Ello and The NSFW Filter: Why It’s Not Improving Social Media For Users

Why The NSFW Filter Isn’t Good Enough On Ello and Other Social Networks

April 2018 Update: So it’s been almost 4 years since I wrote this post, and I’m glad to report that Ello is still around as an ad-free network that primarily caters to artists. I still use it and would recommend it to naturists, even though I don’t think it’s attracted very many people from the naturist community. The network has also continually grown and added new features. However, the NSFW filter remains the same, and Ello still groups nudity in with “adult” and “sexually explicit” content. (And they don’t get any more specific at all as to what type of material should be marked NSFW.)

One thing that has changed a bit is that I’ve given further though to the use of content filters in social media or in search engines. I still believe users, not social media companies, should be making the decisions on what content they can engage with. But many content filters function as a form of censorship — any user accounts or content labeled “adult” or “NSFW” is typically scrubbed from public searches. Plus filters are switched on by default without telling users about this setting. On Ello for example, the “NSFW” user accounts don’t come up in their iOS app because of Apple’s censorship. On YouTube, users have to sign in to see (or even find) videos that have been marked “inappropriate” for minors. On Tumblr, you have to sign in and change settings to find “adult” blogs (as I explain further below). And of course these companies are the ones deciding what is “adult,” which can include everything from porn to fine art to educational material.

nsfw filter ello youtube age content censorship social media nudity felicitys blog
The message YouTube displays when it has determined a video is “inappropriate” for minors and requires a sign-in to confirm one’s age.

Just as they have with censorship, these companies will say their filters are for users’ benefit or “safety,” when really they are designed for the company’s needs and financial interests above all else. This is ultimately the problem with Ello’s filter and all the others — it’s not really made to give users more choices. To actually benefit users, they’d have to be fully transparent about their filters and give users full control over what content they wish to see. And they’d have to stop this covert form of censorship where they suppress certain accounts, blogs, etc based on their own vague arbitrary standards.

So that’s my update on content filters and social media censorship. Read my original article about Ello and NSFW filters below!

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There’s a new social network to join and it’s been getting a lot of buzz. It’s called Ello.

Ello is the brainchild of a group of designers and artists. Its slogan is “Simple, beautiful and ad-free.” The designers wanted to create a social network that was as visually appealing as it is simple to use. It’s open to everyone, but its layout is especially designed for artists to share images of their work.

The network is still in Beta testing, but has been getting a lot of press. It’s different from Facebook, but is nonetheless seen as a competitor to the giant social network we all hate so much feel compelled to use.

Much of the chatter and speculation around Ello has been about their privacy policies and how they’re going to generate money for their investors. They’ve promised to never have ads or sell user data.

A few weeks ago they made further strides to make good on their promises by announcing that Ello has become a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC). A Public Benefit Corporation means that they “exist to produce a benefit for society as a whole” – not just to make profit (as they stated in a recent newsletter).

This all sounds very promising. But I must admit that I was particularly excited about Ello’s content / censorship policies. They stated that “nudity or sexually explicit content” wasn’t going to be censored. They will just require that the profile or content be marked “NSFW” (not safe for work).

This is a big step up from other big social networks, like Facebook, Google+, Instagram and YouTube. These more established social networks prohibit nudity and sexual content through totally vague, meaningless and sexist policies. They can’t effectively police their own networks, so they rely on users to report offending content which results in totally random censorship (that, at times, even contradicts their own terms and agreements). People are frustrated that they can’t predict what will be censored any more than they can predict winning lottery numbers.

As a prime example that I’ve mentioned before – Facebook’s policy specifically states that they permit breastfeeding photos, but they continue taking down users’ breastfeeding photos.

Although I think it’s awesome that Ello won’t practice random censorship, I still find their NSFW policy to be problematic.

Below is my email to Ello in which I expressed my concerns:

NSFW used to be about what’s “safe for work,” but now it’s used as a default to hide what any user doesn’t want to see. And it’s assumed a user may not want to see nudity nor sexual content, and needs a filter to turn off both.

Well, that simply isn’t reality. Many people are fine with seeing simple or artistic nudity, but don’t want to see hardcore porn.

To include both within the “adult” filter is really not helpful to the user, nor is it fair to say all nudity is “adult.” Nudity isn’t always sexual, and sexual content doesn’t always include nudity.

We can all recognize that there is a world of difference between an image of an artistic nude photograph (like the work of Spencer Tunick), versus an image of hardcore pornography.

The Ello filter, however, leaves me no choice but to take the risk of seeing both.

So shouldn’t there be a setting that filters out porn, but let’s through simple / artistic / nonsexual nudity? A filter that lets me see my friend’s breastfeeding photos, but hides most content that looks like it came from a magazine on the adult rack?

I know there can be a fine line between “sexual” and “nonsexual” when it comes to photos. But just like you are leaving it up to the user to decide what is “sexually explicit” maybe you can also let them decide if their nudes are “sexually explicit” or not.

A user could click a button to allow nudity, knowing that they still may see some “sexual” stuff. But the sexually explicit filter would at least already cut out a lot of it.

nudity sexual content online nsfw filter explicit porn censorship ello felicitys blog
Venn diagram: how nudity and sexual content don’t always intersect

Naturally, there are other aspects to consider when creating a content filter, and I’m sure their policy is still being developed. But other questions:

  • What is nudity exactly? Is a nude statue or painting still NSFW? Will Ello be sexist like other networks and say that nudity includes female breasts, but not male breasts?
  • What about graphic violence? Or images of medical procedures?

Next, let’s take a look at how other websites and social networks filter content. Are there any well-developed systems out there?

It’s useful to look at how other sites go about filtering content from searches, without actually removing or censoring it:

google search engine filter safe search sexual content nudity censorship felicitys blog
Google has a SafeSearch filter that decides what content is safe for a user to see, instead of letting users decide.

1 – Google – The Google search engine manages the censoring of content very poorly (no surprise there). Google considers nudity and sexual content to be one and the same. They have a “SafeSearch Filter” (because, you know, looking at images of our body parts is dangerous), and they write: “We do our best to keep the SafeSearch filter as thorough as possible, but sometimes sexual images, like porn or nudity, make it through.”

2 – Twitter also uses a type of filter system and doesn’t remove “potentially offensive content.” It offers the option of automatically hiding “sensitive content” such as “nudity, violence or medical procedures.” Users who share this type of media are supposed to indicate this in their profile settings. That’s as much description as they give for what sensitive content means. It’s strange that they don’t even mention sexual content, but maybe they figure it’s enough to list “nudity.”

twitter sensitive media nsfw filter nudity sexual content censorship felicitys blog
Twitter’s warning message for displaying “sensitive material” with the option to view the content and to disable the filter.

When you select the option to not see sensitive media, you start seeing warnings on content that may be considered “sensitive.” This gives the user the option to skip over it if you don’t want to see it, or click a button to view it if you so wish. This is a bit simplistic in that there’s no warning of what the content may contain. Nudity, porn, etc all get rolled into one so the user has to guess what the content may be, based on the words / context. What I do like about this approach is that the user can decide what to view on a case-by-case basis.

Currently on Ello, it seems you have to go back into your settings and turn off the NSFW filter in order to see any profile that contains this label. I feel it would be much more useful and effective to follow Twitter’s example and just click a button when you want to view potentially “sensitive” content.

3 – Tumblr – Tumblr also has an NSFW flagging policy for blogs that have “sexual or adult-oriented” content. It makes no mention of nudity, violence, or other graphic material at all. What makes Tumblr frustrating is that in 2013, they opted to make their search operate more like Google. It automatically filters out NSFW / “Adult” blogs unless you change your search settings. But they remove entire blogs from their searches that are marked NSFW (not just a single post). I came across one blogger’s letter to Tumblr in which they argue for giving users’ control over what they see by labeling posts and allowing the user to click a button to view it (much like Twitter).

I’m no expert on setting up Internet filters. That said, I feel it is important to discuss these issues as many (and even perhaps – most) people don’t even think about it. Of all the concerns being voiced about Ello, the NSFW policy doesn’t seem to be one of them while I feel it should be!

Today’s social networks (and search engines) can do a lot better when it comes to filtering content. Take it from someone who inadvertently sees a lot of porn while trying to find nonsexual nude images online.

Ello could become a great network for artists, educational organizations and naturists – a much better alternative to Facebook. But it’s still in Beta with much to be developed. We will have to wait and see how it all plays out in the end.

For the record, I did get a response to my letter to Ello. Their response was: “We will be developing more systematic privacy features down the road.”

Since Ello is still growing and being developed, now is a good time to send feedback! Your voices can make a difference – now more than later. I encourage everyone to write to Ello at: hello [at] ello.co and share your ideas, thoughts and concerns about their NSFW policy. Or just leave a comment on this blog as I will be sending them this link and I know they will be reading the comments!

Check out Ello at http://ello.co (and you can follow me @youngnaturists)

Felicity’s Blog

About Felicity Jones 46 Articles
Author of Felicity's Blog. 3rd-generation nudie. Avid reader. Feminist. When I'm not busy eating, I'm writing about naturism, censorship, topfree equality, body image and other fun topics. I like feedback, so plz leave a comment when you've got something to say!