The Tumblr Porn Ban

In early December, the micro-blogging website and popular social media platform Tumblr announced that it was making a significant change to its website content policies. In a blog post titled “A better, more positive Tumblr” the company explained that effective December 17, posts containing adult content would no longer be allowed on the Tumblr platform. Tumblr has defined adult content as “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.”

Adult content will be automatically flagged by Tumblr’s algorithm. Screenshot from http://edendaphne.tumblr.com

Using an automated algorithm, the website has automatically flagged any posts that it has identified as adult content. Tumblr has not outright removed these posts, but merely made them private–that is viewable only to the user who posted. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Tumblr’s user base was incredibly upset from this decision. Interestingly, Tumblr’s new adult content policy may entirely ban pornography from its platform while still allowing nazi propaganda to be publicly viewable. Additionally, many users were quick to point out the ineffectiveness of Tumblr’s content detection algorithm. Many posts that contained no adult content whatsoever were nonetheless getting caught by the content filter.

This Twitter thread is a collection of many Tumblr posts that were incorrectly flagged by the adult content detection algorithm.
In an ironic twist, even a reblog of the site’s own announcement was flagged as inappropriate content.

Although Tumblr has been widely known as a website that provides access to pornography and other adult content, a lot of the reason that Tumblr users are upset about the new policy is not directly related to porn. Particularly among LGBTQ communities, the Tumblr platform has served as a space where individuals can interact with one another and explore their identities. For many LGBTQ individuals, this type of interaction is uniquely possible because of Tumblr’s affordances. For instance the Tumblr platform has many specific features such as the ability to curate a small community, control what content you will see (such as avoiding negative and toxic communications), and especially the “reblog” feature which allows content to quickly spread to other Tumblr users. These features and affordances make Tumblr an ideal online space for individuals to choose how they present themselves to others, and in doing so explore and better understand their own identities. Many internet platforms, and Tumblr in particular, therefore are vital spaces for people who may not be able to adequately, effectively, or safely express their identities in the offline world, as is the reality for many LGBTQ individuals. On Tumblr, many LGBTQ individuals used the platform as a space to be genuine with their identities, and often did so through sharing content that falls under Tumblr’s new definition of adult content. Thus, the decision to ban all adult content from its platform severely hurts LGBTQ communities by eliminating the ability of the platform to serve the needs of these individuals.

This, and many arguments similar to it, broadly characterizes the response to Tumblr’s recent policy change. While I do agree with many of the concerns that have been raised, I am confident that Tumblr’s users who were impacted by the change will be able to find new platforms and online spaces to occupy. (Of course, Tumblr–and thus Yahoo and Verizon–will of course be significantly impacted if there is a mass exodus from the site) Adult content is closely connected to the history of the Internet and the development of technology that we use to interact with the online world. The history of porn is the history of the Internet as well. There were always be places for people to go online to upload, download, and share adult content.

This history of porn is the history of the Internet and online technology as well.

Adult content is closely connected to the history of the Internet and the development of technology that we use to interact with the online world. The history of porn is the history of the Internet and online technology as well. There were always be places for people to go online to upload, download, and share adult content.

However, Tumblr’s decision to eliminate adult content from its platform as well as the immediate backlash that it received both raise several interesting questions.

What is the motivation behind the policy change? It was likely pressured by the proliferation of child pornography and other illegal content on its platform, but what influence did the recent(ish) acquisition by Yahoo (and Yahoo’s acquisition by Verizon) play? Especially for a platform like Tumblr which is “free” to its users and relies on fostering an audience commodity to sell to advertisers, it is likely that there are many more aspects that went into this decision.

How does a company such as Tumblr present itself to its users? The way that it chose to communicate this decision to its user base (on the platform itself!) is certainly significant and warrants closer examination. How did users perceive the way that Tumblr presented itself? And how did this (if at all) influence the manner in which they reacted?

And in general, how is the online world connected to the offline world? Are the two entirely separate? And if not, what is the nature of their relationship? In what way is the online world situated within the offline world? What are the limitations of applying offline regulations and law to the online world? How do individuals and groups move between online and offline spaces, and how do they present themselves and behave on each? And what are the limitations of doing so?

I don’t have answers to a lot of questions, and there’s a good chance that I’ll never have a full and satisfying answer to all of them. But my hope is that in the next few years I’ll be able to start diving deep into them and unpacking the nuance and complexity of each. I’m incredibly excited by the prospects and opportunities of this direction of research, and cannot wait to see where asking these types of questions will carry me.

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