Initial Thoughts on the Clean Reader App

Two years ago, I blogged about how cool it would be if multimedia content filters existed to censor e-books.  There are already several totally legit movie filtering programs and services out there.  Shouldn’t we be doing the same for books?

My friend Michael and I discussed the need for such an innovation – after all, grownups who care can simply take a black marker to whatever bothers them.  My thoughts were:

But what about people whose parents aren’t always around to spot-check the books for them? If today’s generation likes eBooks to begin with, there should be ready-made censored eBooks to purchase and download through honest means. They’d do more than just black out offensive words; they’d polish the entire sentence/paragraph/chapter up nicely with tactful paraphrasing and rewordings so the story still flows and the changes made are less obvious.

I recently discovered something called the Clean Reader App.  I have yet to try it for myself, but from what I can tell, the software blanks out offensive language in eBooks and offers less-colorful alternatives for the sake of context.  That’s kind of like what I’m looking for!  It’s definitely a step up from simply blacking out whole phrases and leaving kids to wonder what’s going on.  This app doesn’t appear to be exclusively for children, though.  Rather, it’s for anyone who doesn’t want to see their pages peppered with profanity, but having such high standards really limits what modern literature they can read.  I know the feeling all too well.

It looks like there are settings to customize your “clean-reading” experience.  I would imagine much of the censoring is automatic, which isn’t entirely foolproof and is sure to lead to some awkwardness.  (Imagine you’re reading a book about your favorite old-timey TV shows.  Every mention of the fellow who played Rob Petrie may make you chuckle/blush more than he ever intended.)

What I would really like to see, someday, is an app that artfully removes lengthier problematic areas (e.g. whole paragraphs depicting explicit or gratuitous suggestive/violent/disturbing content) and replaces them with transitional material written in the same style so readers don’t even know what they’ve just been spared from.  This can’t be done automatically, I understand.  (I think a team of volunteers to write these transitional “filler” texts would be in order.  Plus, you’d probably need the author’s permission to modify their work and then distribute it.  Yeah, it’s easier said than done, but if everyone thought like that, we’d probably still be painting stick figures in caves with mashed berries instead of writing books.)  But I think this profanity-filtering app is a great step in that direction!

Many authors are speaking out against the app, and don’t want their books censored, or “mutilated” (read: modified).  Unless the sole message of your book is that profanity is the best thing since sliced bread, I don’t believe that hiding/replacing a few potentially offensive words changes the message you’re trying to convey through your writing.  If anything, your books can now reach a wider audience that would have otherwise been turned away by your use of profanity.  Perhaps my proposed idea is worse – it does modify the written content, but I would only go forward with mass-distributing censored books in that fashion with the explicit permission of the author/publisher.

Parents and private school teachers have been taking the Sharpie marker and scissors to printed books they deemed offensive for ages.  Simply replacing potentially offensive words with alternatives, in an electronic medium, is far less destructive.

I’m wondering, does the app work with eBooks you’ve purchased and already own, or must you buy them again from the app’s catalog?  I have a feeling it’s the former, and the app (which is available through Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store) simply purchases the media from its host’s digital store (either Google or Apple), and applies a pre-programmed/automatic filter over it.  If that’s how it works, the copyright laws that allow the VidAngel movie filtering service to continue operating (where services like “CleanFlix” have not) should apply here.

Plus, if you don’t want the Clean Reader App’s consumers to read your books, aren’t you guilty of a kind of censorship by preventing this niche audience from having access if the Clean Reader App is the only way they’d read them?  One author stated that he doesn’t want people who use Clean Reader to read his books – he doesn’t want their business, since he doesn’t approve of the app in practice.  That’s kind of like saying that you don’t want wheelchair-bound people to enter your building because you don’t approve of wheelchair ramps.

Lastly, many authors also feel this app infringes on the reader’s freedom of choice to read profanity.  I read a lot of children’s fiction, and oftentimes, I’m shocked at the little inappropriate bits that authors are throwing in purely for shock value.  We wouldn’t want kids to grow up with the false sense that the world is all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, right?  We’ve got to show ’em just how terrible the world is through books!

Maybe some people (regardless of age) can do without that stuff.  Maybe some parents feel their kids aren’t ready for certain things at their current level of development.  (If you think that’s wrong of parents, then so is putting training wheels on your toddler’s first bike.  There’s a time and place for balancing on two wheels the hard way.)  Personally, I’m old enough now that I can handle certain levels of content in media that I couldn’t at age eight.  But I’m choosing not to expose myself to such content more than necessary.  The thing is, nobody’s forcing anyone to use this app.  It’s here if you want to use it, and if you don’t want it, you might as well get over it. I, for one, am choosing to give it a try.  If I like it, I’ll follow up this post with more musings.  🙂

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