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Tumblr is banning adult content. It’s about so much more than porn.

Tumblr’s adult content ban is already harming the site’s vibrant community.

robbieross/Tumblr
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

A controversial adult content ban took effect across Tumblr on Monday, after two weeks of sustained user outrage and internet-wide fears that this would mean the death knell of the platform.

The ban covers many categories of adult content across the site, including “photos, videos, or GIFs” displaying explicit material, as well as “illustrations that [depict] sex acts.”

After December 17, all existing posts flagged by Tumblr’s censors as violating the new policy will be automatically set to private, meaning that no one will be able to see them other than the blog’s creator.

Debate has raged about what effect the ban will have on Tumblr’s user base, given how much of the community involves erotica and the use of explicit imagery. Discussion of the ban consumed social media throughout the weeks leading up to the ban, and users responded with a mixture of outrage, worry, and funny memes.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why Tumblr, now in its 11th year as a social media platform known for “reblogs” and image-heavy content, made this move: It seems very likely Apple forced its hand. In November, Apple banned Tumblr’s official app from the iOS store because of reported child pornography on the platform. This led to a sitewide crackdown on pornography that left many users complaining that their NSFW blogs had been unfairly purged in the sweep.

Yet despite last month’s initial purge, the app has still not been restored to the iOS store, in what seems to be a clear “fix this or else” ultimatum from Apple that has almost certainly prompted the current crisis. As Motherboard wrote on Monday in its breakdown of the Tumblr situation, “Apple has repeatedly leveraged its unprecedented power over millions of smartphones to sanitize the apps that are available on iPhones.”

In an email response, a Tumblr spokesperson directed Vox back to the staff announcement, including the staff’s acknowledgment that “filtering this type of content versus say, a political protest with nudity or the statue of David, is not simple at scale. We’re relying on automated tools to identify adult content and humans to help train and keep our systems in check. We know there will be mistakes, but we’ve done our best to create and enforce a policy that acknowledges the breadth of expression we see in the community.”

But on the other hand, many users are outraged over what they see as an attempt to disrupt the entire culture of Tumblr and its community, where erotica and NSFW artwork and storytelling have thrived and flourished — and where marginalized communities that have built safe spaces may now be newly vulnerable.

“According to marginalized and vulnerable people, this change in policy will directly hurt them,” wrote geek icon and power user Wil Wheaton, in a reblog of an inappropriately flagged post that featured nothing more offensive than shirtless men kissing. “And that’s indefensible.”

What’s at issue is not only the question of whether Tumblr can survive its own purge but the question of who Tumblr’s core users are, and what will motivate them to continue building their communities on a platform that seems to be devaluing them and their vital contributions to building Tumblr culture.

Tumblr has always been unfairly and inaccurately reduced to being a site for porn

Though Tumblr was born alongside most other modern social networks, it’s long been associated with a certain countercultural deviance. Founder David Karp launched it in 2007 when he was just 20, and his much-vaunted hoodie-wearing ethos helped give the site a permanently youthful attitude — even an air of “millennial narcissism.”

Tumblr’s younger, digital-savvy denizens made Tumblr into a center of internet culture, churning out memes and cultivating subcultures from fandoms to study bloggers to digital art collectives. But despite all this, the site has long been plagued by an unfairly dismissive cultural reputation that reduces the entire vibrant platform to a vast repository of porn, and not much else.

Tumblr’s association with porn is part of a longstanding media narrative that has perpetually dismissed the site and its users for its relative youth, its progressive politics, its fandom leanings, and its predominantly queer and feminist user base.

“Every time I make the mistake of opening Tumblr at work I end up seeing a stray boob,” Akila Hughes joked in Splinter News.

This reputation further reduces the community that gave us “Tumblr activism” — the disruptive but progressive political force that grew into a loud generation of real-world activists down to that of a bunch of women who are only there for porn.

Even the porn itself gets mischaracterized; the fact is that the erotic and NSFW imagery on Tumblr includes everything from fanart to sex education and is a vibrant and much-valued part of the community. And while data analysts have uncovered that, yes, there is a lot of porn on Tumblr, it’s coming from only a tiny fraction about a tenth of 1 percent — of the site’s creators.

And the producers of this pornography are not active members of the Tumblr community. Most of the producers of pornography on Tumblr are pornbots, automated accounts set up to generate NSFW content, much of it designed to lure users to third-party paid content sites.

Still, because pornbots don’t always stay in their lane, it’s easy for users reading random “normal” tags to be exposed to them. The site has tried multiple times to deal with porn in its midst. Users have even tried to help, organizing spontaneous organic pornbot-banning campaigns. But the site’s efforts haven’t been enough to keep it from running into trouble with third parties — most notably, Apple, which, in its ban of anything “overtly sexual,” is not attuned to the blurry lines between porn, erotica, and other types of racy content.

Tumblr has long sagged under the weight of doubt regarding its long-term sustainability. The site plateaued its growth in 2016 at just 23 million users, fewer than half that of Twitter at the time and a third that of Instagram, which has since grown exponentially.

Since the exit last year of its longtime chief David Karp, and the sale of the site to Verizon, rumblings that Tumblr is finally finished have abounded. Meanwhile, Tumblr users have been increasingly at odds with the site’s corporate side, as the business tries to balance potential moneymaking opportunities with its unruly yet thriving corner of internet culture. Unfortunately, the short-term solution seems to be a pivot away from that grassroots culture toward more rigidly controlled content — which opens the door to a whole new set of problems.

The new policy explicitly protects text-based erotica and artwork featuring nudity. But it also opens the door to a perplexing censorship conundrum.

One of the biggest questions on Tumblr users’ minds is whether Tumblr can effectively carry out this policy without nuking everything in its path. The consensus so far, based on both past experience with Tumblr as well as other algorithmic censorship attempts, and the abundant reports of posts that are already being inappropriately flagged under the new rules: not a chance.

It’s important to note that Tumblr is attempting to draw a dividing line between its users’ creative content and the more hardcore stuff. Tumblr’s new policy defines “adult content” as “primarily includ[ing] photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content — including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations — that depicts sex acts.” That doesn’t necessarily include many types of erotica, which may be sexual and evocative without explicitly depicting sex. And Tumblr is only banning “photos, videos, or GIFs,” not text-based erotica or artwork — except when that artwork portrays sexual acts.

The platform is also trying to differentiate between explicit porn and nonsexual nudity — a tricky bit of semantics that led the site to go with language banning “female-presenting nipples” while protecting “exposed female-presenting nipples in connection with breastfeeding,” among other things. The new policy also specifies that nudity for the purposes of sexual education and other contexts is okay. That should be comforting to the thriving community around sex work on Tumblr, as well as to those who are concerned about its increasingly important role as a de facto sex education site for millions of its users.

But all these attempts to separate the wheat from the porny chaff raise the question of whether Tumblr will be able to accurately police along these dividing lines without overreaching and becoming censorship-happy, thus silencing many vital blogs and users.

In the wake of the passage of FOSTA, the anti-sex trafficking bill that has raised internet-wide concerns about censorship, many Tumblr users have spoken out about their anxiety that Tumblr will become a platform of broad and ill-defined censorship that will silence some of the most important parts of Tumblr. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time; in 2013, Tumblr attempted to ban NSFW tags and wound up censoring queer content before backtracking.

And how does anyone, let alone Tumblr’s automatic censors, draw the line between illustrations that depict sex acts and illustrations that simply “feature” nudity?

These questions have alarmed many Tumblr users. Many fan artists and original artists create explicit art alongside non-explicit art as a matter of course; some, like the well-known artist Siij, whose NSFW blog was banned in the November purge, have already been targets of Tumblr censors.

In addition, some users have reported that entire tags are currently being scrubbed of content and hidden from Tumblr’s search; for example, searching for the NSFW tag no longer generates any content. And users who’ve already started receiving emails about their flagged content under the new policy are reporting that their content is being flagged incorrectly.

One Twitter thread compiling reports of incorrectly flagged Tumblr posts collected everything from benign art and fanart to cave photos, safe-for-work vintage photos of black women, and even a reblog of Tumblr’s own announcement:

On a superficial level, this is all hilarious — and, to some, hilariously familiar. (More on that in a moment.) But on a deeper level, the giant outcry over this decision reflects a larger anxiety from users — a fear that Tumblr is cracking down not just on porn but on the very essence of Tumblr culture: unruly, unsanctioned, and in many ways, united by the very spirit of deviance that Tumblr is trying to kill.

“The reality is that for a lot of the LGTBQ+ community, particularly younger members still discovering themselves and members in extremely homophobic environments where most media sites were banned (but Tumblr wasn’t even considered important enough to be), this was a bastion of information and self-expression,” wrote one Tumblr user in a widely reblogged post. “For a lot of artists too, this was a great place to come and post NSFW work and get traction that became Patreon pages that became honest jobs.”

Tumblr has always been a safe space for subversive deviance and unrepressed explorations of identity and sexuality

What’s frequently lost in the reductive equating of Tumblr with porn is that, as on LiveJournal before it, much of the platform’s erotica is community-oriented — and essential to the vibrancy of that community.

For instance, entire fanart traditions have sprung up around cheeky erotic illustrations and the frequently NSFW artists who produce them. Tumblr also birthed the phenomenon of popular fandom blogs featuring porn performers who look like various fictional characters, peddling erotic content specifically through the lens of shipping. Modern-day Tumblr artists have entirely revived the long-dormant tradition of professional-quality fanzines, many featuring subversive queer content and explicit content.

Then there are the many, many queer and genderqueer and marginalized users who found in Tumblr a positive, identity-affirming community space that simply doesn’t exist on most other social media platforms. As Tumblr users grappled with the news, many spoke out about the degree to which the ban on explicit content could impact untold numbers of individuals who lack the ability to safely explore their identities and their sexualities on other websites or in real life.

“This is a mistake,” wrote Tumblr user caitercates in a widely distributed response to the Tumblr staff post. “You say you’re all about ‘sex positivity’ while banning all adult content of any kind? ... You are actively deleting a majority of your account base. ... your solution is to bleach your site until it’s unrecognizable.” The post continued:

Not to mention the countless artists and writers who are about to lose their viewer/readership. I understand erotica will still be allowed - but what about the relationships that are fostered between artists and writers? There are so many of us who make fanart of our favorite fics, and a lot of the time that involves smut. This ISN’T A PROBLEM. This is creativity at work, and sex positivity, like you claim to support.

Change this.

EDIT your site. Make positive changes that we as the community have asked for - don’t blanket-ban the content that, tbh, most of us are here for at least in part.

It’s significant that Tumblr users are fighting for Tumblr to walk back this change because Tumblr has traditionally had a primarily harmonious relationship with its user base, despite its users’ increasing distrust of its motives and interests. With the exception of Reddit, which is mainly community-run, Tumblr has given its users more freedom than any other platform in shaping and making the site into what it is.

This is partly due to the fact that Tumblr was never intended to be a grassroots haven for internet misfits. But that characteristic is part of what has made Tumblr uniquely quirky and offbeat among social media spaces — and it may be the trait that saves it.

Tumblr is a crucial, still-thriving part of internet culture. Don’t write it off yet.

There’s a legitimate argument to be made — and one that I, as a longtime Tumblr user, would admittedly like to be true — that people who think banning porn on Tumblr will kill Tumblr really don’t know that much about Tumblr’s core users. Despite the mainstream media narrative, Tumblr has never been about porn.

Tumblr was built around community, around fandom, around viral absurdist meme blogs and street fashion bloggers. What other social media platform annually sends amateur bloggers to Fashion Week? It was grown from arty hipster landscape photos whose wistful aesthetics were deposited straight onto the collected works of the Chainsmokers. Tumblr has given us feminist art galleries and digital art collectives pushing online art movements like vaporwave, seapunk, and glitch art while showing off, bar none, the best GIF artistry on the planet.

Tumblr’s deliberately hyperbolic language fueled everything from “all the feels” to the rise of One Direction. It’s been called the progenitor of neo-Dadaism, the wellspring of a vast amount of absurdist millennial humor that’s pushed out of its niche Tumblr basement to hit the mainstream corridors of the internet. Mic shamelessly built its brand by exploiting Tumblr’s politics while BuzzFeed shamelessly built its brand by piggybacking off Tumblr’s content. It’s the place where angry feminist clapbacks and “your fave is problematic” exist alongside hungover owls and “Mmm Whatcha Say?” — that is, it’s as marvelous, and marvelously frustrating, and deeply surprising, as the internet itself.

It’s tempting to argue that while core Tumblr users will grumble about the sitewide crackdown on porn, they’ll recognize that while they can get the porn from other sites, it will be impossible to replace everything else that makes Tumblr what it is.

That said, the very quirky nonconformity of Tumblr’s users may, in fact, push them to leave. Some users see the site’s push to ban adult content as echoing the downward spiral of LiveJournal, the once-popular early blogging platform that was highly admired for its open source ethos, its laidback moderation style, and its positive sense of community.

In an infamous pair of 2007 incidents that became known as “Strikethrough” and “Boldthrough,” LiveJournal famously destroyed the trust of its user base overnight when its attempt to ban certain types of explicit content resulted in a ban on fanart and other innocent and creative types of content.

The relationship between the site and a user base that had, until then, been ride-or-die, never fully recovered. In the wake of LiveJournal’s steady overtaking by Russia, many of those users migrated to Tumblr, where they joined the much larger stream of millennial and Gen Y and Z users who have relied on the site’s user-friendliness and openness to many types of erotica as they built their communities.

A side effect of the ban involved a renewed appreciation for the Archive of Our Own (AO3), a nonprofit, censorship-free website run by fans that is explicitly set up to archive fanworks in the event of major content crackdowns like this one. Among the other, more serious responses to the ban has been a litany of fandom history and advice posts being shared for the benefit of younger Tumblr users and others for whom the overnight implosion of their digital home was a new experience. Especially prominent have been recommendations for alternative sites to Tumblr.

Many users, desperate to recapture the deep sense of community that once existed on LiveJournal, have been advocating for a retreat to a new social platform called Pillowfort, a site that very overtly attempts to combine the best characteristics of LiveJournal and Tumblr with a more laidback old-school approach to fandom and content moderation. That platform, which is currently in beta, is down at the moment for planned security upgrades. On its Tumblr in response to the news about the Tumblr ban, Pillowfort stated that it plans to “allow NSFW content with very few restrictions.”

Still others looked to Dreamwidth, a blogging platform built on LiveJournal’s open source code that was originally built in 2008 in response to LiveJournal’s demise. Its owners, too, were ready to welcome the Tumblr diaspora with open arms, just as it welcomed the LJ diaspora a decade ago. Other sites like MeWe also responded to the news by welcoming potential Tumblr refugees.

For many Tumblr users and onlookers, however, the simplest solution seems to be a return to the spirit that built Tumblr culture: When all else fails, make memes.

It was inevitable, for example, that there’d be at least one reference to DashCon, the notorious 2014 Tumblr fan convention that turned into a viral disaster, typified by this famous forlorn image of the “DashCon ball pit:”

At the top of the list of agenda items was the phrase “female presenting nipples,” which was the target of the lion’s share of hilarity from Tumblr users.

free the female presenting nipples.
robbieross/Tumblr

Of course, all of this won’t really help answer the larger question of what’s next for Tumblr. But ironically, in response to the news, Tumblr’s user base has reminded us all exactly what a valuable and irreplaceable role the site has played in the evolution of modern internet culture.

The wry humor, the trenchant memes, the progressive social commentary mixed with genuine care for Tumblr’s marginalized communities that Tumblr users have deployed in response to the adult content ban — all of that is a unique combination that’s grown out of Tumblr culture. When it’s gone, there’s no guarantee it will return on another website in the same form. And it definitely won’t be accompanied by the same fabulous GIFs and fanart.

Still, there’s no guarantee that Tumblr’s profit-driven side will prioritize keeping that culture sustainable, even if it does somehow manage to ban adult content and retain its core membership. If that’s the case, then it’s a loss not just for Tumblr users but for the entire internet. Like Vine before it, another irreplaceable cornerstone of our online world that should have been better-appreciated all along, Tumblr might be fated to be loved best only after it’s gone.

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