Day 511: The Un-Shut-Uppable Streisand Effect

originally published May 25, 2013

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece on the historical tradition of censorship in the city of Boston. If you don’t feel like following the link and adding an extra two thousand words to your reading plate, I’ll catch you up. Due to its Puritan background and molasses-slow crawl from its beginnings as a theocracy, the city of Boston became known for banning plays, books, movies and even an Everly Brothers song, when few or no other cities would. The whole practice was a little silly. 

The ironic end result of this school-marmish behavior was that playwrights, authors and theatre companies would specifically hope to be banned in Boston, since the ensuing publicity would draw crowds in every other more forward-thinking metropolis in the country. 

This phenomenon is known as the Streisand Effect. If you ban it, they will come. And they will come with gawking eyes and (when applicable) open wallets. 

Why Streisand? Well, Babs brought it on herself. Back around 2003, a guy named Kenneth Adelman took about 12,000 photos of the California coastline, in order to document coastal erosion. This was his job – the government was paying him to do it. “Image 3850” happened to feature Barbra’s spectacular mansion in Malibu. Barbra somehow caught wind of the fact that her home was on a website (unlabeled and buried amid 11,999 other photos), and promptly sued the photographer and, which hosted the collection. 

The end result of this action was that Barbra lost, the photo stayed up, and where only six people had downloaded it before, more than 420,000 pairs of eyes checked out the photo over the ensuing month. Techdirt CEO Mike Masnick coined the phrase ‘Streisand Effect’ to describe the unintended fame brought upon anything someone tries to censor or cover up. You might be surprised how often this happens. 

Last spring, a nine-year-old Scottish girl named Martha Payne launched NeverSeconds, a blog in which she photographed the less-than-inspiring lunches offered by her school cafeteria. Within three months, Jamie Oliver – who has led a loud charge against sub-standard school munchies – had tweeted her blog, praising her work. Her site was a huge hit, which led the Argyll and Bute area council to ban her from taking photos in the cafeteria. This was, to put it mildly, a poor P.R. decision. 

The internet switchboards lit up when the ban was announced on Martha’s blog. The press grabbed hold of the story like a stick and shook it until its leaves were flung free. A British human rights group denounced the ban. The more the story spread, the more people flocked to her site to peruse the photos. And the Argyll and Bute council had no choice but to wring their foreheads free of doofus-juice and reverse their position in shame. 

The Internet Watch Foundation, a charity whose very purpose is censorship, saw their good intentions go awry thanks to the Streisand Effect. I’m strongly against censorship and would normally be thrilled to see a group like this fail, except these people tend to focus on things like child pornography and exploitation, so I’ll hold my tongue. It was this desire to clean up the world-wide-webbery that led them to add the Wikipedia article about the 1976 Scorpions’ album Virgin Killer to a child-porn blacklist. The album cover – pictured above, though I posted a somewhat doctored version – is discomfortingly creepy. But, as with so many good intentions that involve censorship, their blacklist backfired. 

Once word got out, the Virgin Killer page became one of the most popular on Wikipedia, and the image appeared on numerous other pages that were reporting on the censorship story. Including this one, as of today. So I guess that makes me part of the problem. 

In 2008, the Church of Scientology tried desperately to get Youtube, along with a number of other sites, to yank a video of Tom Cruise yapping about his faith. The video had been getting a modicum of hits, but for whatever reason – perhaps because both Cruise and the church come off looking unfathomably goofy – they didn’t want it out there. Naturally, the media storm that ensued brought such a meme-esque notoriety to the video, and it turned into a popular smash. 

Oh, and remember the Grey Album? Some unknown producer named Danger Mouse played around with the rapping on Jay-Z’s Black Album and the music on the Beatles’ White Album, creating something that fans of both found fascinating. The album soared through the file-sharing world, but EMI, the tightly-puckered record company who owns those Beatles recordings, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Danger Mouse and any store that was offering the recording. They simply brought the story right to the front page. An online protest known as Grey Tuesday happened, in which 200 sites hosted the album for free for 24 hours. More than 100,000 copies were downloaded. Way to shut ‘em up, EMI. 

The third single off Billy Joel’s The Stranger album was not expected to kick the holy crap out of the charts the way “Just The Way You Are” and “Moving Out” had. But when religious groups became vocally outraged over some of the lyrics of “Only The Good Die Young”, the song started drawing a lot of attention. The Catholic archdiocese in Newark, St. Louis and (surprise!) Boston banned the song and tried to provoke local radio stations to avoid playing it. As you can probably guess, once kids found out there was a Billy Joel song that parents didn’t want them to hear, they grabbed their allowance money and hurled it at their local record store counter as they giddily fled, record in hand. 

Even when the highest of authorities tries to step in, it’s bound to backfire. The WikiLeaks site was subjected to Denial of Service attacks and a swift boot from more than one ISP back in 2010. But the defenders of free speech who didn’t want to see the site taken down quickly set up mirror sites, making it impossible to be suppressed. 

The lesson here is pretty simple – censorship simply doesn’t work. If you tell the masses not to watch something, read something, or do something, then they’ll probably end up wanting it more. Now if only I can come up with a way to get this site banned somewhere, I might just be on the road to fame. I think I’ll start with Boston… 

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