Big Brother peeps

When Facebook Sees a Penis on Yom Kippur Eve

Facebook has grown fat, turning its users into citizens of Mark Zuckerberg’s enlightened dictatorship.

Dani Bar On
Dani Bar On
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Dani Bar On
Dani Bar On

It was another dark night at Haaretz’s editorial desk. My hand trembled, but only a little, when I posted a link to an article about a book by photographer Micha Bar-Am on our Facebook page (which has more than 150,000 followers). The post included a photograph, entitled “West of the Suez Canal, October 1973,” from his book, which shows a naked soldier pouring a jerrycan of water over his body to bathe.

We do not see the soldier’s face because he is pouring the water over his head, but the rest of his body — including part of his penis — is visible.

Before I published the photo, I stopped to think for a moment. On the one hand, since the photograph appears in an article on its website and also in the print edition, we know that Haaretz saw fit to show it to its readers, some of whom are children, and so on. On the other hand, we might be accused of being populist and provocative. On still another hand, the photograph is art, and sometimes art shows private parts of the body.

But the main consideration was that the depiction of the penis in the photograph is quite refined and mostly implied. It is not a close-up; most of the organ is in shadow.

Finally deciding that our surfers’ sensibilities could stand the sight, I ran the photo.

The responses were mostly positive. I told one surfer who criticized us for running the photo that since the soldier’s face was hidden, he was the only one who knew the identity of the subject, assuming that he was still alive and had identified himself.

But the trouble, when it came, arrived from a direction I hadn’t expected. At noon the following day, which was Yom Kippur eve, I logged on to my Facebook account, where an unpleasant reception awaited me. Mark Zuckerberg formally notified me, in a tone of reprimand, that I had broken the rules. That bit of full frontal nudity was a “policy violation.” With Big Brother looking over my shoulder, I had to delete the photo, and was told that as punishment for my behavior I would be blocked from using Facebook for 24 hours, during which I could study the terms of use and think about what I had done.

All the moderators of the page received the same notice so that they could take warning from my example, but I was the only one who was blocked. I don’t comment much on Facebook in any case, but surfing there when you’re gagged is no fun. When I tried once to reply to someone who teased me about the episode, I saw that Zucky was serious. I got the same response when I tried to like a post, even though a “like” doesn’t spread the homo-erotic pornographic content that Facebook discovered I enjoyed. It was punishment for punishment’s sake.

Subsequently, I found that pornography is not the only content Facebook blocks. Early this month there was a report that Facebook had blocked an ad for the Christmas Island Tourism Association’s campaign for its upcoming Bird ’n’ Nature Week. The problem? The ad had read, in part: “Some gorgeous shots here of some juvenile boobies.” The accompanying photos showed birds, not body parts; Christmas Island, a tiny island 360 miles south of Java, is a popular destination for birdwatchers. It’s just bad luck that the booby, a seabird, has the same name as the slang expression for “breast.”

But I digress. To me, the main thing is how elegantly Facebook gags its customers. One example is the way it chooses who sees our posts, and how. If a person has a certain number of friends, only some of them will see his posts, according to a secret, ever-changing algorithm in which Facebook gives weight to of all kinds of variables that only it knows about. Facebook also inserts past statuses and various advertisements into users’ news feeds. People are under the delusion that writing a status on Facebook is equivalent to sending an e-mail to all their Facebook friends, who will all see it, but you don’t actually get to decide who sees them. Only Mark gets to do that.

For example, when I logged on to Facebook on Yom Kippur afternoon, the first frame I saw contained five advertisements: an offer to join a group dedicated to the idea that the late popular Mizrahi singer Zohar Argov (1955–1987) did not commit suicide but was murdered by Ashkenazim (I like Mizrahi music); an ad for a Samsung smartphone (that’s the brand of telephone I have); an ad for the Tamir Institute, which offers psychological therapy (I’m a psychologist); and two Mazda ads (what do I have to do with Mazda?). The main part of the page, before I started scrolling, showed only a single bit of “content” that I chose — a status put up by Velvet Underground, the Israeli media criticism blog by Dvorit Shargal.

The bottom line is simple: I hate Facebook. I hate it because it makes us feel as if everyone’s life is more fun than yours (the fact that there is only a “like” button and not a “dislike” button contributes to that feeling, as does the latest addition of emoticons with captions such as “feeling excited”). I hate it for the way it controls my own and other people’s information, and the way it decides what to show and what to hide. Mostly, I hate it because despite all that, it still retains the image of a kind of happy Hyde Park where everybody can express their opinions and start revolutions. So maybe Facebook helped bring down the price of cottage cheese by NIS 1.50, but who will give us back all the lost hours we spent watching our friends’ babies after they throw up over themselves?

You may say: If you don’t like it, don’t use it. Well, that’s possible, but Facebook is a good deal more than just another website. Like any true monopoly, Facebook has no real competition, and like any true monopoly, Facebook has grown fat, turning its users into citizens of Mark Zuckerberg’s enlightened dictatorship. For years, people have been saying that the end is near, that more and more people are leaving and that the business isn’t staying afloat. In the meantime, it’s still around.

It’s absolutely clear that Haaretz cannot ignore Facebook. Many people get their news via Facebook, form opinions on current affairs through Facebook and spend many hours there each day. What the photograph incident taught me was that like in “The Truman Show,” you discover the borders of the world you live in only once you’ve been kicked to the edge of the bubble.

Dani Bar-On is deputy editor of Haaretz.co.il

Micha Bar-Am, “West of the Suez Canal, October 1973.”
Facebook founder and CEO Mark ZuckerbergCredit: AP