Sketch Theatre opening page
Sketch Theatre is a website where art and music meet. Artists are encouraged to share their artwork and give feedback on one another’s contributions. The website’s Forum Rules state that in order to participate in the Forums (where artists upload their work) they must agree to the rules, which “warrant” that members “will not post any messages that are obscene, vulgar, sexually-oriented, hateful, threatening, or otherwise violative of any laws.”
The mission of Sketch Theatre is to promote and inspire the arts and provide an opportunity for artists to match their creations with music, therefore musicians also can promote and inspire other musicians, too.
The mission makes it very clear that contributions should be centered around art, critiques and tips of other artist’s creations, and also can be a place to promote and spread awareness of various artists, events, and related news.
Yet, obscenity and vulgarity can vary greatly according to each person’s values. These terms are vague enough that they are open to interpretation. Since there are no clear explanations of what constituents an obscenity or a vulgarity, the members take a chance when they upload their images, as the administrators ultimately “reserve the right to remove, edit, move or close any thread for any reason” theoretically.
Since this website was founded by an artist, Alex Alvarez, who has a background in 2-D and 3-D animation with dark creatures in harsh environments, his perceived view of vulgarity would seem to be quite different than someone who is not a fan of fantasy/science fiction images. See Alvarez’s artworks below.
Some artists would praise Alvarez’s work for the high level of detail, intricate backgrounds and expert use of lighting and shadows, while other folks might consider these kinds of images the epitome of vulgar and obscene.
What is obscene or vulgar to someone who creates these kinds of images?
Sketch Theatre also holds monthly themed contests, such as “Zombie Love”, “Grave Digger” and “Freak on a Leash”. Most recently, the theme for this month’s contest is named “Vixen”. The artists then create a relevant piece and await placement for prizes and comments from fellow members.
Here is the screenshot of the contest guidelines.
Because the guidelines, like the rules, are really simple, many members post questions, such as whether or not ink/acrylics are an acceptable medium, if multiple entries are allowed, if works submitted from outside of the US are acceptable, and what are the preferred dimensions.
Some of the questions are answered by other experienced members, for example a previous contest winner answered that yes, it was okay to submit an entry outside of the US because he did and actually won a contest. Another member answered the question about the standard dimensions.
Would something like this be consider vulgar and therefore subject for removal by the administrators?
The title, “rapid doggy style”, reveals a sexually oriented nature because of it is obvious character positioning and the explicit speech bubble images. I would argue that this image borders on vulgarity and can be considered obscene. It is not clear if the character on the bottom is thinking the thoughts included in the pictorial bubble or if the character on the top is justifying his eye-gouging, ear-pulling behavior with the images of a man with genitals plus a figure bent over equaling a heart/love.
In a long detailed comment made by a member jhagen22 (not a junior member) where he seems to be judging the artists to determine the winning entries, he does not seem to take issue with the image enough to demand removal. In fact, jhagen22 praises it with an “awesome” albeit the compliment is tempered with an additional comment that this image is “wrong on so many levels”. See figure below.
The artist who created the image in question clearly was not asked to remove his image or get disqualified from the contest. He even declares that the rabbits are not too offensive, while another member tries to get more specifics on what is acceptable.
As Grimes, et al. states in the article Obfuscatocracy: A stakeholder analysis of governing documents for virtual worlds, “community standards...are often written in an elusive and haphazard manner.” He goes on to question the feasibility of defining what crosses the line in acceptable norms. “How do you define precisely what malicious speech is?” In this case, I wonder how do the administrators define what vulgarity is? Perhaps the rules would benefit from clear explanations about what is unacceptable instead of leaving it open?
According to Kollock and Smith’s Managing the Virtual Commons, success in an online community is determined by “its members following rules of decorum.” And yet what seems to be the case in many online communities, “the cultural rules that define what is and is not appropriate are implicit or poorly understood and articulated, which can itself lead to conflict as participants with different expectations attempt to interact.”
Furthermore, since the Sketch Theatre drawing contest guidelines were not specific, it remains unclear what is the administrator’s stance on multiple entry submissions. However, there was an interpersonal conflict between two members, one with junior status and the other not, over this topic.
One member was policing another without any obvious administrator interference and without any policy reference or supporting documents to back up his claim that multiple entries are not allowed. There was no obvious comment from the administrator. It is not clear if Zaimy removed his images from PhotoBucket or had them removed by moderators or administrator enforcing the “single-entry rule” if it is in fact a rule.
In response to the Sketch Theatre drawing contest guidelines, one member explicitly asks a question about multiple entries, which remains to this day unanswered by the administrators.
In this case, this online community would clearly benefit from including the thoughts and opinions of its members into the guidelines. Should there be multiple submissions according to the administrators and the entire community? Or is the practice offensive or unfair only to another member (stephen fedewa)? And although Pollock and Smith of UCLA claim in their 1994 article Managing the Virtual Commons: Cooperation and Conflict in Computer Communities, “No set of rules is perfectly designed, and there will always be ambiguity in applying a particular rule…it is important to have some method to resolve the conflicts that will inevitably arise.” Unfortunately, the conflict between stephen fedewa and Zaimy went unchallenged by the administrators. Though, ultimately Zaimy did submit to stephen fedewa’s hypothetical rule.
To compound the lack of clarity and enforcement by administrators, another member decides to detail a list of suggestions to improve the contest.
Clearly, there are certain members who are invested in the success and integrity of the site and are willing to work, “enforce or delineate”, guidelines to improve the functionality of the community.
In one of the forums, a member posted an off-topic post that threatens the mission of Sketch Theatre, as members responded to the off-topic post and provided feedback. The post was a speech and the poster wanted to know if it was fluid and understandable. It didn’t explicitly mention art, music, or the cultivation of an arts program. Instead, the member used the Sketch Theatre forum to receive feedback on an irrelevant topic thus taking away time and attention from the intent of the online community. He or she could have easily posted his or her speech on a public speaking forum, but because the administrators are not that active in the forums, the post remained unflagged.
In Gazan’s 2009 article, When Online Communities Become Self-Aware, he states that “when an online community is based on user-generated content and interaction…conditions are ripe for oppositional views about what constitutes appropriate use.” Is this okay to share a health-related speech on this artistic forum? I am surprised that members did not rise up and request for the removal of such an off-topic post but instead wrote back with thoughtful responses. Although, clearly one of the members remarked that the question of asking for feedback on for Health Occupation Students of America speech was odd, the member still was courteous enough to read it and comply with the original poster’s request for helpful criticism.
If I was the administrator...
If I was the administrator, I would take off the rabbits involved in a sexual act. I would also make it clear that any images that include sexual images will be removed, regardless if the images include human depictions or animal cartoon characters. The images conjures brutality with the dominant rabbit pulling the submissive rabbit’s ear so hard that it bleeds and grabs the submissive rabbit’s head so forcefully that the submissive rabbit’s eye pops out.
Despite a member’s comment that the image is awesome, this kind of image falls into the vulgar and obscene category. I was relieved to see that it hadn’t been selected as a winner, but wondered what would it take to be removed from the forum. Although not a directed assault on the entire forum, like the griefers mentioned in Dibbell’s 2008 article Mutilate Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World, the image left a disturbing image for all members to view. Even more frightening was the artist’s comment that this was “too offensive”. I wonder what was then?
If I was the administrator, I would spend more time responding to the member’s questions to clear any confusion about contest rules. By not have any moderation by the administrators, community members are left to their own devices and clearly there will arise dominant users who as a result of their willingness to contribute, will ultimately dictate what is acceptable and what is unacceptable…without any supporting materials from the administrators. It appears that the only posts amended by the Sketch Theatre member account are the contest winners. The mission, rules, and guideline posts have not been altered and therefore are not representative of the evolution of the site.
In Grimes, et al. article Obfuscatocracy, he states that “it is not fair for users to be influenced by governing documents that they had no role in developing or modifying.” If I was the administrator, I would reach out to certain folks who are obviously active on the forums and in the chat rooms in the hopes of creating a group of moderators who can assist and greet new members and enforce contest rules.
If I was the administrator in the third example, I would also contact the member who posted the off-topic post about a health occupation speech and give them a warning that this isn’t the place to request such feedback. Instead, the poster should re-read the mission and focus future posts about art or music. Pollock and Smith, in their 1994 article, Managing the Virtual Commons, wrote of responsible use of bandwidth. They share that “A great concern on the Usenet is…refraining from posting unnecessary information”. They reiterate this sentiment with their comment that “Being off-topic threatens the coordination of discussion that the Usenet rests on.”
Five “unwritten rules”: things that are not directly addressed by current policy and would help users get what they came to the site to receive, and reflect the lessons of the readings you cited.
1. Members understand that the purpose of this website is to promote artistic growth. Anything that is off-topic and non-art or music related will be removed to maintain the integrity of the site.
2. Members are allowed to determine amongst themselves via a one-month long open poll whether or not they wish to allow multiple entries into the Sketch Theatre monthly contests. This poll will be reinstituted annually to reflect consistency with the growing membership and possibly changing attitudes regarding this issue.
3. A select group of members will also act as moderators of the forums and chat room to provide quick response and helpful tips about interacting with the community.
4. Any materials that include sexually explicit images will be removed.
5. If members are unsure if they images are potentially vulgar, obscene or violative of any laws, they must first submit via private message to an administrator for approval. If not, they are liable to be expelled from the community.
Kollock, Peter and Marc Smith (1994). Managing the Virtual Commons: Cooperation and Conflict in Computer Communities. In: Susan Herring (ed.), Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 109-128. http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/csoc/papers/virtcomm/Virtcomm.htm
Grimes, Justin, Paul Jaeger and Kenneth Fleischmann (2008). Obfuscatocracy: A stakeholder analysis of governing documents for virtual worlds. First Monday 13(9).http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2153/2029
Gazan, Rich (2009). When Online Communities Become Self-Aware. Proceedings of the 42nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Waikoloa, HI, 5-8 January 2009.
Dibbell, Julian (2008). Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World. Wired 16.02. http://www.wired.com/gaming/virtualworlds/magazine/16-02/mf_goons?currentPage=all