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The ethics of the fail

Ben Huh on the responsibilities attached to other people's failures.

Fail Blog trophyThe folks at Cheezburger, Inc. released their 2011 Fails of the Year recently. The annual compilation is a reminder that Fail Blog’s day-to-day fare can sometimes be painful to watch, and that got me thinking about the ethical implications of distributing this kind of content. The logical choice to field my questions was Cheezburger’s CEO, Ben Huh.

Our interview follows.

How do you define a “fail”?

Ben Huh: For me, a fail is when somebody tries to go for a win — somebody tries to succeed at something — but doesn’t achieve it.

Do you feel you have any responsibility to make sure that the people featured on Fail Blog weren’t seriously injured?

Ben Huh: We do not post videos where it is very clear that a person was seriously injured. And we do ask, especially in the videos, if there was a serious injury or if it was blocked out.

Do you have any concern about the privacy issues when material is uploaded by a third party (i.e., not one of the participants)?

Ben Huh: We don’t because people tend not to be identifiable on the videos. And if they are, if they’re somewhat identifiable, it is still very difficult to know the actual person. Also, most of this happens in public. So, we don’t have any ethical concerns about that.

How about the possibility that sites like Fail Blog could be used for cyberbullying?

Ben Huh: It’s actually highly uncommon, but we do occasionally get requests from someone saying, “Could you remove this because I’m the person in the photo?” In those cases, we can mask their identity or we can take the piece down. There was a case in the past of an outright fraud where somebody had Photoshopped an object into a person’s hand. The subject sent us the original photo, and we were able to verify that what had been submitted was faked. We took it down.

Your sites live and die by crowdsourcing. What’s the long-term future there?

Ben Huh: I’m going to paraphrase a Bill Gates quote. In the short term, I think the notion of crowdsourcing will be overvalued. Lots of companies that have no business going into crowdsourcing will get into it. But over 10 years, over the long term, the idea of crowdsourcing won’t even be distinguishable from editorial.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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