It's just before lunchtime in the sunny, high-tech headquarters of Facebook in Palo Alto, California, 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. 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.
Axten is one of 150 people Facebook 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.
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 professionals, but it's aware that 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," says David Kirkpatrick, author of "The Facebook Effect"—and then its potential for profits would disappear, too.
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 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.
As a business that is entirely dependent on its users' whims, Facebook must manage its relationship with them just so. 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. More than 230,000 people 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.