by Camille Shen
In the wake of Tumblr’s recent ban of all adult content site-wide, user stravinskow commented, “I can’t believe the last meme of 2018 is tumblr’s death.” Stravinskow’s lamentation is just one of many in the flood of complaints, criticism, and of course, memes against Tumblr’s latest corporate decision to censor “not-suitable-for-work” content. This modification was precipitated by the blogging site’s removal from the App Store in November due to the existence of child pornography on the website, but still came as a sudden shock to many. Now, as users ready themselves to press “f” to pay respects to Tumblr as a whole, it is likely that their beloved community is indeed in danger of an early funeral– even if the platform itself survives.
This is not the first time Apple has removed an app from its store for violating its guidelines. In 2015, it pulled the plug on a war-simulation game for portraying a real terrorist group as the enemy, and more recently, an app formed by a religious group that denounced homosexuality as sin. As a private market, Apple has every right to discern what goes on its “shelves” for consumers to buy and download– even if it means purgation of more popular apps, such as Tumblr. And without Apple’s permission to sell a product in their sanitized, wholesome environment, starting or maintaining a mobile business is nearly impossible. So from this perspective, Tumblr’s decision makes sense: if it wants to survive, at least in our pockets, it needs to stay on Apple’s good side.
But the pull from the App Store was just one deciding factor for Tumblr to prohibit all NSFW content. In fact, the ban was a long time coming: according to Vox, the company could not continue selling ad space next to the pornographic content that often appeared on its website. This decline in profits was part of a series of disastrous years after Yahoo famously bought Tumblr for over a billion dollars in 2013. Since then, Yahoo has written down the blogging site’s value to a less than half of that: a mere $482 million. Now, both Yahoo and Tumblr have become Verizon’s newest acquisitions, and the telecommunications giant plans on learning from Yahoo’s mistakes by finding a way to profit off of the huge fandoms and communities comprised of young people. And, as it seems, the only way to maximize profits is to monetize safe-for-work content and discard the rest.
But what does this mean for Tumblr users? It is no secret that Tumblr has had a problem with porn and porn bots since its early days– many users have called for their removal on multiple occasions, though never with any success. However, while 20% of people on Tumblr consume pornographic content, it is only produced by 1% of its users. The vast majority that this ban affects are regular people participating in niche communities: artists, writers, cosplayers, and other content creators. So, decidedly not child predators, but rather, users who produce NSFW content for specifically targeted audiences. While Tumblr has attempted to differentiate between sexually artistic expression (allowed, in most capacities) and sexual obscenities (prohibited), the rudimentary algorithm it hastily implemented has created a blurred line between the two and left many mistakes in between. In fact, a post that has now gone viral shows that the Tumblr staff’s post announcing the new nudity policy was flagged as inappropriate by its own algorithm. This is just one example of the countless incorrect bans of safe-for-work content, ranging from memes to cat pictures to even classical paintings of Jesus Christ. There is a fine line between nudity used in a sexual context and nudity used for educational or artistic purposes– one that Tumblr expects a few lines of simple code to walk.
But moreover, to institute a blanket ban on all adult content, including the particularly vague “female-presenting nipples”, would stifle the culture of open discussion of sexuality that Tumblr has built its success upon. A large part of the adult content that existed on Tumblr was aimed at the queer community and celebrated a sexuality that is often rejected by mainstream media. This exposure to a spectrum of normalized sexuality was especially important to marginalized LGBT+ groups, who often cannot find accessible and secure spaces to bond over sexual identity. Now that “female-presenting nipples” have been banned, many queer women find their interests and orientation vilified by yet another popular social platform, discouraging further discourse and interaction within LGBT+ communities. In addition, sex workers who appealed to queer groups once flocked to Tumblr for its low-risk, easy-to-use structure and free communication around the topic of sex. After the ban, they are left to search the Internet for an alternative, though few websites exist that are safe and suitable for their line of work. Queer and sexual communities, paired with the staggering number of fandoms, constitute the overwhelming majority of Tumblr’s user base. As they flee to other websites in wake of the purge, they take with them an undeniably vital aspect to Tumblr’s identity: uncensored self-expression. Now, what is left is a pale imitation of “positivity” marked by the fear of flagged content and banned blogs.
But even after a torrent of scathing criticism from its users and speculation of imminent collapse circulating the Internet, Tumblr probably isn’t going anywhere– for the time being, at least. The reality is that there simply aren’t many better alternatives to such a uniquely structured, established blogging site: other platforms similar to Tumblr are either still in beta mode or have dwindling user populations, such as the ancient LiveJournal, the start-up PillowFort, and the new Twitter-like Mastodon. Fearing they will lose an audience and community that is often built up over several years, most users are planning to stay on Tumblr and adapt to the new policy change, whether they like it or not. In this sense, the ban may prove beneficial for Tumblr, and perhaps be the change it “needed” all along to foster growth: it will easily be able to monetize more content and generate more ad revenue than before, even if it means giving up some users in the process.
However, the ban will only ensure that the business side of Tumblr makes it out alive. It won’t meet its end here, but by destroying its hundreds of niche fandoms and communities, it certainly will lose what made it different. Tumblr was once a space for people to candidly and unashamedly express themselves, and that is what gave them the edge over hyper-sanitized, more mainstream platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. This is not to mention the pivotal role it’s played in the growth of Internet culture, absurdist gen Z humor, and of course, the modern meme. Now, the latest memes about the ban all share a similar theme: whether it is “staff” shooting “tumblr” in the head, “staff” as Oprah freely handing out bans, or “staff” as the iceberg that S.S. Tumblr is headed toward, corporate always seems to be the bad guy. And for good reason, too– because at the end of the day, it won’t be Tumblr the company that takes the fall, but Tumblr the community.