Tumblr and Terminology

In the last several weeks, I have been starting to make much more focused effort on my M.A. thesis. For my thesis, I am planning on studying Tumblr’s changed adult content policy and how this so-called “porn ban” represented a flashpoint between a platform’s corporate owners and its users. I recently defended my prospectus, and am excited to get started on the full project.

In my initial prospectus, the broad premise of my argument has developed. While I plan to continue refining my ideas, right now my thinking on Tumblr can be encapsulated in the following statements: Tumblr’s specific affordances and user community had once contributed to it having a unique online identity and perception, especially as compared to other social media websites. It had existed as an online queer space until the point that it was no longer profitable for its parent companies. And, given that the website had once been known as an online platform for non-heteronormative pornography, it was possibly LGBTQ+ people who were most directly affected by the new adult content policy.

During the prospectus defense, one of my committee members raised some important questions about the terminology that I was using. Particularly when it comes to phrases such as “queer” and “LGBTQ+” it is crucial that I be purposeful with what words I am using, and where. At first, I was using the terms pretty much synonymously, following the logic that this was the same type of language used by the Tumblr website itself. Of course, I have since realized that it is not this simple, and have spent much of the last few weeks puzzling over what terminologies to use within my own writing.

What I’ve come to realize is that Tumblr Inc. (and its parent company Verizon Inc.) likely have very specific reasons for using “LGBTQ+” to refer to much of its user community. I should not use the same phrasing blindly and without reflection. By using this term, the corporation is essentially trying to group many of its disparate users and communities into a singular group and under one common label. It seems to imply that there is just one Tumblr community, an entire group of users that all understand and used the platform in the same way.

But this singular user community does not necessarily reflect the reality of the Tumblr platform and how actual users came to understand the online space. Tumblr users are not all one single group. There are countless separate communities and sub-groups of users who all use the Tumblr platform in slightly different ways. Even within the various letters of “LGBTQ+” there are separate categories, overlaps, and differences. Members that identify with one letter may not see any similarities with another. And that’s a really important distinction for me to keep in mind, especially given that it seems Tumblr Inc. was attempting to group together these disparate user communities. Indeed, the only commonality between some of these groups of Tumblr users may be their disapproval with the new adult content policy.

Tumblr had once defined itself really broadly, and avoided defining a specific right or wrong way to use the website. Users could make of the platform whatever they wanted, which had once helped contribute to the proliferation of the numerous separate user communities. Though its splash page still touts that individuals can “use it however you like” and that “Tumblr is blogs,” the reality is that through the new adult content policy, the corporation was for the first time making overt statements about the right or wrong way to use the platform. And, by extension, this meant grouping together many users and their communities that had once thrived because of the prior lax adult content policy.

Different groups, individuals, and entities will refer to different sets of different people for certain reasons. This is why I have been thinking carefully about the terminology that I use in my own writing so carefully. The issue of how a platform is regulated is simultaneously an issue of how identities are regulated, so it is not simply an unnecessary exercise in semantics. I have yet to come to a fully solidified answer, but it’s something that I have been thinking a lot about. My hope is that by writing all of this out, I can stop just spinning my wheels when it comes to this and continue making progress on the thesis.

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