net.wars: Boob job

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 02 June 2006

Back in about 1978, the wonderful actress Diana Rigg [right]did a full half-hour with the American talk show interviewer Dick Cavett, during which she told the story of the Avengers episode in which she had to do a belly dance (Honey for the Prince). The American network executives reacted with some of the horror with which Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell said, "A handbag?"

Wendy M Grossman

The problem was navels. You can't, the network executives told Diana Rigg, show your navel on television. They insisted she wear a jewel to cover up her navel, and it had to be glued in place, (and the glue didn't work… but I digress). "Where did that come from, I wonder?" Cavett asked, speculating that somewhere back in the mists of time some executive had decreed, "I don't want navels!" I'm working from memory here, but I think Rigg replied, "I think it's a lot of men who don't want to know where they come from."

Apparently even if the navel reference is just a black dot: the press barons who ran the comic strip Beetle Bailey, kept erasing the navels off Miss Buxley, the blonde, bikini-clad secretary whose job it was to be ogled by the general.

Eventually, the navelphobics lost. Enter their descendants, the nipple-phobics (there's apparently an entire department on Desperate Housewives whose job it is to blur the actresses' nipples), some of whom are running things at LiveJournal, which recently declared some kind of war on icons depicting breastfeeding mothers. Even if those mothers are medieval paintings.

That is, of course, a vast over-simplification. According to a comment in Teresa Nielsen Hayden's blog by a member of LiveJournal's abuse team, in fact no rules have changed. LiveJournal always banned nipples (and areolae) in default icons in its terms and conditions. All that happened recently was that the site altered its FAQ to reflect that ban – which is when people noticed.

That's online community for you. Things are going fine until suddenly someone reads an FAQ, at which point they behave as though you've just shot their mother.

What is a default icon? Well you may ask. When you search LiveJournal you get pages showing user profiles. Each of these has a small, square picture depicting… well, anything the user happens to like. One of my friends has a picture of something that looks like a ferret holding a rifle. Another has a picture of herself piloting a boat. Many users have a clutch of these pictures, and attach one to every blog entry.

The default icon is the picture that by default shows up on one of those profile pages. Banning nipples from default icons in no way stops users from putting up pictures of nipples with their postings, or linking to pictures of nipples, or talking about nipples, or even having nipples in real life. The idea, I guess, is that people should be able to conduct searches in the complete confidence that they will not see anything that offends them. Like nipples. It's the same reasoning by which the Federal Communications Commission bans terrestrial broadcast television from showing nudity, pornography, extreme violence, and swearing: someone could turn on their TV and accidentally see something that offends them. We can't have that.


So some people got cease and desist notices from the LiveJournal abuse team asking them to remove their lactating mother default icons. They took umbrage. There was discussion. And now there's going to be a protest: on 6/6/6, that is, Tuesday, when an indeterminate number of people are going to delete their LiveJournals to protest this discrimination against nipples, or at least against the ones that are in babies' mouths, and a fine, old time is going to be had by all. There is a subset of protesters who believe they are striking a blow for breastfeeding and against bottle feeding, but this is clearly a confusion between cyberspace and real life and beyond the reach of LiveJournal rules. They plan to restore their LiveJournals 24 hours later, since deletions are not permanent for 30 days.

My guess is that the number of protesters won't even make a dent in LiveJournal's 10 million bloggers. But the complaint isn't, ultimately, really trivial: the underlying reality is that LiveJournal isn't a small, open-source cooperative whose rules and standards are formed by the community any more. It's a business with a venture capital-funded owner that is trying to figure out how to "monetize" what it's bought. There will be many more disputes like this as the business develops, because the dispute is really about who owns LiveJournal: the users or the business. Every online community goes through this, and some even survive. Groups who really can't stand it break off and form their own spaces, such as free-association.net, which broke off from The Tribe when that service abruptly changed its terms and conditions.

One of the big adjustments the US is going through is that sometime in the last century it stopped being possible to deal with disagreements with your neighbors by moving 20 miles up the road and starting your own new town. But cyberspace is infinite. We can do the town right here. Posters, unite! You have nothing to lose but your nipples.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).