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Most social media users want their chosen platforms free from harassment and porn. But they also want to see the content they choose to see. This means platforms face an irreconcilable contradiction: while platforms promise an open space for participation and community, every one of them imposes rules of some kind.

In the early days of social media, content moderation was hidden away, even disavowed. But the illusion of the open platform has, in recent years, begun to crumble. Today, content moderation has never been more important, or more controversial. In Custodians of the Internet, Tarleton Gillespie investigates how social media platforms police what we post online – and the societal impact of these decisions.

“I have been writing about the impact of platforms and the digital transformation for fifteen years,” said Gillespie. “This book explains how content moderation works: how the platforms think of their responsibilities, the way they create and articulate the rules, the labor behind the scenes, and recent efforts to automate it all.” Based on interviews with content moderators, creators, and consumers, this book contributes to the current debates about the public responsibilities of platforms, be it about harassment, data privacy, or political propaganda.

Gillespie argues that content moderation still receives too little public scrutiny. How and why platforms moderate can shape societal norms and alter the contours of public discourse, cultural production, and the fabric of society.

published by Yale University Press, May 2018

How social networks set the limits of what we can say online. Wired June 26, 2018 (includes material excerpted from Chapter 2)

Improving moderation. July 17, 2018. (expanded section from Chapter 8)

Praise for the book:

“Online platforms are defining our technological landscape, shaping our lives online and off. Custodians of the Internet is the exquisitely-drawn map that shows us how they do it.”— Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the internet and How to Stop It, and director of the Berkman Klein Center for Intern & Society at Harvard University

“In this timely and important book, Gillespie deftly reveals the factors that shape social media platforms, and thus our world. Clear-eyed and incisive, a must-read for anyone interested in the influence of platforms, the forces that structure this influence, and crucially how to move forward.”— Zeynep Tufekci, contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and author of Twitter and Tear Gas

"Truly stellar. Gillespie’s analysis deftly contextualizes moderation policies on social media platforms, and illuminates how the platforms' underlying values are baked into these policies. The result is essential reading."— Whitney M. Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture

"In this lively and entertaining book, Tarleton Gillespie shows us how social media regulate our speech in many different ways, some overt and some hidden. He explains why content moderation is not a peripheral function of social media, but central to their very existence."— Jack Balkin, founder of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School

“No one knows how digital platforms are shaping our lives better than Tarleton Gillespie. This book is an essential guide to the social and technical processes that animate our new media – and to the principles by which we might put them to more democratic ends.”— Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture and The Democratic Surround

About the Author

Tarleton Gillespie is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research New England, and an affiliated associate professor at Cornell University in the Department of Communication and the Department of Information Science. He cofounded the blog Culture Digitally. His previous book is the award-winning Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture (MIT 2007). He also co-edited Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (MIT 2014)

His research has appeared in New Media & Society; Social Media & Society; The International Journal of Communication; Information, Communication, & Society; The Information Society; Limn; and Social Studies of Science. His writing has appeared in Wired, Salon, the Neiman Journalism Lab, and The Atlantic online, and he has been quoted in Wired, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, BBC Radio, and NPR.


Related writing

Improving moderation. July 17, 2018. (expanded section from Chapter 8)

How social networks set the limits of what we can say online. Wired June 26, 2018 (includes material excerpted from Chapter 2)

Facebook and YouTube just got more transparent. What do we see? Neiman Journalism Lab, May 3, 2018

The scale of moderation is unfathomable. LOGIC, #4, April 2018.

Moderation is the commodity. Techdirt, February 6, 2018.

“What platforms should do about misogyny and harassment.” In Mediating Misogyny: Gender, Technology, and Harassment, Jacqueline Vickery and Tracy Everbach, eds. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Content moderation is not a panacea: Logan Paul, YouTube, and what we should expect from platforms. Vox, January 12, 2018.

The platform metaphor, revisited. HIIG Science Blog (August 23, 2017).

Regulation of and by platforms. In SAGE Handbook of Social Media, Jean Burgess, Thomas Poell, and Alice Marwick, eds. Sage, 2017: 254-278.

Facebook can’t moderate in secret any more. Culture Digitally, May 23, 2017.

Algorithms, clickworkers, and the befuddled fury around Facebook Trends. Culture Digitally, May 18, 2016.

Facebook Trending: It’s made of people!! (but we should have already known that) Culture Digitally, May 9, 2016.

Facebook’s improved “Community Standards” still can’t resolve the central paradox. Culture Digitally, March 18, 2015.

Platforms Intervene. Social Media and Society (v1n1, 2015).

(with Jessa Lingel) One name to rule them all: Facebook’s identity problem. The Atlantic, October 2, 2014.

(with Kate Crawford) What is a Flag For? social media reporting tools and the vocabulary of complaint. New Media & Society (online: 2014) (v18n3, 2016) 410-428.

Tumblr, NSFW porn blogging, and the challenge of checkpoints. Culture Digitally, Jul 26, 2013.

Is Twitter us or them? #twitterfail and living somewhere between public commitment and private investment. Culture Digitally, Jul 31, 2012.

The dirty job of keeping Facebook clean. Salon, Feb 22, 2012.

The politics of ‘platforms.’ New Media & Society (v12n3, May 2010): 347-364.

Speaking at the CivilServant research summit at MIT in January 2018. This offers a brief introduction to the arguments in my book.