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"Jokerized" Obama
A couple thousand users viewed the Obama Time magazine cover superimposed with the iconic “Joker” look from “The Dark Knight" posted on Flickr.
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 8/28/2009 8:58:19 AM ET 2009-08-28T12:58:19

The “Jokerized” image of President Barack Obama sat unmolested on Flickr for about two months before it was removed by the staff at the photo-sharing Web site. A couple thousand users viewed the image — Obama’s Time magazine cover superimposed with the iconic “Joker” look from “The Dark Knight" — and many of them commented on it. Sometimes it got heated.

Then the co-opted image was co-opted again; the Time cover replaced with the single word, “SOCIALISM” on anti-Obama posters that started popping up in Los Angeles. Suddenly, the original “Jokerized” Time cover was gone from Flickr. And so were the comments. People noticed. Media noticed too.

Flickr cited copyright concerns over the Time magazine image. It also stated that it couldn’t discuss specifics due to its policy on customer privacy and blah, blah, blah.

The company, it seems, didn’t want its customers talking about it either. Flickr not only deleted the comments that accompanied the image, it shut down threads discussing the removal of both. Why? ‘Cause that’s how Flickr rolls.

Now comes the part where we all start cryin’ “free speech” and “censorship” and la, la, la …but guess what, kids? It’s Flickr’s ball and the law says Flickr gets to make the rules. Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, digital civil rights advocates, confirms the law favors Flickr. “It actually implicates the First Amendment rights of who's running the forum,” he said.

Jarring, huh? Once again we are reminded that online entities that advertise themselves as “communities” are nothing of the sort. Flickr, Facebook, LinkedIn, whatever, are private companies. We’re not citizens, we don’t have an invested share in the sites so commonly mistaken for town squares. We all clicked and agreed to a contract that governs our behavior on these sites, and signed away a lot of our rights and ownership as well.

That said, Flickr sure is starting to feel creepier than most.

Indeed, there are a lot of sexy political entry points to the “Jokerized” Obama tornado. Given the inflammatory nature of the image, not to mention the inflammatory nature of the Internet, it’s easy to lose focus on whichever one you choose.

We could debate the fine lines between copyright infringement and transcendent political commentary. We could be like famous Obama ‘Hope” artist Shepard Fairey, who questioned the intelligence of the artist behind the “Socialism” version of the poster.  (“It's not grammatically correct. It would be ‘socialist.’ ”)

We can circle back to that “censorship” argument even though, again, it’s not applicable. Still, we could throw in the thing about how there's plenty of unflattering George W. Bush caricatures on Flickr.

There’s even something for the conspiracy theorists who can point to the choice government contract Flickr has with the Obama administration and juxtapose that with the fact that the CEO of its parent company, Yahoo, has donated generously to the Republican Party.

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But let’s not lose sight of this equally valid chestnut: “Crappy customer service … now with more crapitude!” Take Flickr’s handling of the “Jokerized” Obama fallout. It removed the image. Fine.

Users made a stink.  Flickr “declined to comment” to an inquiry by the Los Angeles Times, “due to a company policy that bars discussing inquiries about individual users.” Whatever.

More public stink.

Flickr’s director of community Heather Champ addressed the issue in a forum discussion on the topic: “In this instance, the Yahoo! Copyright Team here in the US received a complete Notice of Infringement as outlined by the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). Under the DMCA, an individual may choose to file a counterclaim.”

The discussion thread was shut down.

Six YouTube videos gone seriously viral

Photo District News, wondering who might have issued the take-down notice, contacted all invested parties: Time Inc., D.C. Comics, and the photographer of Time’s Obama cover. The consensus: “Wasn’t us.”

If the takedown notice was sent by a party with no legal investment to make such a request, it seems Flickr did not do its due diligence before removing the image. If this is the case, how many other images have been removed due to bogus requests?

An inquiry into more specifics on this matter was then greeted by a pointedly generic statement on copyright issues, stating in part, “Flickr respects the copyright laws in the 21 countries in which we operate.”

OK. So don’t answer the question. People are still going to talk.

Oh wait, that’s covered in Champ’s comment about what might very well be a false Notice of Infringement Flickr allegedly received. She added, “There appears to be a whole lot of makey uppey going in the news and blogosphere about this event.”

What specifically that “makey uppey” is and how it deviates from the facts has yet to be delineated by Flickr, or its parent company, Yahoo. Which brings us to Amazon.

We’ve dished plenty on the online bookseller in the last couple of months regarding their hesitancy to address its customer service FAILS — most recently the clandestine removal of George Orwell books from Kindles … but props are due. Amazon will, eventually, admit “our bad,” explain what went wrong, and let its customers know how it intends to make amends. And then it does just that … sans baby talk.

Flickr, not so much.

Obama intrigue aside, it seems Flickr has a habit of not particularly catering to its clientele. A cursory Internet blog search will reveal myriad complaints about accounts deleted without notice (and photos forever lost) for reasons the user may never be told. Then there’s the “help” forum, where customer service representatives shut down help discussion threads like they’re running out of Internet.

Thomas Hawk, a photography blogger and CEO and "Chief Evangelist" for photo-sharing startup Zooomer, has been active on Flickr since its early days. He's recorded many instances where comments were removed and discussions closed not because of abusive language, flame wars or other ugly behavior so typical of the Internet, but rather commentary critical of the site.

Hawk himself was recently banned indefinitely from the help forum after posting to a link to a blog titled “Flickr is Fascist.” Here’s the note Hawk received from Champ:

“TH, It appears to us that you’re on some sort of personal crusade to save Flickr from itself and that would be fine — we think that our history of open feedback has made Flickr the wonderful thing it is today.

But, your increasingly abusive behavior towards other members and the team won’t be tolerated any longer. While Stewart might have entertained your shenanigans, those of us who continue to work here are done. We are blocking you from the Help Forum for the time being.”

Hawk, who considers himself both a fan and a supporter of Flickr as well as a patron, is fairly well-known in the Flickr community (and he's quoted pretty much everywhere on this topic). He behaves in forums as a well-mannered, invested guy who does not traffic in abusive language or personal attacks. In other words, he’s the kind of guy any reasonable business would be delighted — and surprised — to have in its forum.

What’s more, Champ’s condescending tone is standard practice. I’ve read screen after screen of her rude, disrespectful posts, and am still unclear whether the director of community is attempting to be cute n’ conversational, but here’s the thing. Flickr is a business, not Champ’s personal Jonas Brothers chat room.

Alas, Technotica’s attempt to confirm whether staff are directed to infantilize users, or one-up them in snaps before closing a thread, received this e-mailed response from Flickr:

“We at Flickr are all for healthy debate and our Help Forum hosts a wide variety of conversations — we’ve never shied away from those that others might deem difficult. You’ll see in the topic in question that there was a fair amount of back and forth between our members before the topic was closed. However, we do reserve the right to close any discussion in our Help Forum when it devolves into behavior that is abusive.”

How Flickr decides when its users have had enough discourse and it’s time to go to bed, we may never know. Like we talked about, it’s Flickr’s right to quash its customers via its "help" forum. It has every right to drown its words with actions, all the while alleging that “We very much value freedom of speech and creativity.”

Though, as Zimmerman at the EFF points out, “Whether that’s a good idea or not, that’s a separate issue.”

You'll find Helen A.S. Popkin is all for healthy debate when you friend her on Facebook ... though she does reserve the right to close any discussion if you follow her on Twitter.

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