In an effort to explain trigger warnings and safe spaces to people who clearly don’t understand them—like the University of Chicago’s dean of students—a few folks have compared them to the movie ratings and trailer cards that list potentially offensive material. It’s a useful analogy, but not likely to be much comfort for people concerned about trigger warnings.
In the US, the movie and trailer ratings system is operated by the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade organization. The actual process by which they set and deliver those ratings has long been somewhat secretive, but the documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” does an impressive job of uncovering and exploring those facts. Unfortunately, it’s not just a benign means of presenting more information so that viewers can be better informed.
The documentary shows filmmakers describing instances where the movie raters appear to be biased against non-heternormative sexual content, and against women’s sexuality. Independent filmmakers, too, report that they get less detailed notes about why their films were rated a certain way.
If these ratings were just used for informing viewers, that might be alright; viewers could learn about the MPAA’s bias and discount certain ratings accordingly. But there’s a cascading effect: theaters refuse to show movies with certain ratings, or refuse entry to people below a certain age. (Sometimes, admirably, they buck that trend.) The same is true for other media—music and video game retailers make stocking and selling decisions based on these ratings from industry groups.
Good instructors should have empathy for their students, and that includes giving a fair warning when upsetting (or triggering) material is likely to be discussed. Some people worry that such a suggestion will be mandated, or that those warnings will lead to relevant but controversial content being avoided or even banned from the classroom. It’s absolutely possible to have the former without the latter, but movie ratings are not a great example of that in practice.
I’m trying to take more pictures with my mirrorless camera, especially when I travel or walk around the city. I’ve always been a big fan of Unsplash, which curates high-res user-submitted photography and releases “packs” of images completely free to the public domain. So for now, I’ll be releasing some of my favorite shots to the public domain and hosting them there.
AOL’s “carpet-bombing” free disk campaign in the 90s and 2000s worked incredibly well. But the woman responsible for it, Jan Brandt, wouldn’t let anyone acknowledge that, for fear of encouraging copycats. And while she didn’t speak much to the press at the time, she let loose in an interview with the Internet History Podcast in 2014. (Side note: I’ve been listening non-stop to episodes of this show, and they’re amazing.)
This is my favorite anecdote from her interview, where she explains how nervous she was that AOL’s competitors would follow their strategy.
I say I wake up every morning worried that I’m going to see Prodigy or CompuServe using the disks the way that we’re using them. That I’m going to see it stuck onto the front of a magazine, or that I’m going to see it in the mail.
And the thing that was really interesting about that point, and one of the reasons—you know, I gave very few interviews. In fact, it’s noted somewhere that I really wouldn’t talk to the press at that point, and the reason I wouldn’t—and I would never have talked to them then the way that I’m talking to you about it now—is because I felt like I was sitting there with the secret sauce, and everyone was going to want to know what were the responses? What were the costs? And I wasn’t going to tell them. So I didn’t think I’d make for a good story.
But Ted Leonsis was once on a panel with someone from CompuServe. And the guy from CompuServe, I don’t remember who it was at the time, said to Ted, “You guys are crazy, and the person running marketing has got to be a nutcase with the amount of money that you’re spending on these disks.”
Ted comes back and reports this to me, and I said, “Next time someone says that, agree that I’m a dumb broad, and that you’ve been trying to get me fired from the company for a long time and you haven’t been able to figure out why you haven’t been able to do that.” And the reason for that, really, is that I couldn’t believe that they weren’t trying it! And it’s because they were making a really common, frightfully common mistake about not understanding the economics of the business.
I’ve been attending (and livetweeting) the Oracle v. Google jury trial for the last two weeks, and have had a lot of conversations and made a lot of jokes about it. One joke that went surprisingly well was an image I made and tweeted without context:
In fact, the picture got enough retweets and replies that I decided to make stickers. And t-shirts. And each of those things have gotten more attention than I expected. It’s been really exciting! I don’t have a distribution plan for the stickers besides handing them out in person (and self-addressed stamped envelopes to me at EFF), but there will be more than 300 t-shirts out there in the world. That blows my Alice & Bob design out of the water.
The shirts will be donezo Monday evening—if anybody wants to print their own, here are the high-res source files you can send to a printer or put on a screen yourself. (The first one is white on transparent, so you have to change the background to see it.) I’d love to see your take on it!
I'm a free culture and free software enthusiast working as an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. I enjoy thinking and writing about technology, listening to all kinds of music, and playing ukulele. more »