It's just before lunchtime in the sunny, high-tech headquarters of Facebook in Palo Alto, Calif., and Simon Axten is cuing up some porn. A photo of a young couple sloppily making out pops onscreen. It's gross, but not against the rules, so Axten punches a key to judge the image appropriate. Next up: a young woman in panties only, covering her breasts with her hands. "That's pretty close," Axten says, pondering the image. There's nothing arbitrary about his judgments: at Facebook, they have developed semiformal policies like the Fully Exposed Butt Rule, the Crack Rule and the Nipple Rule. In this photo there's no visible areola, he decides, so it stays. The next photo is a male clad only in a black thong and angel wings. Utterly nonplussed, Axten OKs the picture. After delivering a verdict on 75 of the 438,848 outstanding photos flagged by Facebook users—buff guy soaping up in the shower (OK); girl blowing an epic cloud of pot smoke (he deletes it); an underage user drinking from two liquor bottles at once (ditto)—Axten is off to a meeting. It's just another day at the office of the world's fastest-growing social-networking site.
At Facebook, Axten isn't some fringe employee doing unmentionable work. The 26-year-old Stanford grad is one of some 150 people the young company employs to keep the site clean—out of a total head count of 850. Facebook describes these staffers as an internal police force, charged with regulating users' decorum, hunting spammers and working with actual law-enforcement agencies to help solve crimes. Part hall monitors, part vice cops, these employees are key weapons in Facebook's efforts to maintain its image as a place that's safe for corporate advertisers—more so than predecessor social networks like Friendster and MySpace. "[They were] essentially shanghaied by pornography and sexual displays," says David Kirkpatrick, author of the forthcoming book "The Facebook Effect." It's a tricky job: by insisting that users sign up under real names and refrain from posting R-rated photos, Facebook hopes to widen its user base to include upscale professionals, but at the same time it's aware that too much heavy-handed censorship could upset its existing members. "If [Facebook] got polluted as just a place for wild and crazy kids, that would destroy the ability to achieve the ultimate vision, which is to create a service for literally everyone," Kirkpatrick says—and then its potential for profits would disappear, too.
Internet companies have long grappled with illicit postings. As far back as 1993, AOL's "community action teams" were reviewing e-mail and chat-room activity. Craigslist has long been beset by ads for prostitution; in November, the site began cooperating with attorneys general to curb posts to its "Erotic Services" section, and last month Boston police apprehended a med-school student later charged with murdering a woman who'd placed a "massage services" ad on the site. In 2005, as user-generated content platforms exploded at sites like YouTube, Flickr and Digg, the need to screen content grew rapidly as well, increasing demand for online cops.
At Facebook, the range of policed activity is broad. A division called User Operations looks at all content that users say is harassing (via "report this" links spread liberally throughout the site) or that shows drugs, nudity or pornography. It also maintains an extensive "blacklist" of forbidden names that cannot be used to make new profiles, like Batman. Some of this monitoring is quite small beer: you're not allowed to call someone a "jerk" on Facebook if someone reports it. Employees also vigorously enforce their "real-name culture"; they even disabled the actress Lindsay Lohan's account in December after discovering that she was on the site under an alias.
Behind all these actions is a team of employees who set guidelines and make judgment calls, each earning in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year—making "porn cop" one of the quirkier entry-level jobs to emerge in the Silicon Valley economy. Another division, Site Integrity, watches for spam and phishing attacks on the Facebook network and employs "white hat" hackers to look for vulnerabilities in the system. Workers describe their roles with a police analogy, from "cop on the beat" to "undercover," in the case of one employee who mingles with spammers and hackers in various dark corners of the Internet.
While the cops analogy may be overwrought, some of these teams are involved in actual law enforcement. Police departments are learning that Facebook accounts can offer rich information about criminal suspects. When Facebook was young, most police requests were about underage drinking. "Now it's murders, missing kids—basically all the worst things you can think of," says Max Kelly, 39, a former FBI computer forensics analyst who is now the site's head of security. Kelly estimates police contact Facebook regarding up to half the crimes that attract national media attention. The company says it tends to cooperate fully and, for the most part, users aren't aware of the 10 to 20 police requests the site gets each day. Other interactions with law enforcement have happier outcomes. "Because Facebook is so addictive, even if a high-school kid decides to run away with a college boyfriend and they're three states away, they can't keep themselves from checking Facebook," Kelly says. Since the site tracks the geographic locations of log-ons, he says, "on a number of occasions, we've helped reunite families."
By some accounts, archrival MySpace is actually ahead of Facebook in a number of measures in the safety-security-privacy arena. MySpace, a subsidiary of News Corp., says it has a staff of "hundreds" and proprietary software systems that proactively review every one of the 15 million to 20 million images added to the site every day, not just the ones that are reported by users, as Facebook does. NEWSWEEK reviewed both Facebook and MySpace documents that let law-enforcement agencies know what information they track and how to obtain it; MySpace's guide is more robust, offering agencies templates with language geared specifically to be admissible in court. Both sites disclose that they cooperate with police in the terms that users agree to when they sign up.
Still, Facebook, which was launched in 2004 by Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg and spread through the Ivy League before opening to all comers in 2006, retains some gloss from those prestigious roots; it recently added its 200 millionth member, while MySpace's rolls contain half as many. "From a branding perspective, Facebook is the high-status, trusted brand in the social networking space," says BJ Fogg, a psychologist at Stanford who teaches courses about the service. "Maintaining that will help them continue to grow quickly and bring on people who wouldn't have thought of joining MySpace." More users, obviously, means more advertising. Kirkpatrick estimates the site will bring in more than $300 million in revenue in 2009. "There are many reasons to believe that Facebook is increasingly an effective advertising destination," he says.
There are plenty of obstacles that could keep that vision from coming true. As a business that is entirely dependent on its users' whims, Facebook must manage its relationship with them just so. The site has tended to treat its users brusquely during periodic redesigns; its most recent one led to a 1.7 million-member Petition Against the "New Facebook" group. For the site's content police, though, the bigger risk is that they'll execute their censorship in a way that upsets some users. Last year mothers on Facebook began noticing that photos of themselves breast-feeding were being deleted. As so many things do on Facebook, the reaction went viral. As of last week, more than 230,000 people had joined a group named Hey Facebook, Breastfeeding Is Not Obscene! which promotes videos and online "nurse-ins." Facebook, though stung by the bad publicity, says it's not too worried: users may join a protest group, but the fact that they haven't quit the site altogether shows how sticky Facebook can be. It may not be making money yet, but Axten and his colleagues are playing a key role in the race to profitability—one deleted nipple at a time.