The New LiveJournal Terms of Service and Why They Matter to the SWG

A couple of days ago, I posted to the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild’s various online spaces, soliciting member feedback on what we should do about the new Terms of Service on LiveJournal. I have been honestly taken aback by feedback I’ve received that, in a nutshell, asks, “Why does it matter?” So here it is: my view on why it matters.

If you’re not familiar with the latest LJ debacle concerning their Terms of Service, you can read the post I linked for more information (and please do take the survey linked in that post if you have not already) but, in a nutshell, LJ now requires journals and communities to label adult content, as deemed by the laws of Russia (where the company that owns LJ and now the web servers reside) at the penalty of possibly having the post or the journal/community deleted. Previously, when SixApart introduced the adult content labels, they didn’t mandate their use but reserved the right to apply those labels to a post if a user “flagged” the post; there was no penalty for having one or one hundred posts flagged and investigated, and I don’t know anyone this happened to. The SWG didn’t change their policy under the SixApart rules. (Nonetheless, I wasn’t wild about that change either.)

What does it mean to label something on LJ as “Adult”? First of all, individual posts or an entire journal/community can be labeled as Adult. Doing so either hides the content from LJ users under 18 or requires a click-through age verification to view the post/journal/community for anonymous users.

“Not a big deal!” a lot of people have said. Some have pointed out that there is a long tradition of underage users either 1) lying about their age when registering their account or 2) logging out and just clicking that they’re eighteen. Yes, I know this is a thing and has been almost a rite of passage for some old-school fandom participants who started as teens, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s beyond time we moved past teens having to engage in white lies to access art.

But really, the lack of access to minors–while a problem for me–is not the biggest problem with this new ToS. But I’ll tackle it first.

I have two qualms with blocking access to minors. First is that it is not my place to decide what content another person should be able to view. I am not the minor’s parent, and many teens are more than able to “handle” the kind of adult content they’d find on a site like the SWG.

My biggest problem is the very fact of pearl-clutching over teenagers “handling” fan fiction. Stories. Art. Let’s keep this in perspective. Between 2000 and 2010, 167,000 children under the age of 18 were married in the U.S. … and those are the confirmed numbers because many states don’t keep data. The nonprofit Unchained at Last estimates the number at closer to 248,000.

Children can own guns in 30 U.S. states and fire weapons like submachine guns.

And we think they can’t handle art?

What’s really at stake here is that art–including fan fiction–presents ideas and content (especially sex) that adults are uncomfortable thinking that young people know about. As a middle and high school teacher, I hate to break it to them: They know about it. Keeping them from art will not prevent them from unknowing it or never learning about it, just like we oldtimers managed to learn all sorts of illicit things pre-Internet. I refuse to pander to the idea, in a world where we are okay with children getting married and bearing children and caring for their families and acting as breadwinners and choosing to drop out of school and owning weapons, that reading fiction is the dangerous activity here.

But, as I said, this is not my main problem with the new Terms of Service.

As noted above, now posts must be labeled as Adult if they contain content that is deemed “adult” under Russian law. I am not Russian and do not read Russian, and LJ has refused to release a legally binding Terms of Service in English. (Rhapsody asked weeks ago when the new ToS was first released and has received no response.) But I do know that, under this same Russian law, the recent Beauty and the Beast film was given an adult rating because of a few seconds in which two men dance together.

Many fans–myself among them–have interpreted LJ’s ToS as meaning, therefore, that any content depicting a same-sex relationship would be “adult” and have to be labeled under the new ToS. This puts the SWG in a unique position. We are not a group that draws a lot of adult content, at least compared to fandom as a whole, including parts of the Tolkien fandom. There are likely a few legitimately adult posts on our LiveJournal community; if labeling those was all that was at stake here, I would grumble but likely comply and mark those specific posts as Adult.

However, the SWG has always welcomed slash fiction. We’ve even encouraged it! We were an early adopter of the International Day of Femslash, and last year, we collaborated with silmladylove during Tolkien Femslash Week. We host hundreds of slash and femslash stories on our archive, and slash is regularly posted, discussed, and alluded to on our LJ community.

So that leaves us two choices in complying with the new ToS: 1) We can either require all slash stories or any post discussing slash or LGBTQ+ issues to be marked as Adult or 2) we can mark the entire community as Adult and essentially ask everyone to take on the same burden faced by our slash authors. I would absolutely refuse to do the first; the second is the 0ption on the table now.

But, while I’ve put that on the table as an option I’d consider, I have a major problem with that option too.

Let there be no doubt: If the SWG complies with the new ToS, it will be because of slash. Don’t pretend that it’s an abundance of PWP or torturefic on our LJ community; it will be because our community has always welcomed slash and discussions of gender and sexuality that Russian law finds abhorrent. It will be to comply with the views of someone who said of the Beauty and the Beast film:

I’m convinced that the main task of the state regarding children is to protect childhood and youth from the filthiness of the world, to preserve children’s purity, to block our children off from harmful and dangerous phenomena.

Someone who thinks that authors who represent the full range of human sexual orientations and genders in their fiction write “filthiness” that is “harmful and dangerous” to children.

It will be to shut those authors’ work just a little further off from the public.

I have a major problem with that.

I have a major problem with pretending that, in the year 2017, there is something shameful about writing about LGBTQ+ characters, or that the mere act of being gay in the presence of a child is somehow going to harm that child. I have a major problem with pretending that it is normal to comply with such a request, that it is normal to have a social media site where the LGBTQ+ people are closeted behind age-consent links and locked communities and not a visible, celebrated part of our communities and our art.

There are other issues at stake here. There is fandom history, which is something dear to me and something that concerns a lot of other people as well in this discussion. The idea of losing this venerable Tolkien community is upsetting for obvious reasons. There is pure sentiment, when I can remember clearly the day I set up the SWG community (the same day that I created my own, personal journal) with no idea of how to use LiveJournal but taking my first tentative steps into a fandom that would prove one of the joys of my life. I don’t want to see that end either. It breaks my heart that it might. But I can’t move past this.

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5 Responses to “The New LiveJournal Terms of Service and Why They Matter to the SWG”

  1. Brooke says:

    You know I agree with you on everything here.

    I’ve told you, but I’ll put it out here again: I grew up, not in Russia, but in a small town in the Midwest in the United States. It was not that different in terms of opinion from the current Russian pov on slash and femslash, and to this day, this area really isn’t that different. I can remember being in high school and somebody posting posters on the LGBTQ+ students lockers about how they were engaging in acts comparable to bestiality. And the LGBTQ+ students were blamed for that, because apparently they had put themselves out there when they shouldn’t have.

    I don’t know if I would have ended up being anti-LGBTQ+. I can tell you that without fanfic, I wouldn’t have known about aromantics, asexuals, and any number of other LGBTQ+ groups. I can also tell you that fanfic gave me an outlet to express my own feelings about things ranging from LGBTQ+ issues to issues of socioeconomic status to minority-majority conflicts.

    And I believe that shutting off access to LGBTQ+ fics from minors just further increases a lack of knowledge, a lack of acceptance, and normalizes the idea that it’s okay if some group of people – whether it’s a government group, a religious group, or a town like the one I live in – shutters them into a place where children supposedly are not exposed to them.

  2. Independence1776 says:

    Thank you for writing this. While I’m not going to respond to everything, you did clarify some things for me (and made me even more cautious about leaving B2MeM there).

    Some have pointed out that there is a long tradition of underage users either 1) lying about their age when registering their account or 2) logging out and just clicking that they’re eighteen.

    From the wank that I’ve seen floating by on Tumblr, there’s apparently a significant number of teens in fandom now who wouldn’t click on an age link. Whether it’s because they adamant about following the law (doubtful) or utterly convinced that sex is something that minors need to be hidden from (more likely, especially if it’s of non-canon or unpopular relationships; there’s a leftist purity culture mindset in some areas of fandom now), there’s a huge chance that if teens see the Adult Content label, they’re going to assume they’re unwelcome.

  3. Scarlet says:

    I agree with everything you said, and I said so before on several posts on DW.

    I think this change can be viewed as part of a wider trend, that I don’t welcome.
    A trend that encourages isolation of people with open / different thinking even violent (mostly verbal, but not always) against those who “dare” to live according to their own believes, if it differs from the mob-mainstream.

    It’s sad, but this small island of openness, as I found recently among members of our community keeps my hope that not all is lost.

  4. Oshun says:

    I agree with all your points.

    I find it tiresome that we have to rehash this stuff over and over again. The Russian state-sponsored homophobia is horrifying. People can Google it if they are not familiar with its reality. I am more concerned about a small part of the younger generation in fandom — perhaps related to what Indy is talking about above — who do seek to censor within the fandom community, largely by complaining and bullying and accusing people who “ship” the wrong couples of all kinds of vile perversions.

    I wish I were kidding! And it seems to come from younger people who have not had the usual discussions about censorship and freedom of speech and artistic freedom before jumping into fandom. Certain ones among them seem to approach the question from a moralistic point of view rather than one of based upon the values of the Enlightenment when our intellectual godparents were emerging from religious obscurantism and state-sponsored religion into an understanding of certain freedoms and rights dating to the French Revolution and shortly before–like, in this case, freedom of speech and the press. The modern extrapolation of those includes artistic freedom, a need to guarantee the freedom of the individual to write their own stories for god’s sake!

    A recent example is in the Yuri on Ice fandom. A popular couple (more or less canon although not explicitly romantic, but with a heavy subtext in the anime) is between two young men–correct me if I am wrong anyone out there reading this–one is 15 and the other 17 at the end of the season and some fandom elements want to label this the act of pairing this couple in fanfic as being equal to child abuse. There are those rabidly opposed to any romantic fanfic involving them, much more so, of course, any explicit sexual content rant and rave on Tumblr in the most reactionary manner imaginable.

    Boogles the mind. The idea which drives them is foreign to what I personally experienced growing up–that teenagers fall in love and often there is an age difference. I had my first boyfriend at 14 and he was 17, a shy, soft-spoken boy, who was the school basketball hero. Everyone “shipped” us! From my parents and his, to the faculty, to the student body at large. Even the coach loved us, because as long as his star was dating me, he was much less likely to be involved in drinking or late-night partying while in training. On a personal level, I find it weird to think of that as an unbridgeable gap in years much less that a similar but lesser gap has provoked a shit storm of abusive ranting and attempts to censor and intimidate on Tumblr.

    For that reason, I may be at times a little dubious of what “including the children” means in a fandom environment. I do not want to exclude anyone–particularly not our future as a fandom–but neither do I want to be a babysitter or an arbiter over what these younger readers can handle or what others think they cannot or should be exposed to. Not raising an suggestion of any changes, but just extending the context a little on the question of younger readers. It is not little old church ladies, which were my bane in the old Tolkien slash debates, but young people screaming in these recent ones.

    Of course the other young people are shipping them like crazy and writing the most freewheeling explicitly sexual stories about them.

    • Dawn says:

      Because I don’t hang out on Tumblr, I miss most of this recent leftist frothing at the mouth, but I hear about vicariously through friends who are more active there (and in fandoms other than Tolkien, like Yuri).

      I am bothered by the fact that progressives have taken up the banner of moralistic censorship, in the name of scrubbing spaces of “problematic” concepts like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Censorship is supposed to be the purview of the other side, not us. On the surface, this seems a noble cause (who doesn’t want to get rid of racism and sexism?) and I can see why people–yes, mostly young people–are falling into that trap. But it’s just as stupid as the other side believing that if they don’t allow the mention of sex than people won’t want to engage in “immoral” sexual behavior. The racist/sexist/homophobic/whatnot history of Western culture won’t simply be scrubbed away from the surface, and refusing to engage in deep and sometimes uncomfortable discussions of these ideas (but simply demanding that certain ideas/language/pairings/triggers/whatevs do not appear in their spaces) will not solve those deep-rooted problems. Those who made gains in the rights for oppressed groups did so at the cost of not only personal discomfort but often physical peril, and I can’t help but to feel that those who want to solve centuries-old problems by browbeating strangers on Tumblr are lazy cowards who don’t want to do that hard work and take on those discomforts and risks. Get the fuck off you ass and off social media and go do something truly meaningful for the people whom you claim to care about so much! Go work at a soup kitchen or tutor poor kids or work as a clinic escort or be a big brother/sister to an LGBTQ+ teen or whatever! I know I don’t have to tell you the endless options there are for activism that these people are avoiding while wasting their time ranting on Tumblr.

      Okay, off my soapbox … 😉 As far as the SWG, we’ve never excluded anyone. And we’ve held individuals accountable for what they choose to read and engage in on our site. If those individuals are minors, then it is their parents’ responsibility to monitor (or not) what they are doing online. I rarely see anything on our site that I haven’t seen in YA fiction aimed at older teens. If people have opposition to teenagers in pairings or sexual situations involving teens, then it is likewise their responsibility to use the ratings, warnings, summaries, story notes, character lists–we provide no shortage of tools–to avoid those stories. This has always been part of our Site Etiquette, and this will never change. (If anything, I’ve lately wanted to firm up this language to leave no doubt.)

      The shenanigans on Tumblr have not made their way to us … or at least I’m not aware that they have and would hope that if an author is feeling criticized for what they are choosing to write, then they would let me know. Tumblr seems to have the same problem as ff.net used to have in that no expectation of civility and largely interacting with strangers makes people act like assholes, but I can say that that would not fly in any of our spaces.

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