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September 07, 2007

methinks facebook now faces a very serious challenge

I suspect if Facebook don't resolve this one a lot better than they appear to have attempted to do so far, it will cost them billions.

Next to tech geeky types, and perhaps no less so, women with young children, not least of them those who breastfeed, are the most connected, online types I know. This woman is a member of a group of 6000 or more members, which is far from small, but not a group to get offside, would be my advice.

I don't think we'll have heard the last of this.

September 7, 2007 | Permalink


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Man this is a tough one. My humanity tells me that breastfeeding should be allowed, and at a cursory glance, the fotos and the group was hidden away and private. Except.. there's stuff not revealed here. One of the statements from Facebook was about sending unsolicited messages - militant, unwelcome, activist messages about breastfeeding? *laughs*.

So my experience says, hell no, not on a predominantly teen/college site. Let them go to another online community more relevant to mothers.

Breastfeeding groups go against Facebooks original purpose (a site for college students and then teens) and their stated rules so FBs infrastructure (rules, regulations etc) aren't there. If the wrong person gets in and copies those fotos and posts them everywhere, the breastfeeding group will be screaming. Easier to tell them not to post. But then they are screaming again ... Damned if you do, damned if you don't. On a smaller community (football, new age, or high school/college), I'd be telling the mothers to take their fotos to a community specific to childrearing - to protect them and to keep the pesky pervs out. But on a mass community like FB has become, it's smacks of discrimination.

Yep, Facebook was developed for college kids (and then high school kids) for whom a pair of tits is a pair of tits. Baby attached or no. Social networks aren't democracies - but I still hate these kinds of situations. I'm on the side of the mothers. But online you have to work with the tools you are given. If you can't protect children from seeing bad things, you ban children from the site.Bloody unfair to them too (they didn't do anything wrong) but that's how it works out. In a real world scenario, it would be like me shrugging and saying, sure, go and breastfeed somewhere unsafe and unfriendly, and no, I have no way of protecting you. So I would undoubtedly do the same as FB did - only with a little more grace and understanding. I hope. Putting on my business hat, I couldn't do otherwise.

When I lived in Morocco, there was a woman who walked around in midriff tops and her navel showing (it was pierced). I wore a djellaba (covering). She was harassed to the point of tears and hated every moment of her time in Fes. I thought her actions culturally inappropriate, she thought I had sold out on women's cause. Bottom line, know what you have signed up for, what do the terms and conditions state. In a perfect world, women can walk around baring breasts for feeding and stomachs for piercings. But it's not a perfect world. Especially not online. Especially not when the moderator has to spend hours soothing ruffled feathers. That's expensive and time consuming.


Posted by: Laurel Papworth | Sep 7, 2007 3:51:58 PM


just to play the advocaat of the devil (a tasty drop) - is that not getting towards "she was asking for it?"

Culturally too, I'd argue there's little inappropriate in photos of breastfeeding (which is doubtless one of the motivations of many of the women who put their photos up - among others).

And when there are 500+ groups with the name Cnut (nsfw) in their name, well, it does appear that there is a particular senstivity to breastfeeding.

I am intrigued too that you say "So my experience says, hell no, not on a predominantly teen/college site. Let them go to another online community more relevant to mothers"

Shift happens - facebook have decided to open their network up to anyone, not just college students. I guess a deep ethical question is, if you provide a community space, do you get to say who can join and on what terms? Sure you can (as you say "Social networks aren't democracies"). But I think they should have been far more upfront about that, and of course, police it rigorously too - otherwise it really is deliberate discrimination, not simply accidental discrimination.

I guess for me this underscores the importance of open communities, rather than walled, or gated once. Real social networks (the ones we have evolved over many thousands of years) are essentially anarchic and self regulating. Online social networks ultimately have authoritarian regulators (how they use that regulatory power is a separate issue).
Flickr is facing related issues, and appears to be handling it reasonably well. Linden is in danger of imploding because of the way they are infuriating their core user base. Now Facebook is facing a similar challenge.

They can't win this one, which I think reflects their age and inexperience, they simply have no idea the kind of backlash which might ensue.

Posted by: John Allsopp | Sep 7, 2007 4:18:28 PM

Hopefully the furore which will break out over this (John is right, we breastfeeding mothers are incredibly well organised) will work towards breaking down some of the prejudices against public (and private) breastfeeding that exist in the real and online world, particularly in America.

What constitutes a picture of a breast? Is it seeing a nipple? If a child is breastfeeding you won't see that. Is it seeing the curve of the breast? Then Facebook should by rights delete every photo of a woman in a low cut top. Methinks it's not the pictures of tits that offend, it's the thought of publicly displaying a child feeding from anything other than a bottle. yay.

Posted by: Sara Lander | Sep 7, 2007 4:24:27 PM

I'm also playing Devilled Avocados :P

If they make an exception and allow a group around nude breasts, why not allow nude children? the paedophile group that ran for office in the Netherlands would make that argument. They would argue they have as much, if not more, legitimate right to a facebook private group with fotos as the women as they are a registered political party. Once you start drawing lines around dis/allowed nudity, the community gets involved and wants to 'help' *shudders* Collaboration can be a bitch sometimes. :P I wonder how the Neo-Nazi party finised their saga on Facebook? I know some major advertisers withdrew...

BTW I tried to join the breastfeeding group in support, but it's disappeared? o.O

Posted by: Laurel Papworth | Sep 7, 2007 4:49:09 PM


it's here


I guess one thing is to say you may not show images behave in such as way as is illegal in such and such a jurisdiction.

Part of the irony here is that many of these women are posting these photos in the strong belief that it will help normalize breastfeeding - seeing something frequently will typically make it much less socially challenging. And let's face it, little could be more normal than breastfeeding - regardless of whether we were breastfed, not too long ago everyone was - without it, none of us would be here.

I guess though the important thing is - who makes these decision? In our society, even if it is somewhat symbolic, we all get some kind of a chance to have our say. We can vote, and agitate, and protest.

But it would seem on facebook, all you can do is ask nicely and then be banned. If that really is the case, I'm out of there. That is not the social system I am going to live in.

Posted by: John Allsopp | Sep 7, 2007 5:01:07 PM


No need for devilled avocado's or anything of the sort. This is a simple matter of someone posting a photo of something that it is illegal to discriminate against in person. What makes it less illegal to discriminate against it in a virtual setting.

A woman has a right to breast feed her child in public. She therefore has a right to post photos of such activity in public.

If the photo was of graphic violence then this would not be an issue.

Posted by: Rob | Sep 7, 2007 5:11:23 PM

"Breastfeeding groups go against Facebooks original purpose (a site for college students and then teens)"

As if younger moms don't breastfeed, or don't need to know breastfeeding exists?

This plays into the idea that breastfeeding is somehow obscene and children need to be "protected" from women's breasts.

Breastfeeding is not obscene.

Posted by: badgermama | Sep 8, 2007 3:46:39 AM

Please quote a sentence in full "Breastfeeding groups go against Facebooks original purpose (a site for college students and then teens) and their stated rules so FBs infrastructure (rules, regulations etc) aren't there.". Children don't need to be protected from breastfeeding mothers, breastfeeding mothers need to be protected from college schmucks, or at least the community hosts have to be in a position to deal with any possible fallout. We are talking about an international, multi-religion, site now. Different value systems doesn't mean one is right and one wrong, just means different. Set the rules and stick by them...

I AM concerned about her behaviour: "Additionally, we do not allow users to send threatening, obscene, and harassing messages. Unsolicited messages will also not be tolerated. " I suspect she was extremely aggressive in recruiting those initial 6000 members. Militant politics is militant politics irrespective of how good the cause - and we will never know if they were spamming the fotos because its doubtful FB will respond publicly to their side of the story.

Posted by: Laurel Papworth | Sep 8, 2007 6:57:07 AM


I doubt there was any need for aggressive recruitment, and see no evidence for that,. beyond this email - and my inclination is that since the only reason we know of these "threatening, obscene, and harassing messages" was by the person so accused actually quoting the email, to think that it was a form email from FB.

My original point of drawing this to people's attention was to highlight the challenges of running social networking sites, and to suggest that FB have a PR conflagration on their hands. I've now sen references to this in TechCrunch of all places, so I think that is coming to pass. Given the rather blatant hypocrisy of carrying ads featuring far more salacious and exploitative breast display on FB, they really are on shakey ground. So they may have set the rules, but are far from sticking to them.

But it does raise far more important issues, and ultimately makes me question seriously the role of social software platforms beyond novelty - they are essentially totalitarian regimes when it comes to speech (regardless of how their authority is used, it is there, absolute, and unchallengable).

I'm interested in how this turns out, but I think it demonstrates ultimately the folly of building our social networks on top of such very feeble foundations.

This more than anything else should go into a users bill of rights.

Posted by: John Allsopp | Sep 8, 2007 9:15:40 AM

The only evidence I've seen of anything that could have offended someone was a comment made about how formula is "poison" and I honestly think it was taken out of context. I think that someone may have reported Karen for that remark.
As for the pictures being removed, one of them was of a baby wearing a "Boob Man" onesie. No breasts in the picture at all.
As far as the college and teen thing goes, I'm assuming you think that teen mothers would not have frequented the site in the past then? There are plenty of young moms in college out there. And the protest is also about the fact that there are MUCH worse pictures out there on the site and yet pictures that show no more than a low cut shirt (and considerably less than a bikini) would show are being deleted on the grounds that they are "obscene".

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