Last weekend, YouTube yanked a popular music video from Robin Thicke, which featured a number of topless models prancing to the rather upbeat track. The video for "Blurred Lines" had garnered more than one million views before it was found to be in violation of the video sharing service's community guidelines regarding Sex and Nudity. A few days later, the VEVO upload of the same uncensored music video was pulled down about 30 minutes after we first noticed that it was still available on YouTube.
Was it the breasts? Of course. But there's plenty of nudity on YouTube, in plenty of music videos. And how YouTube's army of censor-drones decides what stays and what goes—what's art and what's porn—shapes the internet in a powerful way.
Move the arrow in the image above to see the NSFW version of this "Blurred Lines" scene that YouTube pulled.
YouTube's official comment as to why the VEVO version of "Blurred Lines" was pulled down was the same as the original: It had been flagged as inappropriate and thus yanked. Did I flag the video by publishing my original story? Maybe. After all, the VEVO version was uploaded two days after the original went up and remained up for about five days.
According to YouTube's guidelines regarding nudity and sex, any video that's "intended to be sexually provocative" is probably going to be taken down. That's not to say that videos being uploaded to YouTube are being screened ahead of time. In fact, questionable videos are only taken down when the community has flagged it as inappropriate or found it to be in violation of the guidelines. That flagged video is then reviewed by actual humans in different YouTube offices in different countries around the clock. There's no algorithm that determines whether the artistic context outweighs the sexual context. In other words, the nudity's intent must be artistic rather than sexually provocative. And that decision is made be people sitting in an office.
So, was Thicke's music video with nearly nude models prancing around art or porn? Take the song and its lyrics into context and you can basically surmise that its intent was most definitely meant to be sexually provocative. I mean, come on. But still, where does the line get drawn? Well, that's where it gets tricky.
They Know It When They See It
Once a video is flagged for nudity and/or sex and depending on the nature of the scenes involved, one of three things happens once the humans at YouTube have given it a look:
A) Nothing! The video stays up.
B) If the scenes in question are deemed artistic then YouTube puts an age gate in place.
C) If it crosses the line, then it gets taken down.
But what exactly are those humans looking for when reviewing any flagged video? YouTube won't divulge that information, which is smart of them. Once you make public the rules or guidelines, you're only going to make it that much easier for users to circumvent and take the whole system down from the inside out.
It could also be seen as a tacit admission that there are no rules or guidelines that could possibly separate pornography from art. What Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about porn 50 years ago still holds true today:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.
Censorship By Degrees
YouTube's judgment isn't a simple yes or no, either; age gates are only put in place after videos have been flagged. A record label, for instance, can't restrict a video to 18+ before uploading it. Only YouTube can do that, and only if it believes the video in question doesn't violate its guidelines but also isn't exactly appropriate for kids.
No preemptive restrictions sort of makes sense; why would you preemptively cut down on your audience size? But it also just introduces another level of judgment call, an extra dash of murk in an already opaque process. Music video vendor VEVO, on the other hand, basically doesn't touch anything that any artist uploads:
VEVO is a platform where artists of all types can express themselves freely through music and video. We do not and have never censored any music video distributed through our platform. We do clearly label when a video is explicit or clean, so our viewers can choose which version they would like to watch. We also sometimes include a Parental Advisory notice because we do believe it important to inform parents and viewers about any video content we distribute that may not be suitable for all viewers.
What Stays, What Goes
But what about all those other videos that are still up on YouTube that are clearly way more explicit in nature than anything seen in Thicke's video? Like Sigur Rós' "Fjögur píanó," starring Shia Lebouf and his wang? (Below, NSFW obviously.) That's apparently art for the sake of art, and one that record labels point to when YouTube believes that an artist's videos aren't pretentious enough to be safe from the chopping block, as told to me by someone in the music business.
Will Google take this one down too? No. It does warn you that there is nudity and it's been put behind an age gate already and it appears as though double jeopardy is also in effect.
But still, Thicke's video, as suggestive as it might be, is just a music video from a household name that's pretty innocent when compared to others—mostly of the heavy/black/goth metal genre—that readers dropped into comments when my story first ran. Since then, those videos—including Amanda Palmer's double-plus-naked "Do It With a Rockstar"—have been taken down from YouTube. What's even more interesting about the takedown of Palmer's video is that when it was released in November of last year, nearly every publication, including Gawker, called the video an alt porn or something of that ilk. And yet nothing happened. Shortly after it had been inadvertantly "flagged" by me, it was taken down. I swear I'm not a narc. (Please don't gut me, Amanda.)
Meanwhile, this Rammstein music video (NSFW!) has got plenty of nudity and not what most people would consider art. Or does it? And how can the person who makes the call ultimately decide that for the rest of us?
So how do artists feel about their "art" being taken down? It doesn't seem to be as big a deal these days. Both Thicke and Palmer redirected fans via Twitter to other hosting sites like VEVO and Vimeo.
Basically, you have to be a giant prude to think most of these music videos are all that offensive. There are worse things on the internet than a few naked body parts flailing about on YouTube. Just don't be the jerk that ruins it for the rest of us, myself included.
What's more unnerving is how pointless all of this is. There are far more nastier and truly horrific things on the Internet than a pair of bare breasts. Sure, some videos definitely cross the line and are cause for concern, but this is an impossible business to be in and YouTube could be redirecting all that man power to something greater.
Besides, if you just keep the naughty bits to 18+, the power to decide whether it's too porngraphic will lie in the hands of the only people that matter: the ones watching it.
Update: And now the Rammstein video has been pulled.