Lillian Rigling, North Carolina State University Libraries
Amelia Clarkson, University of Toronto Faculty of Information
The recent emergence of large sites and forums dedicated to non-consensual pornography is easy to pass off as a purely negative phenomenon. These sites are often deemed the dark corners of the Internet, assumed to be hateful places full of salacious material and malicious comments. These sexually explicit photos - often called ‘revenge porn’because of their tendency to be posted by scorned exes - have incited tremendous controversy across the web. Many victims, the majority of whom are women, report being harassed both online and in person, after their photos are posted on these sites. These photos often come with identifying information, such as links to social media profiles, phone numbers, and addresses.
In this study, we explore two platforms, Reddit and MyEx.com, with contrasting rules for submission and interaction, in order to identify different types of consumer behaviour on these sites. Challenging existing legal, scholarly, and popular literature about the production and consumption of non-consensual pornography, we question if the platform affects the community behaviour, and if so, how.
Despite revenge porn growing into an increasingly pressing issue within western society, it remains a poorly explored topic in academic writing. Due to its nascent status, few scholarly articles are written about revenge porn as a topic itself, let alone further nuances within the issue such as user communities. Many scholarly articles focus on the legality of posting and the complications of legislating revenge porn amidst loopholes that protect victims, such as privacy laws (Citron & Franks 2014) and those that protect content-creators, such as free speech (Calvert 2014) and copyright laws (Vogt 2013). These articles often overlook the complexity of the production and consumption of nonconsensual pornographic content, favouring discussion of possible solutions to end this phenomenon, rather than a discussion of the phenomenon itself. They also tend to focus on individuals, rather than the community in which these individuals have chosen to participate (Stroud 2014). Our focus is on community behaviour. We explore how consumers interact with the content and how they interact with other consumers and content-creators, and unpack how this behaviour is affected by different platforms.
Using a sample of 20 photos and their comments taken from MyEX.com, and 20 photos and their comments taken from popular non-consensual porn subreddits ‘Photoplunder’and ‘OnOff’we conducted a content analysis of comments, looking for trends among each site. All posts were uploaded to their respective platforms in November of 2015. We then analysed each site’s individual policy documents (retrieved November 2015) and compared these policies to user behaviour on each site.
The subreddits examined support non-consensual pornography; there is little evidence that posters have a personal relationship with the subjects in the photos. As such they do not provide identifying information and other users do not attempt to find it. MyEx.com supports explicitly vengeful pornography, with users posting photos of women they know and consumers participating in seeking and posting personal details. Our study presents three main findings:
2. The existence of a relationship between the photo poster and subject, as well as the poster’s initial comments, influence subsequent commenter behaviour. Literature suggests that the person posting the photos and the subject often share a sexual or romantic past and it is this relationship that becomes the crux of the ‘revenge’act; one partner has wronged the other, who now seeks personal revenge in the form of humiliation. In turn, the poster receives validation and support from a user community that participates in degrading and harassing the photo subject (PenzeyMoog 2015). In this study the consumer community did not always respond accordingly, and were instead influenced by the poster’s initial comments. Consumers directed little negativity toward the anonymous photo subjects on Reddit, but directed negative comments toward both the poster and photo subject on MyEX. There was little evidence of a sense of community forming around the poster on MyEX’s explicit revenge porn, and more positive community interaction between Reddit users on pornographic images that were admittedly non-consensual but at the same time non-vengeful.
3. Community members on both MyEX.com and Reddit have adopted a sense of community morals that is unique to each platform. Though the subject matter of both communities is the same, the community morals exhibited are reflective of each site’s policy guidelines. The user-driven nature of the community on Reddit presents opportunities to adapt the community’s ethical guidelines to reflect users’changing morals surrounding specific behaviours. Reddit largely appears to adhere to the concept of intent to harm; when posters exhibit an intent to harm the subject of these photos, the content is rejected by the community. In contrast, MyEx.com has a top-down design, with moderators rather than users controlling the community. It is not the users’own morality negotiated through their interactions, but the moderators’sense of morality that is imposed onto the site. However, rather than a moral code, moderators on MyEx.com adhere to a strict legal, convenience, and profit-oriented outlook on ethical guidelines. If the images can be legally hosted on MyEX.com, then they remain on MyEX.com.
Calvert, Clay. (2014). Revenge Porn and Freedom of Expression: Legislative Pushback to an Online Weapon of Emotional and Reputational Destruction. Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, 24, 673 - 702.
Citron, D. K., & Franks, M. A. (2014). Criminalizing Revenge Porn (SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 2368946). Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2368946
PenzeyMoog, Caitlin. (2015). Scarlett Letters: Digital Subjugation of Revenge Pornography. Media Report to Women, 43 (2), 12 - 19.
Stroud, Scott. (2014). The Dark Side of the Online Self: A Pragmatist Critique of the Growing Plague of Revenge Porn. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 168-183.
Vogt, PJ. (2013). Could Copyright Law be the Best Solution to Revenge Porn?. On The Media. Retrieved from http://www.onthemedia.org/story/could-copyright-law-be-best-solution-revenge-porn/