still you whine, and still you act like Six Apart are the bad guys.  It's not their fault that you want to do illegal things and they won't actively help you.

Next: what to do?

Comments at end of article.

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