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Read This Zuckerberg: FB Didn't Become "Cool" by Censoring News of Science Research

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"censored" billboard added in front of image of unclothed men used in study about male attractiveness

Mautz, B. S., Wong, B. B. M., Peters, R. A. & Jennions, M. D. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2013), modified by Angela Cesaro

I recently saw The Social Network. It's been out for years, but I usually wait until I can watch them in my living room for free.

The take-home from that movie was that Facebook survived—it was the cool one—whereas other social media sites faltered because they didn't "get it." I know. It was just a movie, but that idea seems plausible to me.

Plausible, that is, for the era depicted a decade or so ago. That was then. How about now?

Judging from something that happened this week on Scientific American's Facebook page, things have changed. The current goings-on at the premier social media site bring to mind another movie, another (much-better) film than The Social Network, that I actually paid to see, and which was very much worth the price of admission. I have in mind the Academy Award-winning The Lives of Others whose plot centered around the workings of the uber-paranoid East German Stasi.

What does a pasty-faced East German bureaucrat listening to the phone conversations of others have to do with the ne plus ultra of the digital world? A lot, in fact.

So what happened this week? Big thumbs down: a committee of Facebook reviewers—should be rephrased "functionaries—decided to censor a story published on ScientificAmerican.com that we reposted to our Facebook page. Am I getting overexercised here? No, "censor" is the right word in this instance.

Okay, what story was that? Nature News reported on a scientific study published this week in the august journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group and we posted their story on our site and then later on our Facebook page). The story was widely tracked, not just by us, but by dozens of media outlets because the study was a scientific take on one of those perennial topics that is the stuff of collective fascination, whether you own up to it or not. So what topic was that? Okay, let's coyly spell it out here: does size matter?

The study used a digital representation of naked men, depicted both in the research report and republished by Scientific American and elsewhere online, that showed men of differing heights with different penis sizes. A group of women subjects were quizzed about the relative attractiveness of these male simulacra. The hypothesis, of course, was that male proportions might matter just a bit in female choosiness, providing some explanation for the evolution of penis size as a sexual trait, a convoluted way of asking: does size really matter?

The answer to that question, hold onto your seats: It depends. Typical science study, right? One might even ask is this this a question worth studying? Was it even a good study?

But that's not what this post is about and it doesn't really matter here.

Am I the next to go Mark? (Facebook allows this image but not the less hunky, more clinical images above.)

What this post is about is the fact that after the story went to Scientific American's Facebook page, it was censored. The "committee of reviewers" deleted the post because the social media giant has a "strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved." Huh? That comes as somewhat of a surprise, appearing as it did in the same issue of Proceedings (Impact factor 9.681) that also included articles with titles such as "Organization of lamprey variable lymphocyte receptor C locus and repertoire development" and "Biased assimilation, homophily and the dynamics of polarization." This is science, not porn (it's fairly clear that no one was harmed or exploited in the conduct of this study), and the study of sexuality, social psychology and evolution are essential, albeit still titillating, topics to the generation of knowledge about humankind.

Pornography? A committee of reivewers? My mind immediately jumps to the scenes from The Lives of Others in which a Stasi agents listen intently through their headphones to the calls of their fellow citizens—except the bland-faced monitors have been fast-forwarded to a cavernous roomful of hipper-than-thou, college-educated "reviewers" in Silicon Valley staring into their Macs.

This also brings to mind yet another image in which I return to that time when my elementary school librarian went through each new issue of National Geographic to make sure that no bare-breasted African tribal women made it to the shelves for the perusal of the boys in my third-grade class.

So back to the original question. Yes, size does matter. As far as male paraphernalia, who knows? But as far as avant-garde, digital media, it really does matter a lot. There is such a thing as being just too big. When organizations grow large, whether they be recently IPO-ed U.S. corporations or Soviet-bloc bureaucracies, they tend to lose their way.

And, yes, Facebook, you should respond to this post—with an apology.

Image Source: Mautz, B. S., Wong, B. B. M., Peters, R. A. & Jennions, M. D. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2013); Michaelangelo's David: Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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