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What does nudity mean for online communities? Finding the red lines from sculpture to sex

April 18, 2023 | Image Moderation

What does nudity mean when it comes to allowing users to post images or video on your platform? This might sound like a silly question, but it’s actually surprisingly difficult to answer.

For example, many charity calendars feature people who aren’t wearing any clothes, but are posed in a tasteful way that obscures all the ‘problem’ areas. So does this count as nudity, or does nudity mean you have to see genitals? Do bare breasts count as nudity? What about bare buttocks? These are admittedly awkward, but nonetheless necessary questions to ask when it comes to the specifics of defining and enforcing online community guidelines.

Context is also key. There are different expectations and leeway afforded art or scientific and medical diagrams vs. everyday photography and video. So the more it’s pondered , the more one realizes “What does nudity mean?” is a question that doesn’t have an easy answer.

Yet this isn’t just a philosophical exercise: for content moderators in 2023, it’s a very practical consideration.

What does nudity mean for moderators?

Every website that features user-generated content needs to define what is and isn’t acceptable for users to upload. Yet with so much nuance in how nudity is defined, coming up with clear and easily explained rules can be trickier than you might imagine.

This is exactly the kind of problem WebPurify is equipped to solve, both because of its team’s formidable collective experience and consultative services – which help clients design rules around nudity that strike a balance between safe and enforceable – and owing to its hybrid moderation offering. Regarding the latter, WebPurify affords customers the option to combine dedicated 24/7 human moderation and AI models when moderating user-generated content across text, images, videos and the metaverse. This provides a powerful blend of speed and attention to detail, since the AI can flag and remove obvious raw nudity in real time while escalating edge cases to humans for a closer look.

Most recently this AI + Human combination came into play when WebPurify was asked to work with an online artist community, whose users often upload sexually explicit artwork to the platform. WebPurify helped the community’s team draw up clear policies, and human moderators frequently stepped in after AI to make final decisions on art that toed the line per those policies.

What does nudity mean for artists?

The topic of nudity and censorship in art has long been a vexing one. And it’s become a hot topic recently after a Florida school forced its principal to resign following a lesson featuring Michelangelo’s David, widely regarded as a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture.

So what does nudity mean in the context of online artist moderation, and where exactly does the line between art and porn lie?

That’s not something that WebPurify decides by itself, explains co-founder Josh Buxbaum. “We’re purely focused on helping the client to define the ‘line in the sand’ they’re happy with. So we don’t take a stance: we’re simply enforcing the rules that our clients have. But we also work closely with them to help define those rules, and refine them over time.”

This process in itself, though, is no easy task, because there are so many factors to consider.

What does nudity mean for online communities? Finding the red lines from sculpture to sex

Complex considerations

Most clients start to define nudity by identifying the basics of, say, showing nipples, buttocks or genitalia, explains Josh. “But then you go a step further and you get into partial nudity. That might include things like excessive cleavage, G-string bikinis or males showing below what we call the pubic line.”

Another question to consider is: what does nudity mean when it comes to see-through clothing? “Firstly, how see-through is see-through?” asks Josh rhetorically. “Secondly, what happens when the shirt isn’t see-through but you can clearly see the outline of the nipple: is that okay for the client? Context is also essential. Someone in a bikini at the beach sends a very different message than a selfie in the shower in the very same attire.”

Then there’s positioning. “There could be someone who’s fully clothed but bent over in a sexual position, or sitting in a corner, acting coy and in lingerie. Do we consider that sexually suggestive? What if they’re stripping or flashing… so even though you’re not necessarily seeing a bare body, they’re lifting up their dress and you see a little bit of their underwear? Is that acceptable?”

In other words, again, the question ‘what does nudity mean?’ is more complicated than you might think.

Striking the right balance

You’d be forgiven for assuming most clients would err on the side of caution and limit potentially offensive material to the absolute minimum. But Josh points out that companies have to balance competing interests. Get too strict with your definition of nudity, and you might alienate large sections of your audience.

As Josh points out: “In the case of an artist platform, someone may leave the community, go onto Instagram and say ‘This website isn’t for me. I’m an artist, and they apparently don’t like my nude art. I’m going somewhere else.’ And the client will see that and think: ‘We’ve got to move the line because we just lost 5,000 users.'”

WebPurify spends a long time working with each client, to find exactly where that balance lies. Often, the client won’t know the line themselves, but rhetorical questions, mindstorms, and reviewing libraries of progressively more problematic images can help clients work out what isn’t acceptable for them, and then turn that into rules that are easily explained and trainable for moderators

“So for example, with the artist community, we showed them images that could be described as S&M,” Josh recalls. “They’re shot in black and white, and feature someone wearing leather; it’s barely covering her breasts. Some may say this is art. I can see that in the gallery, right? They decide they’re comfortable with that on their platform. Or they don’t. But what’s important is the client comes to their own conclusion, one they’re happy with.

Trainable rules

Over the years Josh, operations manager Satya Das and training manager Ravi Yekkanti have become experts at translating these nuanced discussions into rules that are consistent and trainable.

“So we’ll ask things like: are visible bare nipples acceptable for your platform? If that is permitted, how about bare genitalia, without penetration? Cringe-inducing as it may seem, we need to get these kinds of granular answers, in order to look at each image and essentially create a decision tree.” Once that’s in place, WebPurify can use its unique combination of AI and human teams to enforce the new rules.

That said, in the real world there will always be gray areas. In these instances, WebPurify can either err on the side of caution or escalate to the client (whichever approach the client prefers). In the latter case, the client’s responses may raise new, unconsidered questions, leading to the creation of further rules and a more sophisticated decision tree that will make the process that much smoother in the future.

So what have we learned? Essentially, the answer to the question ‘What does nudity mean for online communities?’ will vary depending on who you talk to, and will normally be much more complicated than you think.

But by drawing on their experience with a huge range of clients, from dating websites to artist platforms, WebPurify can help find the answer that works for you and your team, and create the rules and systems that can put theory into practice.