One of the reasons that words matter so much is that different words prompt different emotional reactions from people. If you call someone a spammer, they are more likely to react defensively than if you said that they were advertising. Even though, when it comes to the action, these are the same thing.

Let’s take this post for example. I would be willing to wager that, based on title alone, a good portion of those who open it will be predisposed to disagreeing with me, even before they read what I had to say, simply because I used the word censorship instead of “removing bad content” or “banning members.” Not everyone will have this reaction, but some will.

This post is partially inspired by a survey conducted by The American Assembly at at Columbia University (via Jonathan Bailey via Government Computer News). Spurned on by the SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act) legislation, they asked 2,303 adults in the United States a series of questions.

One of things that caught my eye was the difference in reaction based on whether the word “censor” was used instead of “block.” When asked if an ISP should “block access to sites that provide access to pirated songs and videos,” 58% said yes. 40% said yes when asked the same question about the government. But, asked again, with censor substituted for block, those numbers dropped to 46% and 33%, respectively.

People view “block” differently from “censor” even though they are the same thing. Some people may try to differentiate blocking from censoring, perhaps suggesting that censoring is when you remove something because you disagree with it and blocking is when you remove something according to some policy or standard of decency. But, that seems silly when you really think about it. If you censor something, you are blocking it and if you block it, you are censoring it.

Every law on the books in every country is censorship. What do laws do? They censor actions. Contracts censor actions. Terms of service censor actions. And, yes, online community guidelines do the very same thing. The people who manage those communities write these policies and make sure they are followed. It’s all censorship and it’s everywhere.

I can see some community folks saying “oh, no, I’d never censor someone!” This sort of reaction, beyond trying to play to crowds, is one small reason why there is a disconnect between the perception an outsider might have, of what it takes to manage an online community, and what those in the trenches know to be true. This is why it is important to set reasonable and accurate expectations.

The moment that you remove one thing: one piece of spam, one signature link, one racist comment, one disrespectful remark, one vulgarity… you are censoring. When you focus on a particular audience, you are censoring. Let’s not fear words and let’s not feed into those fears. Of course, not all “censorship” is equal and that is the point that needs to be driven home. A government is different from a social platform or online community. Censorship, blocking, banning and whatever else you want to label it is necessary and important.

Each community has different needs and we all must determine how to most appropriately censor the spaces that we manage, within the law. In other words, we will determine what works best for our community. That’s what community management is.