The Facebook Fracas – Now What?

This week the press and the mothering blogosphere have been filled with talk of Facebook.  If you need to catch up, see this blog entry at PhDinParenting.  If you want to hear some good old fashioned outrage, check out this podcast of Fox Across America which aired on 12/26 and includes an interview with me about 25 minutes in.

The short version is that Facebook has been sanctioning subscribers for posting breastfeeding photos. A protest event took place on December 27th during which an estimated 11,000 Facebook subscribers changed their profile images to breastfeeding photos and changed statuses to “Hey Facebook, Breastfeeding is Not Obscene.”

I have not had a Facebook page for very long so I watched the event with some interest. I changed my profile photo to one lots of people have seen – my youngest son’s tiny head nursing at my huge breast. It is a beautiful photograph which I love because of my son’s sweet comfort and the fact that my hair covers my face. By baby number three I was not at all self-conscious about people seeing my breasts but still don’t like photographs of my face. Of my seventy-five or so Facebook “friends,” nearly half of them changed their profile images to breastfeeding photos on the 27th.  Three of them had those breastfeeding photos removed by Facebook within forty-eight hours. As far as I know, no one has discovered how many breastfeeding photos were removed on the 27th or have been removed in total (though there is a site with a collection of some of the removed photos).

While my inbox has been flooded with news stories about the Facebook breastfeeding photo virtual protest, it appears that Facebook is holding its ground.  Other than a statement issued prior to the protest, Facebook has been quietly going about its usual business.  It appears that images are reported to Facebook by Facebook users as violative of the anti-nudity provision of the user agreement and some not particularly strenuous evaluation process occurs at corporate. If Facebook officials in positions of authority are giving the breastfeeding question much thought, there is no indication of it in either their actions or their public statement.

Are these images really bothering anyone? Some of the public commentary on the Facebook event has been the same dichotomy I have seen for years in the public breastfeeding legislation debate. The “anti-“ camp statements are something like:

“I don’t want to have to see that.”

“Women aren’t discreet enough when they do that.”

or, my personal favorite, “I don’t want my child to see that.”

And the “pro-“ camp maintains:

“Breastfeeding is natural and healthy and normal.”

“If you don’t want to see it, look away.”

and, sometimes even when it isn’t strictly true, “I have a legal right.”

While I have been forced to engage in these debates, the voice in my head is always shouting, “Too damn bad you don’t like seeing breastfeeding. Grow up or go home.” It isn’t nice but the voice in my head rarely is.

But there are two truths at work here: people are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar and some people want to control what other people are allowed to do. As long as breastfeeding remains unfamiliar, it will make some people uncomfortable. The solution seems clear to me – familiarize people with breastfeeding and they will be more comfortable with it.

I have written at length elsewhere about dealing with these two questions (and will certainly write lots about it here) but right now the owners of Facebook must decide whether they will be the arbiters of this debate or leave it to the rabble.  Will Facebook say, “These are photographs of people engaged in conduct that would be legal if done in public and therefore the photos will stay” or will Facebook continue to follow some other motivation.  Facebook may be running the numbers and deciding that not enough people will boycott Facebook over the removal of breastfeeding photos to make this worth corporate attention. Maybe some Facebook vice president truly is offended by nursing children. Or maybe no one at Facebook cares less.

I do wonder why Facebook is not jumping at the chance to get some positive publicity by responding to subscriber hue and cry – while 11,000 is a relatively small fraction of the total number of Facebook subscribers, it is still a lot of people. Whoever is complaining about the presence of the photographs is not doing so in the press or on blogs or in any way that stands to hurt Facebook. So why not side with the breastfeeding supporters?

What about breastfeeding activists?  For mothering to be sustainable, mothers must be free to perform the acts of mothering everywhere life requires they go. While Facebook membership is by no means a necessity, as activists we need to boycott places where mothering is not welcome. Breastfeeding is one of many acts of mothering (and by this I do not exclude or criticize mothers who do not breastfeed). Does that mean that the next step for mothering activists on Facebook is to leave?  I don’t know. But it is something we need to be talking about. If Facebook continues to remove breastfeeding images, what is the next step for supporters of mothering?