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18 January 2005

Who's responsible for Technorati's tag results?

(Technorati has responded to these concerns - see my update at the end of this post.)

Rebecca Blood has discovered a significant problem with the new Technorati tag aggregator: Technorati doesn't moderate its pictures in any way, i.e. it doesn't check whether Flickr users have flagged pictures with '"Might be offensive", or provide any of its own reporting tools.

When Rebecca contacted Technorati to alert them to a particularly offensive result for Martin Luther King, she got the distinct impression that they "couldn't be bothered" doing anything about it:

I called Technorati to register a protest, but was informed that Technorati had no mechanism available for removing the photo other than turning off the entire Flickr feed. Worse, I was met with polite protestations that Technorati is not in the business of editing the Web, just delivering it. I was also given some vague heebee-jeebee about "community standards" and how "the community would decide".

Well, I'm here to tell you that community standards vary wildly, and in the case of an aggregator mean nothing at all... Furthermore, "community standards" do not, indeed, can not defend against abuse of the system--only design can do that.

...Similar situations will come up in the future. It's certain that some people will try to game the system, deliberately tagging their photos to misdirect people, make a political statement, or otherwise promote their own interests. It seemed to me that Technorati would want to start thinking about that now: to Design for Evil, as Bruce Sterling has said.

It really worries me that Technorati wasn't interested in Rebecca's feedback, especially when it wasn't just an easy rant. Rebecca is sensitive to the limits of Technorati's responsibility and also has great suggestions for improvement.

I would go further than Rebecca and say that Technorati has entered the editorial business, whether they intended to or not. There are a couple of factors that make the Technorati service significantly different from Google:

  • They have selected the feeds they include, i.e. they have made an editorial decision to include del.icio.us, Flickr and weblog results. This is a very partial view of the web, when you compare it to Google's mission to 'organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful'. 
  • The design of the page is not neutral - it accords more weight to some items than others (e.g. the newest picture is singled out at the top of the page and much larger than the others). People have been trained to read that design decision in a particular way - if it's prominent, it's important. And there is no other obvious alternative explanation of the hierarchy, e.g. 'new!' or 'latest' flags
  • The most recent (and therefore prominent) weblog posts are aligned with the picture. Again, this is suggestive; this time it implies a relationship between the text and picture. It creates a story.

I would also argue that Technorati has entered the community business. They near-enough acknowledged this when they brushed Rebecca off with their 'the community will decide' line. All of the content that Technorati returns in its results is personal, or conversational content. This doesn't only have implications in terms of context and appropriateness (Rebecca's thoughts on this are particularly astute) but also in terms of Technorati's responsibility to the creators of that content.

A simple example should suffice to make this point. The results for the 'teens' tag ("This page shows all kinds of goodies from the web about teens") follow:

Teens_4

Here you have a depressing selection of links to teen pornography (aka images of child abuse), illustrated with a cool snapshot from a teenage road trip. I very much doubt that the contributor of this image would be at all happy with Technorati's re-presentation of it.

So, how would Technorati handle their call? Suggest they remove their picture from Flickr, or restrict its Flickr permissions to family and friends only?

That's not good enough. Firstly, the problem wasn't created within or by Flickr. Secondly, as Anil Dash says, "I want to participate in the loosely-connected information ecosystem. I just want to know that people building platforms on this stuff are thinking about the cultural implications of the choices they make."

Anyway, as I said before, I'm really enjoying Technorati's tag search (my new favourites are all of the craft tags - craft, knitting, softies, collage - and toys) and a lot of what appeals to me is the lovely, editorial, design of the pages. But Technorati has entered the editorial/community business and needs to acknowledge its new responsibilities. The problems seem solvable through design and some limited community support services.

Tags: , , , ,

UPDATE: David Sifry was very quick to respond to the concerns raised about Technorati's tag aggregation, acknowledging that he had failed to anticipate some of the issues. As someone who works in product development, I can empathise. Now, Kevin Marks has advised me that Technorati has:

1. Confirmed that Flickr's external feeds don't include pictures flagged as potentially offensive (they don't - yay for those clever folks at Flickr!); and
2. Removed the 'teen porn' blog from their database.

He also says that: "We are still feeling our way here, and adding community moderation is one possibility."

This will be important, as checking for an offensive flag probably isn't enough. Photos that are inoffensive in the Flickr context might be otherwise inappropriate in a Technorati tag profile. And there is still the wider question of whether Technorati wants to be a neutral aggregator of tagged items or an editorial service.

I'm really looking forward to seeing how Technorati's tag aggregation develops... but for now, not only does Technorati deserve kudos for getting such an interesting product out there, they get a second round of applause for dealing with some of its unintended consequences so quickly.

Posted at 11:00 AM in Social software | Permalink

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Comments

Interesting post.

There's no doubt that the new Tag search is bringing up some ethical and moral questions to the surface that we weren't expecting. Thanks for the thoughts and for bringing it to our attention, clearly we need to think about this some more, as there are some significant issues rolling around...

Dave

Posted by: David Sifry at 18 Jan 2005 15:04:54

I'm really pleased that you're going to think about this some more.

Hopefully you don't decide to withdraw this service, as it is really interesting and sometimes quite delightful. There's often a real reluctance to get involved in any kind of moderation - because of the difficulties of scaling any people-powered solutions - but reactive moderation models, where your users flag issues and you respond, aren't completely unworkable. (It might be instructive to find out more about how Flickr moderates.)

Posted by: Foe at 18 Jan 2005 15:38:03

We have confirmed with Flickr that pictures flagged with offensive are not included in external feeds, so the advice to Rebecca to visit Flickr to warn about the picture was correct; we also removed the german porn spam blog you noticed from our database.
We are still feeling our way here, and adding community moderation is one possibility.

Posted by: Kevin Marks at 20 Jan 2005 12:34:09

I'm not a technical genius, but quite frankly don't see how they are going to manage this. Won't tags used by spammers, pornographers, racists, and other jerks will be hard to separate from legitimate posts? It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Posted by: Beerzie Yoink at 20 Jan 2005 16:36:48

wah wah, porn and racism offends me. grow the hell up.

Posted by: internet at 25 Jan 2005 14:32:50

I second what the anonymous poster above just said. Technorati is (in essence) a search engine. You can't blame Technorati if some of the things on the web are unsavoury. Grow the hell up indeed!

Posted by: Jacob Martin at 30 Jan 2005 19:07:54

Much as it pains me, I actually have to agree with Jacob Martin and the anonymous poster above, though in slightly less inflamatory form.

Technocrati does not intend nor does it imply that things located in seperate columns are more related than via the mechanism of sharing a tag. Any more is the (incorrect) inferrence of the user. Technocrati can't be blamed for all incorrect assumptions on the part of a user. Moreover, simple documentation of the fact that they don't establish or even attempt editing of the material provided should suffice to clear up the issue, though its not even remotely necessary in a perfect world based on responsible actors.

Further, I don't see why Flickr felt compelled to remove the "german porn" group, or at least, I suspect it would be better for them to say that they removed it for copyright reasons rather than simply because someone complained about it. The last thing I really want to start believing is that Flickr would shut down and remove a group, any group, I started (and, sensibly, made private rather than public) simply because someone saw an image from it and complained. I'd feel that way even were it a public group, truthfully, but expecting the average Internet user to not go into paroxisms of vehemence when something that doth offend touches their delicate retinas is simply asking too much these days.

I don't blame the phone book for listing both escort services and churches, though both I find unsavoury. I am, I see, in the vanishing minority.

Posted by: Alexander Williams at 8 Jul 2005 11:30:37