Wednesday, 5 December 2018

The 'death' of Tumblr

 Over the last few days, the social media and blogging platform Tumblr has announced that from 17 December 2018 they will no longer be allowing any 'NSFW' images to be posted by users.

This move is thought to have come about after Apple suspended the Tumblr app from availability in their App Store, because a large amount of child pornography had gotten through Tumblr's filter software and ended up on the platform.

However, others in the industry have posited that in fact this move has been a long time in the planning, and is more to do with Tumblr no longer wanting to dedicate time, money and staff to policing the individual pieces of content uploaded to the 'NSFW' segment of the platform or improve their filter software, when it is more cost-effective for them to simply blanket-ban all images of sex and nudity. It's also speculated that making themselves more attractive to advertisers is another consideration that has led to them deciding that from 17 December onwards, Tumblr will be free of adult content.

This has understandably been a controversial decision, in part because Tumblr has spent the past 11 years as a platform which was known by many to permit users to share nude images and pornography, erotic art and writing, and more. That they would decide now, after more than a decade of giving a home to many people who saw Tumblr as an outlet for expressing their sexuality, or as a supportive community for non-sexual nudity in the name of body positivity, to ban all that content (even in the name of cleaning up their image) has taken a lot of people by unpleasant surprise.

The decision has also been controversial because it is seen by many as a "sledgehammer to crack a walnut" scenario (if the explanation that it relates to Apple pulling the app from their store is the correct one) - Apple's issue was that the filtering software used by Tumblr (software Apple requires all apps in its store to have to prevent any app from being used to share child pornography) was ineffective and not up to industry standard. Apple weren't being squeamish about consenting adult porn on the platform, and there has never been any suggestion from Apple that they see Tumblr banning all adult content as necessary to prevent the app being withdrawn again in future.

Almost all users of Tumblr would concur that child pornography should have no place on that platform or any other part of the internet, and would have welcomed any measures taken by Tumblr to shore up their defenses against users being able to upload child porn in future, but few would agree that blanket-banning all pornography and non-pornographic adult nudity is the only or best way to achieve this.

Perhaps the biggest aspect of this controversy is the way that it will affect the many users of the platform who openly value it for the way it enables them to find, share and generate adult-oriented content where other platforms (such as Instagram and Facebook) have already banned this.

Much of the outcry has come from the following groups: sex workers, who use Tumblr to advertise and promote their paid work and to network and establish communities (especially sex workers from marginalised groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, those who have physical disabilities or mental health concerns, and those who are involved in more unconventional kink and fetish scenes, all of whom have found support and safer generation of revenue through using Tumblr); creators of adult visual content (especially artists, both those in fandoms and in the general user population); and also promoters of non-sexual or sex-positive body-positive movements, for whom the sharing of male and female nude self-portraits is a communal act of empowerment and rebellion against traditional one-dimensional standards of beauty and gender conformity.

There is also a small naturist community on Tumblr who, I imagine, are once more aggrieved that images of non-sexual nudity are again being considered ban-worthy alongside sex-based content.

All of these people will be deprived of their primary reason for using Tumblr after December 17, and many will therefore be left with either no outlet at all for both creative expression and safe networking, or be forced onto other, less safe and user-friendly platforms. Additionally, content creators and sex workers who benefit from using Tumblr as a safe promotional tool will likely lose revenue as a result.

To add insult to injury, there is no suggestion that Tumblr will be cutting down on other problematic content, such as violence or hate speech. While I am sure the platform would not wish to be seen to be endorsing either, they appear disproportionately more concerned with sex and nudity than with violence or hate. It's an old story, of course.

My book cover was apparently good enough
for Amazon but not for Tumblr...
Finally, users have been taking to Twitter to share examples of where Tumblr's automated content-review software (which was making red warning bars appear at the top of posts considered to be 'explicit' so that creators could appeal them if they were wrong) has flagged often laughably non-explicit images as explicit (as of today Wednesday 5 December, a lot of these warnings appear to have disappeared).

Ultimately, of course, Tumblr are free to choose what sort of content they do and don't allow on their platform. They are a private enterprise, they aren't obligated to allow adult content just to satisfy freedom of speech in the US (where they are based) or any other country. While there have been a number of users advocating for petitions or various other rebellious tactics, I doubt they will have impact on the company's decision or the way it will be implemented. Statistically, adult content accounts for approximately 1% of all user content on Tumblr (that's not to say there isn't still a lot, but it is vastly, enormously outnumbered by general content), an acceptable amount to lose. The only reason Tumblr is doing this is because it can make more money than if it doesn't.

On the other hand...
I suspect most content-creators know this: those I have seen are already packing up shop, upping sticks for other platforms ahead of the ban, for fear that if they wait too long, they will be simply obliterated from the site like the poor souls in Marvel's Infinity War film, their accumulated audience not knowing what has happened to them.

My history with Tumblr goes back many years. I have used Tumblr as a platform as both a general user and as a creator of erotic content, and I've had several Tumblrs over the years. I have a number of friends I have made through Tumblr who have either been or gone on to sex work, or who have been body-positivity and sex-positivity advocates, or promoters of a naturist lifestyle. None of those people would have been there if Tumblr didn't allow the content they were posting, content which will now be forbidden from 17 December.

I don't deny there were issues with adult content on Tumblr. A great many adult accounts were porn-sharing bots, usually aimed at promoting pay sites by randomly reposting images with links underneath. There was also a grey area of consent, whereby body-positive activists and naturist-types might share nude images without a sexual context, only for those images to be reblogged in a different context on porn blogs. A plus-size friend who shared nudes of herself to promote positive female body image described playing almost a game of whack-a-mole with all the chubby-fetish blogs who would keep sharing her pictures; for every one she asked to take her photo off their blog, another would pop up. Even when she captioned her photos warning porn blogs against reblogging her, they would simply delete the caption as they reposted.

But while these issues needed to be addressed, I don't think anyone experienced with the adult side of Tumblr would have advocated banning all images of sex and nudity altogether as the only or best solution.

It's perhaps unsurprising that these promotional
images for Brave Nude World have been flagged
As a writer, I find that Tumblr is perhaps my least-used platform to promote my work, but starting out it was the source of most of my inspiration. I browsed adult-oriented Tumblrs and when I saw images that appealed to or inspired me, I would reblog them with a short story attached (usually one or two paragraphs, a snapshot of a moment). Invariably, given the type of fiction I write, these were pictures of naked women and stories about how and why they came to be naked. I soon graduated to longer prose and then novels, but most of my old stories were still on Tumblr. I imagine they will disappear too come December 17, along with the graphics I created to promote my book Brave Nude World when that was published earlier this year. All feature nudity; all are deemed no longer acceptable.

Whether explicit text is to be banned along with explicit images remains to be seen; presumably it is a question of cost and man-hours setting up and maintaining software which can read text posts and flag them as objectionable, and at the moment Tumblr is concentrating on the image and video posts and not the written ones. But I am sure it is only a matter of time.

So I'll be saying goodbye to Tumblr. As a producer of adult content I am no longer welcome there, even if that content itself still flies under their radar (and as I have said, much of it will not). They have made that perfectly clear. I shall survive and thrive, I am not concerned for myself. I have Amazon and Literotica and Twitter and this blog, they are more than enough in terms of outlets. But there are a great many people who will be hurt, massively hurt, by Tumblr's decision, not least because many have spent years, perhaps even a decade, amassing followers and building and participating in a safe and welcoming community which will be soon to disappear.

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