trust me iʼm a writer

(This article – which contains an illustrative range of ‘profane’ terms – started out as a tangent in an upcoming post, but has grown too large – so here itʼs by itself.)

The author of a fiction website I like to keep up with has a proposal for a simple ‘rating’ scheme for websites to declare their suitability for age and sensitivity of readers.  (It may be based on the US film industryʼs rating scheme, not sure.)  The system is used on-site, normally rated ‘all welcome except those with uptight parents’, but the author found it necessary a few years ago to supersede that with an age-14 limit for one story.  She had decided to use stronger language, and make it more honestly (rather than cartoonishly) violent than usual.

I believe the idea here is that you try to reassure the parents of some of your possible audience that children are safe with you (most of the time anyway).  And fair enough.  Trouble is, if I was a parent, I wouldnʼt trust authorsʼ self certification – even if I thought access restrictions were all that useful in the first place.  Itʼs much like the content description meta tags we learned to distrust years ago.  They may be useful, but Iʼd want independent content rating, based on an actual examination.  Of course I would also want it to be genuinely independent and objective, which may be hard.  I fear many parents, and self-appointed advisors of parents, just want the appearance of safety measures, irrespective of practicality.

I also fear that, though I am no longer fresh in the world, some people and organisations seem interested in managing my access for me.  The increasingly alien UK government, for one, have decided that the UK population will have access restrictions by default, and enforced by social stigma.

(In fact my small and rather disorganised ISP hasnʼt deigned to mention it yet, and may never; I suspect theyʼre the kind of outfit who would rather play online games than read government communications.  Is that a bad thing?  I expect the point will come when using a small independent ISP will be seen as a sign of malfeasance, like habitual use of cash rather than cards is now.  No innocent would refuse to have their every thought and motion tracked.  Unless they were wealthy and/or had commercial confidentiality to protect, presumably.)

It is true that Iʼve seen some things on the net which Iʼd rather avoid, and would have reservations about permitting children or adults to access unsupervised.  But weirdly, much of what I see on broadcast television is worse.  I have that particular kind of sensitivity I suppose.  I have never really liked television, and have never owned one, so I usually only see what other people are watching while Iʼm trying to do something else.  It seems to be largely unrealistic, violent and abusive; I gather this is a ‘normal’ environment for children to grow up in.  Personally I would not have a television and a child in the same house, or myself and a television.

Banning television, or large chunks of the web, may risk allowing the world to slump into isolated subcultures where we spend our lives ignoring everything we dislike; or worse – some might turn violent.  But thatʼs not new; itʼs actually the condition weʼve been emerging from in recent generations – a process to which a free and open internet is probably the largest contributor yet.  All the same, I think genuinely independent and objective ratings systems are potentially a good thing (though we can expect there will always be a demand for dogmatic filtering from some quarters).  They can be kept objective, e.g. by reporting evidence on request:  How many times was a particular profanity used, and was it in an appropriate context ... assuming that context is decidable?

Context can be difficult because we donʼt all agree about it.  (Is that a bad thing?)  Some would try to make themselves the sole arbiters of its meaning – usually, in my experience, those who demonstrate little awareness of context.

In the age-limited part of this particular website, Mary Gentleʼs great proposition that good stories portray violence as a problem while bad stories portray violence as a solution [1] is borne out – various characters have profane moments, and the angry and/or violent and/or abusive characters have many.  They also kill people, which seems to be a less significant lapse of standards in most places – including this.  (The unrestricted section of this site has multiple, more cartoonish, killings.  So itʼs ‘safe’ to allow kids to read about people being killed as long as theyʼre presumptive baddies?  Er, but some of them arenʼt...  Actually, Iʼm not sure what this rating system is trying to achieve...  Oh yes:  A self-declared fuckfree zone.)

I have on other websites witnessed instances of people using ‘fuck’ not merely as strong expression, but in way which gives the impression they get off on being sexually abusive – which is not, all things considered, surprising.  Explain the state of the world, then, if some donʼt?  It doesnʼt seem to be solving any problem though, so I donʼt rate those web resources highly at all. [2]

Of course there are also those who get off on killing, or reading about killings.  This isnʼt actually something which came into existence with the internet...  Letʼs just say there are problems in the world which arenʼt going to be solved by content access restrictions, even good, objective, non-dogmatic, rational ones, with some awareness of research into actual human psychology.

But then, there are problems which arenʼt going to be solved by anything; and I would suggest there are very few problems which can be solved permanently by any one solution ... except the passage of time, which leaves everything irrelevant eventually.  So I still would like to see easily available content rating, for where it matters.  It shouldnʼt be necessary to go hunting on other websites for a review, or to trust self-certification.

At the client end, the tech for this is already there, or almost.  Web browsers have various blocking facilities or extensions.  Iʼd like to see a method of displaying trustworthy independent ratings, with links to any statistics gathered, on a status bar, or in a pop-up note triggered by a contextual menu click on any hyperlink – to a site or an individual resource.  Some feed information for this is certainly available now, in the form of malware checking (a bigger concern).  Itʼs a question of visibility and utility.

On the network side I donʼt think things are as well worked out.  We donʼt have an independent ratings framework or standard.  Various institutions have their own, sometimes derived from government instructions, but this is hardly individually tweakable, unlike, say, my spam filters.  The network function should be to provide information; response/action is for the client.

But it wouldnʼt be too difficult; itʼs not much different from other types of crowdsourced reviewing.  Part of any such solution might come back to the client – how about a simple rating button to sit in your browser toolbar.  Rate this site?  Tell us why?  Again, this sort of thing almost exists, e.g. for forum spam.  And there are many in-page buttons to tell different organisations different things from Like to Hate; but thatʼs still not a standard, and doesnʼt include evidence or context-aware reviewing.

In spite of the technical solution being almost there, I suspect this is asking a lot, because content access is something that dogmatic moralists will always want to control, even when itʼs political or medical information thatʼs restricted.  Perhaps especially when – itʼs not exactly unheard of for moralising to serve as an excuse for power-grabbing, including power over othersʼ bodies.  And establishing a standard even in the absence of politicians and dogmatists takes time.  But it may not be beyond all hope.

Part of the solution might be a (one or more) wiki-type organising platform/databases.  Not Wikiratings (which is credit ratings) or Wikireviews (probably too broad a concept to be used for web content access).  But something like it may already exist...

...

Just before I finish up, I thought I should check the accuracy of my recollection.  So here – assuming I have comprehensive knowledge of which English terms are considered profane and didnʼt miss any – is my objective independent rating of DMFA: Abelʼs Story:

1. Profanity:

term use by n characters total uses
asshole 1 1
bastard 1 1
buggering 1 1
buggers 1 1
cockmuncher 1 1
crap 2 3
damn 1 2
dick 1 1
dorkmuncher * 1 1
frig † 2 2
fuck 2 10
fucking 2 3
hell 2 3
screw 2 2
screwed 1 1
shi... 1 1
shit 2 3
notes * new one on me ... I think itʼs intended this way?
† substitute profanity is still profanity...

2. Violence:

  • verbal aggression: multiple, by many characters
  • mental/emotional abuse: multiple
  • physical violence: frequent, both mild and severe
  • injuries portrayed: multiple
  • killings portrayed: multiple
  • offstage suicide: 1

3. Other:

  • gratuitous genital nudity (visible to characters but not audience): 1
  • references to culturally-identifiable erogenous zones in not-quite-profane manner: 1
  • non-profane references to sexual activity for purposes other than reproduction: 1

Contextual commentary:  A story which clearly distinguishes moral, immoral, and crude behaviour.  The destructive outcomes of differing degrees of violence and cruel and manipulative behaviour are clearly portrayed and distinguished from the outcomes of courageous, kind, and loving behaviour, and crude but non-malevolent behaviour.

Rating:  Suitable for pretty much all ages, though people of any age who can only cope with cartoon violence might find this a little too realistic.

For what itʼs worth, I think the word counts above (if really necessary) could be automated, even using OCR for pixel-based comics, at least to as high a degree of reliability as any one opinion regarding profanity.  The comment on the broader context is more important and generally easier.

Anyone who wishes to independently and objectively rate this post is welcome to go do it, and publish your results.  Let me know, and I might even link them.

 


  1. Written in a book review published in Interzone in the early 1990s if I recall; I donʼt know if this is her own original idea or someone elseʼs.  
  2. Often in comment sections, so these occurences could be deleted easily.  Latterly, javascript seems to be more essential in commenting systems (graceful degradation having been forgotten about somewhere), so I see less and less of this anyway.  Keeping javascript deactivated may be one of the best child protection mechanisms out there.