Janis Ian: My Eternity In Facebook Jail

When Ms Ian asked for volunteers to share her writing, I jumped at the opportunity. My respect for their work is deep; my young queer self identified with the songs of Ms Ian almost as much as Romanovsky & Phillips – and regular visitors to any of my social media accounts now what that means.

This is a long post. I contemplated breaking it up into 3 or more posts, but that would reduce the strength of the length, in favour of ease. Sort of a different comment on social media, but I think apropos.

MY ETERNITY IN FACEBOOK JAIL
or #facebookjailgavemebackmylife
© Copyright 2019 by Janis Ian (posted with permission). The image used here is from their website selection of media images.

PART ONE:
Let me say this at the outset. I am not one of those people who spend all day on Facebook. I don’t have it on my phone. I don’t carry it with me. I do check it every morning, though, because facebook.com/janisianpage is a very active page, with a lot of trolls that need to regularly be smacked over the head.

My page is the only one I know of that actually has requests for civility and no profanity at the top. It’s also one of the few “celebrity pages” that’s actually monitored by the person in question. (That would be me.) I have two emergency moderators, both family, who can step in if I’m unable to, but that’s only happened a few times.

Each time, I was put in Facebook Jail. And each time until now, I allowed it to upset me.

The first was March 2014, when I published a photo of a bunch of skinheads who were planning to march in Whitefish, Montana. The meme urged veterans to gather peacefully and protest the march, but one of the skinheads pictured had a swastika tattooed on his head. Bang. I was blocked for going against community standards. I was only reinstated because a friend who works at another tech company reached out to friends at Facebook, and they actually looked at what I’d posted and determined they’d been in error. I eventually received an apology and reinstatement.

Next came August 2016, when I published a cartoon for a friend’s birthday that showed an old woman whose entire body was sagging, while her breasts stood ridiculously upright. There was a funny comment about “but implants last forever” underneath. Apparently, the cartoon character had nipples, and I was blocked for showing them. Male nipples = okay. Female nipples = not okay. Dog nipples = case by case. Embarrassed to ask again, I reached out to my anonymous friend in tech, who called his friends, who said “Oops”, unblocked me, and issued another apology. Apparently, my page was getting a lot of complaints, but a new person failed to read the note attached to its file saying to ignore them. I did have to complete an “educational flow“, because it was my second block and I needed to scroll through the rules before the system would allow me back on. But okay. I didn’t finish high school; I probably needed the extra hours.

The third time, January 14, 2017, I wasn’t exactly blocked. I just had to complete a security questionnaire every time I tried to post anything. Ten questionnaires in the space of half an hour, I think. I took screen shots for a while, managed to get one post about it up, was then blocked completely, and received an apology the next day, thanks to hundreds of followers who protested on my behalf. Of course, that was when you could still find a way to protest a Facebook block.

I debated having all the apologies framed, but it would have been expensive.

November 6, 2017 I got a warning that “You may have used our system in a way that our systems consider unusual, even if you didn’t mean to. You can post again in 2 days.” No idea what crime I’d committed. No idea what I’d done to trigger the system. From what I could gather, a disgruntled former employee gathered friends and complained about my page and everything on it until it triggered something – but I can’t prove that. Still, at the same time one of my “emergency moderator’s” account was blocked, and FB insisted on seeing a copy of her license before they’d re-instate her. The next day I got a message that I’d violated standards and a photo had been removed from my feed. No idea which one, but the day after that, I got an apology and reinstatement.

I started feeling like a character in a Kafka novel. Banned from my own carefully curated page, blocked from seeing what my friends were up to or commenting on any of the goings-on, with no idea how to avoid future bans or blocks because I didn’t know what I’d done to cause them in the first place!

I managed to stay out of trouble for a couple of years after that, mostly by being careful, although a copy of the then-current Facebook Community Standards I posted was removed and a warning issued that I’d yet again “violated community standards” by trying to make the community aware of its standards. Okay, it’s their party. I’m just there for the food.

In March, 2019, I was blocked again, this time for not being able to prove I was actually “Janis Ian“. I had to provide copies of my license not once, but twice, in order to show I was still myself. There’d been no hack, I’d filed no complaint, my passwords were fine, and I’d been verified for years.

At some point, Tina Fey named a character in her movie Mean Girls after me, intending it as a homage. I found out when friends began calling to congratulate me on my new career in films, assuming I had a part in the movie. (I didn’t.) Suddenly, there were “Janis Ians” all over Facebook, using my name, or my name plus theirs, to get traffic. I spent months trying to get things like “Janis Ian Love” or “Viet Janis Ian” shut down, but Facebook responded that since they weren’t pretending to be me, it wouldn’t remove them. Eventually, I got tired of trying to fix it, and decided to ignore the whole thing. Honestly, it began feeling a bit petty, and I worried that I was risking jail again if I continued to protest. I let it go.

Facebook and I seemed to be getting along pretty well after that. In fact, I recently congratulated myself that I’d managed to go almost half a year without incident.

Until last week.

It was Banned Books week, an event I usually celebrate by posting the covers of banned books, along with memes asking people to read them, protest censorship of the written word, and support my fellow writers. Remember, my own first recording, “Society’s Child“, was banned nationwide because I sang about a black boy dating a white girl. Newspapers fired editors for printing the lyrics. A radio station was burned to the ground for playing it. I know the danger of banning art.

I draw lines, of course. No bestiality. No pedophilia. No hard porn. And I’ll admit that some of the books are things I would not want my grandparents to read, let alone my granddaughters. But it’s important to remember that one of the hallmarks of America is the right to free speech, under the Constitution – which doesn’t mean Facebook (a private company) has to let me say whatever I want to say, but does mean that we have the right to express our ideas and opinions free of government restrictions based on content, subject to reasonable limitations. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater for the fun of it, but you can publish books with ideas that offend segments of the population or even the government. That’s part of the American dream, that no administration can lock you up because you disagreed with it.

One of the book covers I posted really offended a lot of people, and rather than just looking away, they complained. A lot. Then, another person said Fifty Shades of Grey should be banned because it was badly written and plagiarized. I responded that the courts were there to deal with plagiarizing, and the whole point of Banned Books Week was to not ban things just because someone or someones don’t like them.

I mean, realistically, I started writing songs when I was twelve. If we start banning art because it’s badly written, at least a third of my work will go out the window.

Well. Apparently, there are ways to organize your Facebook “friends” so they can protest, en masse, when something they don’t like is published. I suspect that’s what happened this time, though I can’t be sure, because Facebook won’t show me what I posted to cause the block.

My first notice, toward the end of September, only said I was banned for 3 days because “the below violated community standards.” Nothing was below. No photo, no meme, no quote. The notice suggested I review the community standards, which are an ever-changing, impossible-to-post-because-it’s-immediately-taken-down-by-Facebook set of rules that seem dependent more on the amount of Cheetos the current author consumed that morning than any logical legal or ethical set of standards. After reviewing them, I was given no opportunity to protest the ban or have it explained. When I clicked, the page didn’t work.

A thorough Internet search offered dozens of ways to contact Facebook, none of which worked. Facebook’s own instructions didn’t work, not for phones, not for tablets, not for computers. I asked one of my emergency moderators to post what had happened, and several thousand people tried to complain on my behalf to get me re-instated, only to also find complaining wasn’t possible.

Three days after the three day ban began, I tried to post, only to be told I was blocked for three days because I’d violated Community Standards. Again. I asked the emergency moderator to post what was happening, just so people wouldn’t think I’d died. (Yes, it happens. People think that if you suddenly disappear from Facebook, you’re dead. How weird is that?!) Two people from tech companies I won’t name went to bat for me with the company, to no avail. As of this writing, the ban will be up in about 10 hours. Unless its reinstated, again. Since the first 3 day ban stretched into 6, all I can do is hope that’s the end of it.

PART TWO:
I’m one of the more accessible artists out there. I get my own email, even when it comes to the generic address posted on my own website. The mail runs the gamut. Some are funny – “You look taller on your album covers!” or “But I love Godzilla haiku, and I’m going to be seven, why can’t you come to my party with him?

Some are sad. “My father has been playing around with me for years, and I’m afraid if I go to college he’ll start in on my sister. I listen to your music when I’m scared.” It’s in the nature of the songs I write, the ones that reach people at the right moment in their lives. Those people sometimes feel like I understand what’s happening to them. I’m proud of that. I should be proud, just as I’m proud that my Facebook page continues to (mostly) be a haven of civility and polite discussion for people sick and tired of name-calling, disgusting photos, and rants that make no sense even when you put them into Google translate.

I’ll be the first to say that despite its many issues, Facebook has been great for me professionally. When I started my page, it was because someone said “You don’t have one? You might be able to get a few thousand people on it, maybe pick up some work.” 550,000 people and counting, my followers on “FB“(as it’s known to us connoisseurs) has helped the foundation I run hit its million dollar goal and more. (Over 70% of donations to The Pearl Foundation when we hold a sale come through Facebook. During my last website sale, that raised about $20,000, all of which went directly to the Pearl Foundation.)

It’s been good for my touring – the first thing promoters and venue representatives do is check your social media numbers. With half a million dedicated followers, they assume at least a few people will attend my shows, and book me accordingly. I get to earn a living, merchandise sold at shows goes to the Pearl Foundation, it’s a win/win.

FB also provides a platform, more creative than one would think, where I can post links to my music and other work, announce anything from “I just played two songs with Tommy Emmanuel; watch video here!” to “I wrote this song after 9/11. Follow this link for a free download.” When Pat and I have a funny moment, it sometimes turns into Conversations With My Wife, hopefully providing some humor in the midst of news fatigue, election paranoia, and the trials and tribulations of daily life. Hey, I’m 68 years old! By choice, I have no record contract, no publishing contract, no publicist, no “machine“. The chances of my reaching half a million people without a platform like this? Nil.

I don’t use my page to publish my breakfast (although that time I made the perfect Japanese morning meal, I confess I posted photos of it ) or “You can’t possibly miss this incredible shot of my dog being silly!” (although I have put up photos of Gracie Mae, but only when she looks like an alien.) I use Facebook the way I expect many artists use it, as another tool in my continued attempts to ride the thin line between creativity and earning a living. That, to me, makes sense.

I post at least once daily, a Quote Of the Day or a “Godzilla haiku“. Over the past year, a lot of people have contacted me to say my posts disappeared from their feed, particularly when they were political. (A brilliant Labor Day poster by Ricardo Levins Morales, a Martin Luther King quote, a copy of the Bill of Rights. I’m not kidding.) My Dawn French quotes never seemed to disappear, but I put it down to Facebook’s squirrely algorithms, not to some senior person there intent on removing me, which is what some followers kept suggesting.

I’m about to try posting this, on the 6th day of my 3 day ban. And I have to confess that in a strange way I found being in Facebook Jail a relief. I still had three square meals a day, and a bed I could call my own. What I didn’t have was the need to spend 3-4 hours in front of my computer when something I posted drew the ire of thousands. (Really. It astonishes me how many people will complain about something when all they have to do is look away.) I was already discouraged at the level of animosity resulting from what I thought was a fairly innocuous, sensible post. “Don’t be a Democrat. Don’t be a Republican. Be a good human being.” drew the ire of so many anti and pro administration insults that I almost closed the thread. That so many people could insist they be the arbiters of what I could publish on my page was beyond discouraging. That Facebook backed their opinion without even allowing a review, let alone showing me the cause of action, actually made me nauseous. But only for a few seconds.

I’m an artist. I have a strong stomach.

PART THREE:
For years, I’ve held onto the belief that people are basically good-hearted. That citizens care about their country, even when I felt they were misguided, and that they deserved my respect. That most of the people posting angry, insulting comments were not garden-variety followers, but cabals intent on clogging my page with disinformation and hatred. (There does appear to be some truth to that, as other site monitors can attest. Email chains urging recipients to “go to this page and make as much noise as possible, get them thrown off line“. Russian troll factories. Thread responses that target only women, promising true love if they just respond. I know I sound like a conspiracy theorist, but just try publishing a meme insisting on a woman’s right to choose, and see how fast you’re inundated.)

Despite the blocks, despite the complaints, despite the people pretending to be civil while actually insulting me and other people on the page, I continued to post what I wanted to post. Without regard to censorship. Without regard to rules I don’t understand that change every day and are still not clear to anyone, including the people who create them.

But I can feel that changing now.

The worst thing about any ban, be it books, films, records, is that underneath your desire to follow your heart is the worry that your heart will get trampled. I now worry over what I post. Not whether it’s true to my own moral compass; I wouldn’t post it otherwise. But whether I will be banned again, this time for good, with no appeal and no possibility of explanation. I worry over that because I love performing, and if promoters use Facebook as a measure of my ability to draw a crowd, a permanent ban will harm my career. I worry because posting an upcoming event on Facebook reaches a much bigger audience than my own personal website, and if I can’t post events, I won’t reach that audience. I worry because I actually enjoy writing Conversations With My Wife, and the lively discussions that ensue. My own blog would never draw that many readers. You can argue that point all you like; I know it to be true.

So, why not walk away? I think about it. I think about walking away from almost all things digital. I’m convinced the effects of “digital life” on our own lives, on our adaptability to change, to deal with catastrophic events, our very neurons and the shape of our synapses, will someday be considered disastrous, and it will be too late to roll it back. The effects of industrialization, of whatever sort, on everything from Amazonian tribes to ocean life dying from ingested plastic, have been horrific, but the speed and totality of digital life’s take-over is unprecedented. Global, immediate, overwhelming.

I see photos of families gathered around a radio during World War II, putting pins in maps, and I realize those things brought people together during a time of crisis. I hear news flashes pinging on peoples’ phones constantly, and wonder whether the constant barrage brings them together, or drives them apart. And yes, cell phones are an amazing resource, but how many of us can turn them off for an entire weekend, let alone a day?

I don’t know where you come from, but where I come from, we call that addiction. There’s a reason the Facebook “like” button is blue. There’s a reason things change so quickly on the page. There are reasons for every single thing on this platform, whether you know it or not.

It should concern you. That I was blocked with no recourse, and no explanation, should concern you too. I have the ear of a lot of people in the tech world, and even that didn’t help. What about people who don’t have that luxury? What about people who are growing up unable to have a face to face conversation, who go out on a date and spend the time texting one another at the same table?

It’s not a joke. It’s an epidemic.

When I hear a radiologist friend say that during the Nashville flood, she had patients in surgery and couldn’t access their scans or records, I think about that. When my GP is forced to “go digital” or be penalized severely by Medicare, and I know that in my own digital records are things entered in error that can only be noted as errors in an addendum, not removed (a safety measure), I think about that. (I do not for instance have narcolepsy, but unless someone searches the entire 68-years-worth-of-records document, they won’t notice. I’m also not allergic to aprons, which I can only assume was a misspelling of aspirin, which I am indeed allergic to.)

I don’t wonder what digital is doing to my grandchildren; it’s too late for that. I wonder what it’s doing to me, as an artist who deals in sounds and words. I wonder how many other people know the secret to being an artist; that we mostly create when we’re bored, in order to entertain ourselves, and that the omnipresence of digital leaves no room to be bored.

I’m reminded of something I read recently, that essentially said “Everyone thinks data is king. They think information is king. But neither of those matter if you don’t have someone’s attention.

That’s what makes Facebook so successful, that’s why they don’t want to be deregulated, that’s why Zuckerberg can’t or won’t fix the many broken things about it. Because at heart, what the platform requires, grabs, steals, constantly strives for and manipulates toward, is our attention.
And attention is finite. You only have so much to go around every second, every minute, every hour.

Every lifetime.

The real question, for me, is this: does Facebook create community, or division? In its zeal to avoid prosecution and safeguards from without, is it actually trying to be a better force in the world, or is the culture of “Move fast and break things” so endemic to the program that it’s impossible to change it?

I don’t know. I don’t know, and I hate not knowing.

I enjoyed my time off. I enjoyed speaking with friends, catching up in person when possible. I enjoyed the stunning amount of free time I suddenly had. I enjoyed the lack of responsibility, to be honest. I’m kind of grateful.

There’s an thought experiment that asks: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Let me ask you this.

If an experience isn’t memorialized on Facebook, be it a conversation or event… does it still exist?

A final word from Janis:
You are welcome to share this with attribution, so long as you don’t profit from it. Thanks for respecting my work.

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