You don't hear the words "poodle," "tinfoil hat," and First Amendment in the same sentence often, but they are indeed linked in a classic Facebook melodrama.
Dale Blank runs a Facebook page devoted to accumulating as many fans as possible for a farcical picture of a beloved poodle named Bitsy sporting a tin hat -- perhaps a bit like the one you might mentally draw on someone who was espousing tiresome conspiracy theories.
Blank's intentionally clumsy Photoshop job, and his quest for fans, has a specific target -- Fox News broadcaster Glenn Beck. On Feb. 8, Blank created the page with the stated intention of proving that his tin-hatted poodle could accumulate more Facebook fans than Beck, a favorite among conservative talk-show fans.
Within a week, thanks to several bumps from the blogosphere, the poodle was well on his way, claiming nearly 300,000 fans -- and enjoying logarithmic growth. Beck's page stands at about 500,000.
(Full disclosure: both easily dwarf the Bob Sullivan fan page, which sits at a modest 3,400. Take from that what you will).
But on Feb. 18, the Facebook police arrived and broke up the party. Blank's page wasn't removed, but it was "publish-blocked." He could no longer post updates or solicit fans in other Facebook ways. The fan-base growth ground to a halt.
That put the tin-hatted poodle at the center of a dispute over First Amendment free speech rights and censorship. There were virtual howls that Facebook was actively siding with Glen Beck over the Poodle, that perhaps someone at Facebook was siding with the conservatives, or at least had developed a hatred for left-wing sarcasm.
In the grand tradition of the Internet, that's overstating things a bit. Facebook, as a private company, has wide latitude in its ability to take down posts and pages that it decides run afoul of its terms of service. Even Blank said he doesn't want to raise the possibility of a conservative, subversive anti-poodle attack -- that's just the kind of knee-jerk reaction he's trying to mock.
"I'm not coming from a place where I think everything is a conspiracy," said Blank, who lives near Milwaukee. In fact, he didn't really have his heart set on poking fun of Beck. He simply picked the most popular target, in part to demonstrate how cheap popularity is on the Internet and on Facebook. "I'm not so much anti-Glenn Beck as I am pro rational thought."
Still, the conspiracy theories appeared. It didn't help that Facebook initially failed to give Blank an explanation for taking away his ability to publish. Then, when an explanation finally arrived this week, its vagueness only added fuel to the fire.
"A Facebook administrator looks into each report thoroughly in order to decide the appropriate course of action. If no violation of our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities has occurred, then no warning will be sent," wrote a woman identifying herself as Marissa from Facebook's User Operations department, according to an e-mail provided by Blank. "If a violation has occurred, then a warning or more severe actions are taken. Unfortunately, for technical and security reasons, we are unable to provide details regarding the removed content. We apologize for any inconvenience."
Blank wasn't buying that.
"Technical and security reasons? That's just a cover for the real reason," he said. "I like to think it's not a political thing. When I see some of the pages out there devoted to (criticizing President Obama) that haven't been publish-blocked, you wonder a little. But I don't want to delve into that. I just want to know why I was blocked."
Facebook offered a generic explanation to msnbc.com in an e-mail.
"Pages are meant for entities like public figures, musical artists, businesses, and organizations so they can share information, interact with fans, and create a highly engaging presence on Facebook. They're distinct from groups or personal profiles and designed specifically for these entities' needs to communicate, distribute content, engage fans, and capture new audiences virally through fans' recommendations to their friends," the statement said. "We restrict the publishing rights of Pages that impersonate other entities, represent generic concepts, spam users, or otherwise violate our Pages guidelines. Unless they also violate our content policies, however, these Pages are left up so that those who are interested in seeing their updates and interacting with them can still do so. These policies are designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for our users."
Some might find that explanation vague as well. But before providing some helpful speculation on Facebook's actions, it seems necessary to offer some context for Blank's Poodle-vs.-Beck vote-off. When creating the page, Blank drew on a Facebook fan-building technique that's been around at least since January.
The "bet this can get more votes than that" format has exploded in popularity in recent weeks. There's even another Facebook page that asks, "Can this dung beetle get more fans than Glenn Beck?" But Beck is hardly the only target. The trend appears to have taken off with a page devoted to discerning whether a picture of a pickle -- yes, the kind you eat -- could amass more fans than the Canadian band Nickelback. The pickle, with 2.6 million sign-ups, has won the battle, at least for now.
Nor are the groups limited to witty liberals or music haters. A group allowing people to vote for a picture of a steak over the animal rights group PETA has amassed hundreds of thousands of sign ups.
To its credit, Facebook has recently taken a hard stand against the presence of hate groups on its site, and is working much more quickly to remove offensive material. That, in some cases, includes pages which serve no purpose other than to criticize famous people or organizations. Facebook users have reacted by creating these "this can get more fans than that" as a clever end-around to counter elimination of these "hater" pages. So Blank thinks that Facebook might be putting a halt to these new pages, too.
Blank spent a lot of time reading the Facebook policy for fan pages. They require that a fan page be devoted to some kind of sincere commercial enterprise, and the creator have a real link to that enterprise. The rules became an issue during the Olympics, when a user created a fan page devoted to the wacky Norwegian Olympic team's curling pants. Facebook temporarily shut the page down, until the creator linked to a Web site selling the pants.
Blank feels he's satisfied the requirement by purchasing the domain BobTheWonderPoodle.com, and linking to that site.
Fast growth might be the problem.
Another possible explanation, according to Blank: Facebook keeps a close eye on groups that experience overnight, logarithmic growth. In the wake of the Haiti disaster, hundreds of groups sprang up claiming that they'd donate $1 for each new member, or offering some similar crowd-gathering incentive. The groups enjoyed astronomical growth, but -- again, to the firm's credit -- they were quickly removed out of concern that spammers might take advantage of members, and that many of the claims were fraudulent.
"There seems to be a crackdown on anything that shows rapid growth," said Blank, a Web developer by trade. "But if they are trying to crack down on that, there is no clear policy."
Also unclear – and a question that might never be answered– just how popular could a photo of a dog wearing tin hat be?