free html hit counter What Are Community Standards? - John Battelle's Search Blog

What Are Community Standards?

By - June 24, 2008

Is it what people say they value publicly, or what they search for in the privacy of their home? Man, that’s a tricky one.

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. But the defense lawyer, Lawrence Walters, is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.

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5 thoughts on “What Are Community Standards?

  1. Roger C. says:

    I think they’re setting up a false dichotomy there. Individual standards may lead them to google “orgy,” but if there was an entire community watching their surfing, I have a distinct feeling they wouldn’t put that term in a search engine to show their community. There is a difference between public and private behavior. I believe that virtuous private behavior is something worth practicing, but even if you don’t, community standards are not supposed to be based on what you do as an individual, but what you do as a community.

    Since pornography is against a majority’s sense of public decorum, it is a community standard, and the city of Pensacola and the state of Florida are right to prosecute. Even if a majority did not hold that view, in light of protecting minority viewpoints that hold it to be inappropriate public behavior, it is still right to prosecute. There is a common sense of decency and modesty that should be maintained.

  2. JG says:

    Let’s leave aside any value judgment on the topic matter. And let’s leave aside any discussion on the difference between public vs. private behaviors, etc.

    Instead, let’s look at this statement from a purely logical/argumentation perspective:

    …is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics.

    To me, there is a problem with this argument, with this line of reasoning. This person is trying to say that because the number of searches done for “orgy” is larger than the number of searches done for “watermelon”, the “orgy” searches do not fall outside of the norm. That does not seem correct.

    The main reason I remain skeptical is that one searches for what one does not have or cannot easily find. Orgies are hard to come by. I think. They’re far enough outside of (most people’s?) every day experience that it makes sense that one would need to search to find them.

    Watermelons, on the other hand, are fairly common. I can walk into any grocery store this time of year, or to almost any farmer’s market, and pick up a watermelon.

    Hence there is no need for me, or for most people, to search for “watermelon”, because they are immanently findable.

    So just because one search term has a higher frequency than another does not necessarily imply that it is a “norm”. In fact, one could argue that the less of a norm a term like “orgy” is, the more there will be searches for it.. because it is difficult to find.

    As another example, I use “water” and “toilet paper” every day of my life. And yet I cannot remember the last time I ever searched Google for either of these items.

    So maybe “orgy” is a community norm. I am not saying it is or is not. I am just saying that the argument that is being proposed, to show that it is a norm, is incorrect.

  3. Ryan says:

    How real is a “community standard” if few in the community actually follow it in private?

    We do a lot of things in private that are not appropriate in public. That doesn’t make doing them “against community standards.”

    Most people prefer to go to the bathroom in private, rather than in public. Does that make urination “against community standards”?

    Apart from the public/private argument, who exactly is in charge of deciding and announcing these “community standards”? Where can I go to get a written list of what actions would put me in violation of such standards?

  4. JG says:

    Apart from the public/private argument, who exactly is in charge of deciding and announcing these “community standards”?

    Ryan, the issue here, the reason John posted this to his blog, is that the proposed method for determining who is in charge is Google, via Google Trends search term popularity.

    That doesn’t seem correct to me.. the least reason for which is the fact that the “most” popular things, or the “most” community norm things, are things that people rarely ever search for.

    “Mom” and “Apple pie” are community norms, right? C’mon. When was the last time you used Google to search for your Mom? Almost never, right? And so the argument is that anything you search for on Google more than you search for your mom is more of a “norm” than motherhood? I don’t buy that argument.

  5. Ionic Detox says:

    The big problem is that “community standards” as measured by Google can easily be manipulated. One person could go to every coffeeshop, internet cafe and library in a town and perform many specific searches in a particular timeframe to manipulate the data to win their court case.