What happened when Facebook tried to ban the nipple? And what does this teach us about audience engagement?

Abhay Adhikari
8 min readApr 5, 2019


Keynote from Allez Hop! A French-German Cultural Entrepreneurship Summit held in Mannheim on April 4–5. The focus of this event was Digital Futures in Culture. This talk is inspired by Post No Evil, an episode of the Radiolab podcast produced by produced by WNYC, a public radio station in New York City.

Good morning — My name is Abhay Adhikari. I’m the founder of Digital Identities, which is a programme to develop new models of audience engagement and social impact. Eight years ago, after working in digital, completing a PhD in biofeedback gaming, running mindfulness workshops and generally feeling grumpy about how social media was being used, I started this programme with a series of What If… questions. This has led us to run projects in twelve countries, working with remarkable people in culture, media and government.

What is the future of audience engagement?

I’m going to refer to some of these projects, or let’s call them experiments, that we’ve helped to develop, to address the topic — what is the future of audience engagement? That’s a big question. So right away, I admit, there is no single answer. Well, even if there is one, I’m certainly not in a position to give it to you. However, I do feel there are three goals that all of us should have in mind when thinking about audience engagement. I’m going to introduce them today.

Who is this audience?

But first, let’s start with a basic question — Who Is This Audience? In this era when everyone is online, connected to each other and has access to information at their fingertips all the time.

I feel we tend to think of the audience as an elusive group of people that all of us are chasing all the time. These people will buy our products, attend our events and exhibitions, subscribe to our newsletters, fill feedback forms and share our posts on social media to… well, to increase our audience reach. There’s this circular thing going on.

We try and sort this vast, diverse group into segments and demographics. We call them customers, communities or stakeholders. We’ve started to categorise their micro-interests and behaviours, which we hope to gamify to our benefit.

Hey, but guess what. This is not going to work in the long term.

Just take a look at Facebook to see the mess all of us have inherited as a result of this strategy. Let me give you a specific example of how their efforts to categorise, predict and exploit audience behaviours — a process that all of us are tempted by — has spectacularly failed. For this, I refer to an episode from the podcast RadioLab called Post No Evil, which tells the story of Facebook trying to ban the nipple on its platform.

The company created a rulebook for its 2.2. billion users. These rules were redundant almost immediately when they came into play.

The company created a rulebook for its 2.2. billion users. These rules were redundant almost immediately when they came into play. It created exceptions to these rules, which communities began to exploit. Then it developed sub-categories using a false logic model. All of this led to the demonisation of 50% of the population — women. Even though men have nipples too.

Why is chaos a recurring theme?

We see examples like this all the time — massive generalisations, outrage, demonisation, endless arguments and sometimes — fatal consequences.

Why does this happen? It’s because we treat the audience as the other. This is reinforced by our organisational structures and our job titles. Communicators, marketeers, researchers, product developers, chief officers, curators, producers — all these titles create an illusion that we are one step removed from the people who comprise the audience. Once we have enough distance, we give into the temptation to do something to them rather than doing something for them or with them.

To go back to my question — Who is the audience?

I propose, we are all the audience.

How does this work in the real-world?

Let me present the first of my three examples.

Each example is going to be from a different sector.

Can people see themselves in your story?

We were working with the Head of Communications from a division of a German automotive company. The division was going to launch a project that was going to be… you guessed it, disruptive. So they told the story of this disruption internally to the organisation and to their customers. It was a pretty cold, hard story full of buzzwords — data, dashboard, mobility.

Internally, it created resentment. Employees were wondering — what is going to happen to my job? Externally, customers were wary. Most of them were thinking — well, how much is this going to cost me now? The thing is, the actual team of people working on the project — they were an eccentric, clever, nice bunch of people, trying to do something genuinely new. So when the division changed the narrative to reflect the values of this team — a story that included anxiety, hope and excitement, it changed the way the project was perceived.

When it comes to audience engagement, if people can see themselves in your story, it shifts engagement from being superficial to something that is meaningful and long lasting, and even helps you solve problems.

How do you know if you’re inclusive… or not?

How can people see themselves in your story? Or in other words, how do you know if your audience engagement strategy needs to be more inclusive? Here’s a simple test. At your next team meeting, look around you. Do you see a version of yourself reflected in everyone else? Or have you ever used the phrase — hard to reach — when you’re talking about the audience? That’s when you know there’s work to be done.

Inclusion does not mean bringing in the obviously exotic outsiders. But I admit, it’s difficult to be inclusive. It’s only natural that we end up in circles of people who are similar to us.

How can we develop an inclusive audience engagement strategy? Let me give you my second example. We were working with a national museum in Sweden who were about to launch their blockbuster exhibition on the subject of Nordic Light. This was also around the height of the refugee crisis. There was, and still is, as in many European countries, a prevailing narrative of a monoculture that is used to define national identity.

The museum wanted to break through this narrative as well as engage younger people. For those of you working in the cultural sector, you know that young people don’t want to be patronised. There are way to many alternatives for them to choose from, to access information.

Why should they come to a museum? The team at the museum decided to try something new to answer this question. They took time to understand who else could take their offer of this blockbuster exhibition and translate it in a way that young people could relate to it.

Img src: https://www.nordiskamuseet.se/cosplay

This is when the museum discovered the Cosplay community. Cosplayers are people who dress up in costumes of their favourite superhero character. You take curators and producers from an institution setup in the late 1800s and you introduce them to Cosplayers, everyone is bound to be uncomfortable! The team at the museum worked through this discomfort and they soon discovered that everyone in this group — curators/cosplayers — were equally obsessed about craft and cultural history.

This led to a new audience engagement strategy. As a result, there was a 60% increase in young people accessing the museum website and visiting it physically. The museum also ended up hosting the national Cosplay competition that was broadcast on television.

The point I’m making here is that the process of becoming inclusive starts with building a bridge. If all you’re doing is taking your existing offer and giving it to someone who you perceive to be different, that’s just patronising. What you really need to do is invest time to discover who else is willing to speak with you and what are their rules of engagement.

So what can we do?

That brings me to my last point with regards to the 3 goals we should have when developing an audience engagement strategy. Perhaps, this point also reflects a question that many of you have now. Fine — we can be more inclusive and we can take the time to learn new rules of engagement, but what do we actually do?

The answer is simple.

Do something clever.

Don’t dumb stuff down because you feel people won’t get it. Don’t be defensive when people attack you if you’re talking about difficult themes. Please don’t try and go viral. And definitely don’t try to programme your audience into performing specific behaviours.

Let me give you my final example from India to illustrate how this works.

Should we play a game?

The Economic and Political Weekly is a journal that was setup in 1949. It’s authors range from political activists to Nobel laureates. So there’s no shortage of clever, sharp insights. We worked with them to devise an experiment to talk about a politically sensitive issue to help readers make an informed decision in the run up to the Indian elections that are taking place this year.

The team decided to do this by playing a game with the audience. How does that work? A game has a beginning, middle and end. You make your way from the beginning to the end by solving a series of tasks and receive rewards in the process. When you complete a task, you unlock choices. In a good game, each task is slightly harder than the earlier one, requiring you to think critically. At the end of the game, you’ve achieve a meaningful outcome. Sadly, in most cases, this is now how gamification is implemented.

The team was pretty bold. It decided to use this model to bust myths about economic reservation for schedule castes and tribes (you would call these positive discrimination policies) on the day of a protest march in Mumbai. And they discovered that when they took the time to make really complex, nuanced, data-driven information accessible using a game based narrative — it had a direct impact on the quality of conversations they were having with their audience. It also increased traffic to the website. This is what you would call a win-win situation.

Don’t be patronising. Be accessible.

In conclusion, I would like to reinforce these three goals that we should aspire to when thinking about audience engagement — be inclusive. In order to do so, discover who else is interested in speaking with you and take time to learn their rules of engagement. So when you do start a conversation, you won’t be patronising, you will be accessible.

You’ve seen I’ve used three examples from three different sectors in three different cultural contexts. This is because I feel that we’re all working towards the same objective. So look around you for inspiration. That’s the best way to break out of our bubble.

Thank you.

Abhay Adhikari
contact at digitalidentities dot info



Abhay Adhikari

I am interested in the context & values of our Digital Identities.