Porn, Ning, and the Internet

There’s been a recent flurry of commentary about Ning and porn. While I appreciate everyone’s thoughts on the topic, I wanted to post directly and tell you what we know and what we think.

Let’s take the issues in order:

First, we have built Ning to be a broad-based service — people can use Ning to create social networks and social experiences around any topic area they want and then contribute content and engage in any activity they want, as long as what they do is not illegal and fits within a pretty general set of terms of service.

Ning today has almost 150,000 different user-created social networks that span every conceivable topic area, demographic group, ethnicity, religion, political orientation, sports team… you name it.

As a result, usage and traffic on Ning are growing rapidly, measured any way you want, including by number of networks, number of users, and page views. Page views, as an example, are growing at about 10% per week.

As more and more people discover Ning, they are creating more and more new networks around many new topics — practically every topic that anyone finds interesting, important, or relevant to their life.

Second, due to this inherent flexibility, some people have chosen to use Ning to create social networks and upload content around adult topics, including porn. It is true, there is porn on Ning.

Third, adult topics and content are a relatively small percentage of the total activity on Ning. We have various ways of quantifying this, and all of them show this to be the case.

Fourth, bear in mind that you can’t believe any of the Internet measurement companies for any kind of accurate external analysis of Ning usage and traffic — or, for that matter, usage and traffic of any web site other than perhaps the very largest.

I’m talking about Compete, Quantcast, Alexa, and even Comscore — none of their data maps in any way to numbers or patterns we see in our own server logs and activity metrics.

This is a well-known problem in the Internet startup world and isn’t discussed often enough. It’s also a very complicated problem due to a whole hornet’s nest of issues, including toolbar adoption, demographic spreads, technology variations, international usage, and domain mapping.

I’ll come back to this in future posts. But for now, just remember that you can’t trust what any of these services say about the traffic composition or breakdown of activity on Ning — including their attempts to rank the most popular networks on Ning. Their numbers simply don’t map to reality.

Fifth, it would be possible to us to attempt to restrict or eliminate porn and adult content on Ning, and we do not choose to do so. Let me explain why.

In a nutshell, we aren’t pro-porn, but we are pro-freedom.

To prevent porn, you have to take an activist stand against freedom of expression — you have to get in there and judge content, judge people, judge intent, and take action based on your judgments. I would never criticize a company for doing so, but I don’t want to do that, and we as a company don’t want to do that.

We think a better approach is to let people fundamentally do what they want, as long as it isn’t illegal and doesn’t otherwise violate our terms of service.

Call it being agnostic.

And we extend this agnostic attitude to our entire service — porn, yes, but also other potentially controversial activities, ranging from political activism and protest organizing, to circumvention of censorship regimes, through to extreme cases like smuggled videos of human rights abuses in totalitarian societies.

Sixth, when I talk about porn, I am specifically talking about content that is legal, at least according to the laws of the United States. Posting any illegal content or otherwise doing anything illegal on Ning would be a profoundly stupid thing for anyone to do, as we happily cooperate with law enforcement authorities whenever we see anything illegal.

Seventh, note the unique nature of Ning: social networks on Ning are segmented by definition — and networks can be configured to be totally self-contained, so you don’t see any content or users outside of your network.

You can use Ning safely for many purposes without ever being exposed to any potentially offensive content.

We will always work to make sure that you can use Ning for anything you want without being exposed to any content that you would find objectionable. We have a wide variety of controls in place now, and more on the way.

Eighth, obviously Ning is not the first Internet company to grapple with these issues.

From the very beginning of the Internet as a mass medium, porn has been present, and all of the Internet companies that have come before us have had to figure out where they stand.

In the first stage of my career, working on the Mosaic browser and then at Netscape, I had an easy out from dealing with this topic. Mosaic, the Netscape browser, and Netscape’s various other products were used by people to view and create porn — among many other purposes. But I wasn’t “in the loop” of what users were doing — I was building tools, as opposed to running a service, and I never had to vote on whether or not I approved of what anyone was doing.

Then, during my time at AOL, I was fascinated to see how AOL dealt with porn. AOL had to balance two facts. One, their entire marketing thrust to be a mass market service meant that they had to come across as — and be — highly family-friendly. And in fact, they did a lot of work with parental controls and other features to make sure that families would use AOL safely. But the other fact was that a huge part of AOL’s actual usage all through the 90’s was for adult content — chat rooms, bulletin boards, and all the rest.

In practice, I think they balanced those two facts quite well — AOL could be used as a family-friendly service or as an open environment for people to do whatever they want, and it worked quite well for everyone.

This is a model that Yahoo then followed, and Google more recently.

Yahoo has always had an enormous amount of adult activity and material — some estimates are that as much as half of Yahoo Groups’ activity is adult in nature, for example.

And Google of course famously crawls and serves up search results and images for all kinds of adult topics, among every other topic in the world.

Both Yahoo and Google have been correspondingly very active in providing tools and controls to let people use their services without being exposed to objectionable content, and again, the balance has worked quite well.

More recently, some newer services like Youtube and Facebook have been taking a much more activist — or harsher, depending on your point of view — approach to adult content, actively policing user-uploaded content and deleting anything adult in nature when they see it. This has also worked fairly well, although it has led to the occasional awkward moment, such as when media companies like Viacom noticed that Youtube claimed they couldn’t possibly police for Daily Show or South Parkvideo clips even as Youtube was quite successfully policing for and removing porn.

I think both approaches — agnosticism and zero-tolerance — can work to build a business. We’re very comfortable with the approach we have chosen, because we find it comfortable to be on the side of relative openness and freedom, along with AOL, Yahoo, and Google.

Finally, Gina recently posted the following to the Ning blog, and I reprint it here as a good overview of how we discuss this issue with our network creators and users directly:

We’ve talked about Ning’s Red Light District before and thought we’d take a quick (and perhaps timely) opportunity to mention our general policies with respect to the types of social networks we’re happy to have co-exist on the Ning Platform.

Unlike a general, one-size-fits-all social network like MySpace or Facebook, social networks on Ning are generally autonomous. This means that you, as a Network Creator, have the opportunity to set the standards and norms that are right for your social network, albeit within our Terms of Service.

The norms for one network may be dramatically different from the norms of a different network, but because social networks on Ning are autonomous they can generally co-exist peacefully. Or at least that’s the goal.

This ability for diverse networks to peacefully co-exist with each other on Ning is a critical factor in the policies we create. It’s the reason we are more comfortable than some other Internet services in giving people somewhat broader freedom within our Terms of Service to create the social networks that’s are right for them.

To this end, we don’t prohibit mature or adult-oriented social networks on Ning. Like everyone else, they need to abide by our Terms of Service as well as operate within a few additional parameters (aka our “Red Light District”) to help with peaceful co-existence, but otherwise it’s up to individual social networks to set their own standards and norms.

In fact, there are a ton of features built into your social network to set up your own network norms and standards as well as prevent spam, porn, and other undesirable elements from seeping in. Here a few in no particular order…

Approve Members Before Joining, Ban Members, and Delete Content on Your Network

As the Network Creator or Administrator, you can set your network to approve new members before they can join. This is one of many privacy options you have on your social network.

You also have the ability to ban any member, as well as delete any of their content you deem inappropriate. To ban a rogue member, go to your Manage Members page and ban that person by name. This will ban them and delete anything they’ve added to your network.

The option to delete any individual piece of content on your network applies to photos, videos, blog posts, comments, forum discussions, posts, and replies from your network. Just click the delete link where you see it.

Set Up Photos and Videos Moderation

You can choose to moderate photos and video before they are displayed on your network. This option can be found on the “Privacy” page of your network accessible by the Manage link you’ll see as the Network Creator or Administrator of your network.

Name Multiple Administrators

As the Network Creator, you have the ability to name multiple Administrators on your network to help with the aforementioned moderation and community policing.

Block Messages from Specific Members

Beyond these steps you can take as a Network Creator or Admin, your members can also block any person from sending them messages on your network. When they get a message or friend request (accessible by the Ningbar up top), there is the option to block that person from contacting them again. Your members can decide who can and can’t contact them.

We want your social network on Ning to be the exact right perfect thing for you and your members. Hopefully these features go a long way in helping you create a fantastic social network. That’s certainly our goal.