POLL: Does Twitter Need A Ratings System For Avatars?

If you’re a blogger, or regularly comment on blogs, you’ve likely heard of Gravatar, a service that provides globally recognised avatars that follow you from site to site, appearing whenever you make a comment.

Gravatar also implements a movie-style ratings feature for avatars, ranging from G (suitable for all) to X (very mature content) which allows blog owners to control what kind of images appear on their site.

As you’re probably well aware, Twitter has a bit of a problem with spammers. And many of these individuals, real or robotic, like to use pictures of scantily-clad women to capture the attention of the easily-pleased.

Here are just a few I found amongst my followers:

POLL: Does Twitter Need A Ratings System For Avatars?

The thing is, it’s not always spammers. Often it’s real people with large numbers of followers, and they’re using these provocative images for the exact same reasons. And it’s not just ‘women’, either – there are plenty of men who think it’s big and clever to upload a headless picture of ‘their’ bare chest.

At this point, I’d like to state that I am not a prude. (In fact, far from it.) But while it is true that Twitter is comfortably the most ‘professional’ social network, with an average age amongst all users in the mid-to-high 30s, I’m not entirely comfortable with an ‘anything goes’ approach to profile images. I also don’t want Twitter to turn into MySpace or Bebo, where it’s entirely the norm to see individuals flaunting themselves in their birthday suits.

And it’s not just about sex – as it stands, anything can be placed within an avatar, and there’s nothing specific in Twitter’s TOS that addresses this. Twitter is an open, public network, and while you can of course unfollow somebody who causes offense, that isn’t the end of the matter.

The issue of censorship is always a difficult one to balance. On one side, nobody likes the idea that a corporation is enforcing a ‘nanny state’ approach to political correctness (Facebook’s ongoing mess regarding the removal of breastfeeding photos is a notable example) but equally ratings systems in movies and videogames exist for a reason. Many countries also have a watershed (or safe harbour) for television programming, too.

One way that censorship works extremely well is if it is self-moderated. By adopting a Gravatar-style rating system to any avatars uploaded to the network, Twitter could avoid a Facebook-style PR disaster while affording those with stricter sensibilities towards what is (and what is not) acceptable on a social network greater control over what they can (and cannot) see.

Here’s how it might work:

  1. When you upload an avatar, you tag it with a rating. Using Gravatar’s system, this would be G for General, PG for audiences 13 and above, R for audiences 17 and above, and X for very mature content.
  2. Users would select which level of avatar they were prepared to see in their settings.
  3. Avatars that clearly breached their rating level could be marked as inappropriate. This would work similar to spam, where Twitter would need to step in if a person received enough complaints.

Now, the risk here of course is that what is a masterwork of art to one person is sexually explicit filth to another. However, because a Gravatar-style control system would allow us all to set the level of image we were prepared to see, those who are very easily offended could set their level to G, and where an avatar exceeded this it would be replaced by Twitter’s default.

Moreover, if Twitter adopted such a policy, they would need to look at other areas, too, such as background designs on profiles.

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this. As said, the idea of censorship often raises a red flag in and of itself, and many are opposed to such regulation on the internet. This is why I think self-moderation is usually the best way forward.

Please take a moment to vote in the poll below, and then share your thoughts in the comments area.