Interviews

The New Digital Puritans: Social Network Censorship #NSFW

An image of Reuben Negron's "Marley" was flagged by Google+ (all images courtesy the artist)
An image of Reuben Negron’s “Marley” was flagged by Google+ (all images courtesy the artist)

Reuben Negron, an artist who lives and works in Connecticut and New York, is best known for his realistic watercolor depictions of intimate moments, ranging from the raw to the vulnerable. His scenes often give me the impression of looking in a mirror. Negron’s series This House of Glass, “an intimate exposé on what we keep hidden from others – and in many cases, what we hide from ourselves,” and Dirty Dirty Love, an exploration of “sex, sexuality and identity as concepts … [through] interactions with individuals and couples in domestic and private settings,” were both shown as separate solo exhibitions at Like the Spice Gallery in Brooklyn.

I first “met” Negron in September 2011, when artists on social media were sniffing around the closed beta of Google+. Another artist, Paul Roustan, who treats the nude body as canvas, protested the banning of Negron’s profile by Google. The account was reinstated after Negron agreed to change his profile avatar, but this was not the last I was to hear of his ongoing issue with online censorship.

*   *   *

Reuben Negron, "Becky and Neomi" (click to enlarge)
Reuben Negron, “Becky and Neomi” (click to enlarge)

Samantha Villenave: Would you tell me a little bit about the first time you experienced online censorship of your artwork?

Reuben Negron: I’ve been dealing with censorship and criticism of my work since I first joined Facebook. Like so many others, I moved to Facebook after MySpace started running amuck with illegible, GIF-heavy pages and unchecked spam. My first profile picture on Facebook was a painting of two women in bed, one nude, the other covering herself modestly with a pillow. In my eyes the figures directly reference classic academic nudes, but right away the image was flagged by a “friend.” To her credit, she admitted that as a teacher and the wife of a conservative older man, she wouldn’t be able to accept my friend request with such a “racy” profile picture. I was amused and changed the profile picture without protest — after all, I was on Facebook to reconnect with old friends, not ruffle feathers. At that time, I also hadn’t thought of using Facebook as a marketing tool.

Fast forward three years and I was using Facebook as my number one source of online self promotion. I kept my work organized in public albums just as I’d done on MySpace, however, I now noticed that certain images were going missing. I’d occasionally get a message from the powers that be that an image was in violation of the Terms of Service, but more times than not I’d notice a missing photo when I went to share it directly with a friend or potential collector. I ran trials to test if my images were being flagged by someone or just falling prey to some algorithm by reuploading deleted images. Some were caught, others weren’t. Mind you, this entire time I was aware that Facebook had a strict no nudity policy. I just tend to not agree with most policies involving the human form (which in turn informed some of my more controversial paintings for Dirty Dirty Love).

By 2010 (maybe after even after?) Facebook had changed its Terms of Service to include “art” alongside “breast-feeding mothers” in their short list of tolerated nudity. I created a separate “Page” for my work, hoping to draw attention to it as art rather than blatant nudity. Three days after launching the page, one of my images was deleted from my account. This happened a few more times over the course of the year, prompting me to open a dialogue with my followers about nudity in art and ways artists can promote their work without self-censoring. It’s unfortunate, but there is a trend for artists, models, and photographers to censor their work with marring black bars or solar flares. I refused to do that with my own work, and as a consequence saw much of it pulled from my page.

Reuben Negron, "Tom"
Reuben Negron, “Tom”

The situation really crescendoed in February 2011 when the event page for a show called Hotter Than July, curated by Savannah Spirit, was pulled from Facebook completely. I believe they even went so far as to suspend her entire account and delete all the images associated with that show, my work being a part of it. It caused a big uproar in the art world. At that time I remember seeing articles about other artists with similar stories of being locked out of their accounts or being forced to take down their work. Luckily enough noise was made that Savannah was allowed back into her account, but ever since then the mood has changed. I took down my artist page and absorbed its content into my personal page. My work is still on Facebook, but I keep my albums viewable only to my friends. I trust that if someone is going to send me a friend request they know what I do, and therefore won’t report my work haphazardly. The downside to keeping my work private is that I’ve now cut myself off from a huge resource. As I understand it, people who aren’t in direct contact with me can only see my work if it’s shared publicly, which I do from time to time, but with caution.

Samantha Villenave: As you said, you have deleted your Facebook art page and no longer have that as a marketing tool. How has this affected your online visibility as an artist? Have you found other solutions to fill that void, other social networks, perhaps, where you feel you are free to share your work without the constant concern that it will be censored? Or are you battling these same issues elsewhere?

Reuben Negron, "Roxy" (click to enlarge)
Reuben Negron, “Roxy” (click to enlarge)

Reuben Negron: Facebook was an efficient tool to reach a large group of people, but I was by no means dependent on it. I have my own website and news feed that I often direct my friends to whenever I have an upcoming event or bit of news to share — but I will admit that it’s limited my ability to broaden my exposure. Most people want their content delivered directly to them, having it embedded in a status update or email. Click-throughs ask a bit of investment on the audiences’ part, and therefore a drop-off is expected when posting an external link. But we make do with what’s available.

I have been active on Google+ for the past year and a half. I was excited when it first came on the scene. Nascent social networks are great because you get to be a part of their development, and I was hoping that with a more mature target audience, Google+ would become the refuge for artists and creatives Facebook wasn’t. However, like Facebook, my first profile picture for Google+ was flagged and I was locked out of my account until I changed the image. While you can search for pornography and other graphic materials with a Google search, Google+ has an understandably more conservative approach to content. What they do right, in my opinion, is let you know what images violate their Terms of Service and give you an option to either alter, delete, or hide them on your own. It’s much more empowering. There is also a review process that you can submit flagged images to if you feel one was singled out in error. Since joining I’ve only had one image flagged that failed the review process and two others that were censored in a public post but are still viewable in my photo albums. All in all they seem to have a less reactionary stance on artistic nudes, and the available options to challenge censorship are reason alone for other creatives to consider using it over Facebook.

But Facebook and Google+ aside, I know my work is always going to raise eyebrows simply for its content. And that’s partly the point. I have a very specific agenda with my work — I want to challenge people’s attitudes toward sex, nudity, and taboo subject matter. I feel that our culture has an unhealthy disconnect between our bodies and personal identities, and the only way to confront this is to create work that shines a light on it. For every piece that is deleted I get to ask the question, “Why?” Is a nipple more damaging than hate speech? Are a man’s genitals more threatening than firearms? What does it say about us that we are so willing to self-censor in the face of self-critique?

Reuben Negron, "Karin"
Reuben Negron, “Karin”

Samantha Villenave: Having, as you state, an agenda of challenging “attitudes toward sex, nudity, and taboo subject matter,” what’s the effect of the online censorship that you’ve experienced? Does it provoke you to further push the boundaries? Do you feel that the “snap judgement” universe of social networks leaves any hope that such efforts can be thoughtfully considered?

Reuben Negron: Censorship has only prompted me to continue doing what I do. In the beginning I admit that I was angry and took the deletion of my work personally. It’s easy to be influenced negatively by such things. But I quickly realized that it opened the door for much broader dialogue. I’ve never wanted my work to be easy — it’s a means to an end, impact beyond the aesthetic. If controversy on social networks can be the catalyst for viewer participation beyond the gallery walls, then so be it.

But before I’m misunderstood, don’t think I’m making a case for online censorship. This is merely how I’ve come to utilize it in my favor. Just because social networks don’t allow nudity doesn’t mean it’s stricken from public awareness. If anything I think this type of censorship shines a spotlight on the issue and forces some, if not many, to take it up as a cause. Our sense of decency evolves with time and so do our social networks. One easy way around needless censorship is content filters. Photography and art sites such as 500px and deviantART already employ content filters based on nudity, sexual themes, offensive language, and violence, and while they aren’t always perfect, they do a much better job of nurturing creative talent. That being said, where 500px and deviantART fall short is their ability to connect with an audience outside the creative fields, which is why places like Twitter, Google+, and Facebook are so vital to artists.

comments (0)