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Analysis
5 min

How Tumblr’s porn ban affects LGBTQ2 users

‘Our digital lives are our real lives — when we lose that, we lose whole communities and cultures’

In a response that Tumblr surely must have seen coming, thousands of angry users flocked to their accounts and other social media platforms to deride the company’s decision to block all “adult content” on the social platform starting Dec 17.

The decision, which was announced on Dec 3, is meant to transform the blog into a “better, more positive Tumblr.” And it comes after Apple removed Tumblr from the App Store for allegedly hosting child pornography.

Following the announcement, users noticed their posts being flagged — presumably by an algorithm — indicating they will likely be deleted. Many of these posts were, somewhat amusingly, far from indecent. Users have shared some of the absurdities caught in the crossfire: a whole bunch of anime or manga-inspired art; random dog memes; even GIFs of (a fully-clothed) Thor. It was reflective of a bungled rollout that betrayed its user base, putting a nail in the platform’s own coffin.

Tumblr has long been popular with fandom communities. Founded 11 years ago, the website is organized within each user’s “Dashboard,” from which they can reblog posts and share multimedia content. Posts are ephemeral, though they can be organized via hashtags to find and target certain fandoms and groups.

Many of the communities are largely made up of queer folks, people of colour and other marginalized groups, many of whom had migrated from LiveJournal after similar changes were made on that platform about adult content (and many of those users had moved to LiveJournal after FanFiction.net cracked down on adult content in 2003). Queerness and fandom are intimately intertwined, with the long history of queer fanfiction and their parallel obsessions with subtext. So, as fans found Tumblr, a place that catered to their habits and gave them the freedom to run amok, it naturally meant that Tumblr became a queer haven of anonymity and taboo-breaking.

Scholars and media critics noted some of the larger, more insidious implications and consequences of this decision. Katrin Tiidenberg, a researcher of social media at Tallinn University in Estonia and author of Selfies: Why We Love (And Hate) Them, wrote on Twitter that “it is quite possible that this will seriously harm or strongly alter the platform’s viability, either because it will change the makeup of its user base, number of users, the cultures and practices on Tumblr, and what people think Tumblr is for.” She went on to say that Tumblr’s affordances of the past made it a community-building space, where users explored identity and sexuality. And it does seem true that the decision to block adult content will radically transform Tumblr, and the way it’s understood — by its users, whoever they may be going forward, and by the culture — will drastically shift.

In February, Tumblr turned on “Safe Mode” as a default for all users, meaning all “sensitive content,” which mostly meant nudity, was hidden unless you went looking for it. Some users reported last month that their accounts were taken down, seemingly due to nudity on their blogs. It isn’t clear whether Apple’s action against Tumblr over child porn led the platform to ban all adult content, but it’s the latest in a series of changes Tumblr has made since being purchased by Verizon.

As Tiidenberg and others argue, there were ways of confronting the platform’s many porn bot accounts and the presence of child porn without resorting to this catch-all approach. Users have been worried about moves like this since Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo back in 2013, but since founder David Karp left the company in 2017 (“It’s just not something that we want to police,” he told Stephen Colbert about the company’s stance on porn in 2013) and Yahoo was bought by Verizon, attitudes have changed. If your platform is unable to properly moderate its content, perhaps it has become too big of an operation for a profit-focused corporation to care for.

The various subcommunities that live on Tumblr— largely queer and female — are likely to be targeted by the new ban. This is problematic for a few reasons: Tumblr has long been a space for pushing against dominant (heteromasculine) norms, often due to the platform’s design, which de-emphasized organizational logic (allowing for greater experimentation with one’s blog and, therefore, one’s self-performance) and promoted community-based identity work. The new policy will also have an impact on safe spaces for queer and trans sex workers, who are already under attack on other platforms.

It’s worth highlighting how Tumblr has sustained itself thanks to the commitment of queer folks. We know that queer content on social media platforms is often flagged under “NSFW” parameters or demonetized, and this is already being reported to be happening on Tumblr. Queerness is equated with being inherently sexual and therefore deviant, requiring silencing.

On Tumblr, queer folks, especially young ones, were able to exist within a heavily-populated online ecosystem, but one that didn’t require any connection to your real identity, or even a consistent one. They found comfort in the ways that Tumblr seemed to ignore the values of monetization and surveillance that dominate other social platforms — you could be any version of yourself, particularly at a time when you’re struggling to understand who you are, and you could do so with as much or as little privacy as you wanted.

It quickly became customary to include your sexuality in your bio: scholar Allison McCracken has said that many teens discovered other gender identity terms as well as political ideologies for the first time on Tumblr. In tangible ways, platforms like Facebook can be dangerous for queer youth. You could be tagged in a photo without your consent, and inadvertently outed to an unsupportive family, risking estrangement. You are simply forced to navigate a design logic that prioritizes hyper-publicity and social indexing.

As I wrote earlier this year, “it seems clear that the ingredients that make Tumblr a platform readily available for counter-hegemonic expression are the same circumstances that would be destroyed by any attempts to capitalize on or monetize its users.”

Tumblr’s decision reflects a distinct loss for the queer communities that use the platform. While other nascent possibilities like PillowFort may be positioned to take on some of the burden, it seems likely that Tumblr will be the final platform of its size to host this content and audience.

Moreover, as Katie Notopoulos pointed out for BuzzFeed News, Tumblr also seems poised to simply delete a huge swath of internet history with this one sweeping act. “Our digital lives are our real lives, and digital culture — Tumblr culture — is real culture. When we lose that, we lose whole communities, friendships, methods of communication, jokes, and artifacts,” Notopoulos wrote. Even more than that, though, it’s the abandonment of the internet’s ideals toward freedom, creativity, discovery, and experimentation.

Queers won’t disappear from the internet or social media, of course. Perhaps what’s needed, then, is a concerted effort to make these other platforms uncomfortable. Make them as queer as possible, challenge their policies and algorithms — force them to rethink what the internet is for.

At any rate, pour one out for Tumblr. There won’t be another place like it.