No nipples, no genitals, no butt cheeks, no pubic hair: The perfect human, according to the content restrictions on most social media platforms. Fortunately, I’ve had all of these surgically removed so not to offend anyone online.
All jokes aside, of course we can’t just have all of the “offensive” parts removed from our bodies, but we do go about our online lives mostly as thought bubbles, talking heads, or fully-clothed mannequins, particularly where we spend the majority of our time, like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. I suppose you could argue that online interactions only really require our minds, not our bodies, but the Internet, thanks the increasing prevalence of photo and video media, has become much more than a place to share text-only information. The Internet is a reflection of nearly every aspect of real-world life, from art galleries and marketplaces to community centers and libraries. If there is room on the Internet for every aspect of human life—the good, the bad, and everything in-between—then there must be room on the Internet for the human body.
To an extent, there already is room for the human body on the Internet. We do have Twitter and MeWe, after all, along with TrueNudists and myriad forums, resources, and pages. Isn’t that enough? No, I don’t think so. Being relegated to the darkest corners of the Internet isn’t quite what we had in mind. One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that there is virtually no limit to how we can use it and what we can share on it. The limitations imposed by individual websites, media providers, and social media platforms only exist within the confines of those sites, and I don’t disagree that they should have the right to decide what is and is not allowed there, especially if they are catering to a specific group. But what happens when a single social media platform like Facebook becomes so ubiquitous, so unavoidable, that it becomes synonymous with social media itself? What happens when one social media platform becomes the preferred space to keep in touch with loved ones, friends, and acquaintances both new and old? Does that platform still have the right to dictate what can be shared?
There is an important distinction here between spaces that are created with a specific group in mind and spaces that are created to be shared by everyone, and this applies to the real world just as it does to the Internet. Online and offline, we have special spaces set aside for religious groups, advocacy groups, people who share special interests and hobbies, people within certain age ranges or who have certain professions. And that’s great. Nudists have these spaces as well. So, wonderful, but what about Facebook, right? Does human nudity have the right to exist on Facebook? In the real world, nudity tends to be criminalized in public spaces, so the strongest case against allowing nudity on Facebook, I suppose, is that we already have a precedent in the real world for restricting nudity in common areas so that nobody sees anything they don’t want to see—the park doesn’t have content filters, so there are rules. But Facebook is not just one giant common area: Facebook is a collection of private spaces shared between consenting individuals, making it more like a gated community than a public park. When we share something on Facebook, we are able to choose who amongst our contacts can see that content or whether it is visible to the whole world. We can also decide whether we want to see the content that our contacts are sharing or if we would rather not. This, to me, is much more akin to inviting friends or family into your home and deciding what you want to share with them while they are there. Do you take down the photos from when you visited the nude beach earlier this summer? Do you put away everything political? Do you shove the dirty magazines back under your mattress? Do you change what you’re wearing or fix your hair?
And what about YouTube? If Facebook is a gated community, YouTube is… well… I’m not sure. What YouTube has demonstrated, though, is the feasibility of restricting access to content through age verification and “inappropriate content” filters. Even though they have shown that it can be done, YouTube still has nebulous enforcement against content containing nudity, allowing it for the purposes of documenting an event but not for recording people who just happen to be nude or topless. If these filters and content settings exist, why does YouTube need to decide for its users what they should be able to watch or share? Let the viewers decide what they want to see; let the creators decide what they want to share. And if someone does something illegal, deal with that separately. Circling back to Twitter briefly, we can also see that it’s possible to foster an environment where any content is allowed, and where the user’s experience is fully formed by their own online behavior: If you follow porn, you will see porn, but if all you follow are political activists, that’s all you will see. It’s an interesting model that may not work for other platforms, but it does show that a social media platform does not need to assume responsibility for what its users can see and share.
My real question, though, goes a bit further: What makes social media so different from other forms of communication that technology has brought us? Nobody is stopping anyone from mailing nudist magazines and brochures through the mail in sealed envelopes (not anymore, anyway). Nobody is restricting what you can talk about over the phone. Nobody is censoring the emails you send. Nobody is restricting what you can say or share in your text messages. All of these means of communication are more or less off-limits for censorship and everyone gets to use them. I wonder, then, if social media built for use by everyone (as in, not created specifically for use by one group), should also fall into this category. If social media is the de facto way that most of us are keeping in touch with one another, should there even be restrictions on how we are allowed to use it and what we can share? Should Facebook’s own ubiquity limit its right to censor its users? I think there is an argument to be made that, in the twenty-first century, social media should be mostly off-limits for censorship, and that we as users should be the ones who shape our online experience through filters and privacy settings. The problem is that I don’t know who will fight for this cause and actually make progress. How do you convince a corporation to ease its stance on nudity in an environment where online platforms like Tumblr are becoming increasingly restrictive? It would be great to see national (or even international) nudist organizations stepping up and working directly with platforms like Facebook and YouTube to find practical solutions. At the end of the day, not being able to share nudist and naturist experiences online means less exposure for nudism and naturism overall and diminished ability to promote the movement, so it could benefit the national organizations to advocate for this.
In the meantime, I don’t know if repeated indignation shared only amongst ourselves over naked bodies being censored on platforms that we know have puritanical content policies is helpful… but… suggesting pragmatic solutions, advanced filters, and better privacy settings just might be. Explaining the situation to non-nudist friends so they can see how these rules affect not only us but them as well just might be. Pressing national organizations to advocate for better systems just might be. Writing about it just might be. And for now there’s Twitter, which, let’s be honest, is a larger, more active platform than we could have ever expected to give us a space online to be nudists… or pretty much anything else. Cheers to that.