Instagram is taking an unusual step to deal with the complicated ethics of online commenting. It's giving users the ability to make the choice about what's acceptable or not for themselves.
The network will soon allow users to filter their own comment streams -- and, if they wish, completely turn off comments -- on their own posts. While Instagram has general policies for what constitutes acceptable speech on its network, different words or phrases are offensive to different people. So this new feature is designed to let users take the mood of their accounts into their own hands and weed out comments that use terms that account holders find personally offensive.
“Our goal is to make Instagram a friendly, fun and, most importantly, safe place for self expression," said Instagram's head of public policy, Nicky Jackson Colaco, in a statement to The Post. "We have slowly begun to offer accounts with high volume comment threads the option to moderate their comment experience. As we learn, we look forward to improving the comment experience for our broader community.”
Is this the feature that was rumored to be used by Taylor Swift during her spat with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West last week? Instagram declined to comment. But, as Jackson Colaco's statement said, the firm has been testing the feature on prominent accounts ahead of its release.
High-profile accounts will also be the first to get the feature as it goes live in the coming weeks, as this gives Instagram the most valuable feedback in the shortest amount of time. All users will see changes to their comments in the coming months.
Instagram will also let users decide to switch off comments on their accounts on a post-by-post basis. That feature will roll out to high-volume accounts first, but it may roll out to more accounts in the near future.
These features, of course, are yet another way for Instagram to deal with the problem that all social media networks face: harassment. It is a tricky problem, of course, as networks often get accused of being complicit in harassment when they are hands-off, and are accused of censorship when they implement new policies. Companies are sometimes then put in the awkward position of deciding, unilaterally, what is and isn't acceptable speech on their networks. Those decisions often alienate one group or another -- something that can limit a social network's reach. That's certainly not in the best interest of Instagram, which is growing fast and now has 500 million monthly active users.
By putting these controls in the hands of users, Instagram has decided to let individual people and businesses make the decision about where to draw the line about what's acceptable for them. That has its downsides. The possibility of heavy filtering is something that all users should take into account if they turn to the social network to get a read on what people think about a certain topic or to make decisions about which products to buy.
Then again, there's also something to be said for allowing people to use social media as a vehicle for expression without having to face the vitriol that so often pops up online -- harassment that can sometimes silence some voices completely.