FetLife Harmful to the Community?

Monday, April 4th, 2011

When I first listened to Maymay‘s presentation, I’ll admit my reaction was emotionally-based — I love FetLife, and how dare he say that it’s bad for the community? Insular? Pfah, it’s got all kinds of people on there! And he’s bashing it on the one hand for not being safe enough because its only safety feature is being non-indexable by search engines, and then bashing it again for being non-indexable by search engines! He calls FetLife a technological monoculture[1]; what the hell?!

But having the self-awareness to realize that I was perhaps biased, I took a moment and went over his points again in my head. And after doing so, I have to say that I agree with those points.

First off, neither he nor I are saying that FetLife shouldn’t exist, or that people should stop using it. I think that a lot of people read the title of his article/presentation, and immediately think that’s what he’s saying. So what is he saying? As I understand it:

  1. FetLife is not safe, as far as protecting your identity. Sure, it’s better than sites that can be indexed by search engines, but by the same token anyone can create an account and see most of your stuff[2], so it’s a false sense of security. Also it’s not safe in that plenty of people still get attacked on there for their lifestyle.
  2. Because FetLife can’t be indexed by search engines, people who are new to the lifestyle and have specific questions are likely to do a Google search, and not find the answers provided on FetLife. This is the “insular” part.

Going one step further, he suggests that privacy controls should be top on the list for FetLife to implement. I agree with this — I would much rather see that than things like a live chat, at this point. Yet who knows if it’s even on their develpment radar?  Granted, something like that would likely require a fundamental re-working of much of the site.

So what’s the ideal state of FetLife?  I would say: being like a stripped-down version of Facebook which allows for the same level of privacy control, except also allows for posting of adult content.

That means that FetLife would be able to be indexed by search engines, but only the information people wanted publi would be public. Are you a sex blogger that wants people to be able to find your FetLife articles and so forth? Make it public. Search engines can now index it. Are you a teacher whose job would be ruined if someone read your FetLife blog? Make it private, so that only your friends can see it.

Some concerns with this:

  1. If FetLife were to move in this direction, by default they should lock everything down so that the public cannot see any information. Then people can open things up to anonymous browsers (and also search engines), other FetLife users, and certain friend groups as they please.
  2. This may make it such that people can more easily search for “18-22 year old female submissive living in Atlanta” via a search engine. If #1 were implemented, it would mitigate this greatly. If they further made it so that search engines could never see age/sex/orientation/location (which wouldn’t be very tough), that would pretty much eliminate this concern altogether.
  3. Discussions and other “shared spaces” would be trickier. Let’s say Bob starts a discussion and makes it public. I want to comment on Bob’s discussion, but I don’t want it being public. What are the options here? Maybe allow a “Make public?” option with each response… but that makes the discussion seem pretty fractured. Perhaps for people who have set their privacy such to not allow the public to see their profies, then when said public sees their comments in discussions it simply comes up as “Anonymous.”

I have to say that I’ve wanted to be able to create friend groups on FetLife (as you can on Facebook) for some time now, but for a slightly different reason — as with Facebook, I have acquaintances, friends, and close friends among my contacts list. And some of the people I have as acquaintances can be quite… prolific, and tend to spam up my update list. I would really like to be able to see just the stuff from my friends, or close friends.

So overall, I have to say that I agree with Maymay’s critiques of FetLife, though I don’t agree that it’s outright “bad” for the community — just that it could be much, much better. For FetLife to be the Facebook of kink, it has to be the Facebook of kink, in a way that both allows granular privacy control, and allows the outside world in (where desired by the information poster) so that it can be a resource everyone can use. And because FetLife is a business, a bonus to them from this system would be extra web traffic coming in from searches — currently if someone uses Google to look for “BDSM sounding”, and there’s an awesome article about it on FetLife that everyone is linking to, it won’t show up on Google. It would behoove FetLife for it to show up.

Everybody wins. But I’m not holding my breath that it’ll happen.


[1] I do think he used some rather specific tech/software terminology when talking to a less-specialized audience here, causing the statement to be misleading. A monoculture — in software terms — is a group of computers all using the same software. So he means to say (I think) that FetLife is becoming so large that a lot of people only interact there, so it’s a bunch of users using only this one website to talk about kink. He did not mean monoculture in the general sense of the word, which is a prevailing culture marked by homogeneity (some definitions also include a lack of dissent).

[2] FetLife recently added privacy settings that allow you to only show certain pictures to people on your friends list. This is a good first step, but it’s a small one.

5 Comments to “FetLife Harmful to the Community?”
  1. maymay says:

    It’s really good to see this discussion (finally) getting off the ground. Thank you for your contribution.

    For what it’s worth, back on my blog, I was asked about what, specifically, the FetLife team might do to help the situation. I took a moment to respond:

    To address the problems that I (again, somewhat reductively) lumped into the “group coordination/global interactionist perspective” in my essay, I think FetLife should also immediately begin working on creating public-facing options for at least three major components: events, journal entries, and individual group threads. The events section in particular should be prioritized as it is the most valuable for the community as a whole and for individuals who organize events.

    The single best thing about FetLife is its “Events near me” page. The single worst thing about this page is that none of these event listings are google-able. That needs to change, ASAP. For extra credit, FetLife should implement the hCalendar microformat in all of its events pages and its event listings pages to enable interoperability with sites like Google Calendar (via tools like the h2vx Events conversion service) so event data can be cleanly, mechanically lifted from FetLife in an automated fashion. (I personally submitted an HTML patch to this effect to John way back in 2008, to help show him what the code changes should look like from the front-end, but AFAIK that patch was ignored.)

    There are a few more paragraphs in my comment over on my own blog post, but that’s a good chunk of it.

    Also, as far as using “rather specific tech/software terminology,” you’re right that I had some trouble calibrating my language for my audience. On the other hand, you’re making an assumption about my audience that I think may not be entirely accurate. For what it’s worth, for those interested in even more background (both theoretical and technical) to the issues at hand, you’ll probably find a lot of value out of the “anti-censorship best practices for the sex-positive publisher” seminar I lead during Atlanta Poly Weekend 2011, in which I once again include FetLife as a case study.

    • Sammael says:

      On the other hand, you’re making an assumption about my audience that I think may not be entirely accurate.

      I was speaking about your audience being kinky folk in general — in other words, not your audience for that speech at the time that you gave it, but the audience you (intentionally or not) drew by posting it online.

      I agree 100% about the Events listing. I myself run a community calendar for the Atlanta area, and it’s a real pain in the ass to have to copy and paste all the details from the FetLife event page. I’ll admit to a bit of laziness here in that sometimes I don’t — I just say “see this FetLife page for more info” (which I know is bad of me, for the reasons you’ve pointed out).

      My main point is that FetLife would not only become a better site for the community if Baku listened to (and addressed) your points, but he would also be generating more traffic for FetLife. It’s a win-win situation.

      Then again, being a web project manager and programmer myself, I realize that might be more difficult than one might imagine from the outside. So if I had to guess, I’d bet that it would simply be too much work, possibly requiring a huge overhaul of their code and database structure, and that biases their opinion on what is the best way to go. Cognitive dissonance and all that. I still think it would be very much worthwhile for them as a business to do that even if it would be a huge project, but I’ve seen that sort of “what we’ve got is good enough, we’ll just continue with that” thinking before (and been guilty of it myself before, too).

  2. Michael AC McCormick says:

    pssst, the contact page doesnt seem to be working


    thank you?

  3. […] think it works like this: angry activists rock the boat, which may or may not get people to change their behavior, but if they do change their behavior they’re more likely to do so quietly and beneath-board, […]

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