Tumblr’s New Rules Are an Attack on Women’s Bodies, Sex Workers, and LGBTQ+ People

Of all the things that were going to go extinct in 2018, I didn’t expect NSFW Tumblr content to be one of them. On December 3rd, Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio posted a letter to the service’s staff account decreeing that the site would be purged of nude and erotic content in two weeks’ time. New updates to the community rules prohibit any media featuring sex acts or “real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples”. According to D’Onofiro, this clean sweep is in the interests of bringing about “a safe place for creative expression, self-discovery, and a deep sense of community” as well as “the most welcoming environment possible for our community”. The platform, will, however, be retaining erotic literature and “nudity found in art, such as sculptures and illustrations”.

Although, it remains to be seen what qualifies as “art”. Perhaps this means that Tumblr’s sprawling hentai empire will remain intact, but it could just mean that uploading The Birth of Venus won’t violate community guidelines while your big boobs Wilma Flinstone sketch will. I contacted their company’s support desk four days ago asking for clarification on this issue and didn’t get a response. At the very least, the uncertainty this change creates for people posting any nudity to Tumblr means that it is not a safe platform for them to rely on going forward. The confusion has only been amplified by the automated nudity-flagging system plastering its angry red banners on everything from photos of backpacks to pictures of peoples’ dogs. But the financiers at Tumblr may not see their sketchy rules or their bot’s false positives as a failure. These glitches may unfairly throw users under the bus for the sake of whatever business plan the site wants to enact now, but this whole exercise is about unjustly exiling enormous communities for business reasons.

D’Onofrio says “There is no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content”, but while that’s technically true, hand-waving this away as just the deletion of some porn willfully ignores the human cost of Tumblr’s new policies. The very values that the site’s staff claim to be upholding through banning this content: self-expression, self-discovery, and community, are what they will erode come December 17th. It’s easy when discussing nudity to think that we can cleanly sort it into categories of “pornography” and “art” but it’s never that simple. For example, Tumblr will allow nudity depicted in sculpture, and at least in some circumstances, when drawn, and it’s common that such images are accepted on any media platform because denying them would mean suffocating your platform artistically. This appears to be what Tumblr is acknowledging when saying that they will protect “art” on the service. But if sculptures depicting nakedness will be accepted on the grounds that they have artistic merit then why can’t we make the same argument for photographs featuring it? When we realise that images containing nudity can be classified as art, then it becomes clear that Tumblr’s new prohibition is one that hamstrings artists and breaks up art communities.

It’s also true that many people involved in the production of photography or film featuring nudity are in that position because it’s their means of income, whether they are pornographers, artists, or both. For these workers, the sprawling userbase, accessible tools, and social networking features of Tumblr facilitate the marketing that makes their business possible. By delivering a two-week eviction notice to those users and possibly also to the users drawing and modelling erotic art on the platform, this company is robbing people of their livelihoods. Like so many before them, Tumblr has decided that the well-being of sex workers and those labourers adjacent to them is worth destroying without even a comment. It’s a dangerous game to play when sex work is so economically precarious.

Tumblr has also famously been home to various intersecting feminist communities, and the feminist implications of these rules are grim. I get the sense that, from the outside, onlookers assume that the feminist stance on naked pictures of women is that they’re unethical because they objectify, but there’s also a lot of feminist writing criticising the labelling of women’s bodies as inherently erotic or “dirty”. Preventing women from displaying their basic physical form is, like objectification, simply another way of controlling women’s bodies, and there’s a clear double standard between how much of their body men are allowed to display publicly and how much women are allowed to display publicly. With these new guidelines, Tumblr is paradoxically applauding their support of “self-expression” while preventing people from fully displaying their physical self or anyone else’s, and they enforce a gendered double standard as part of this rule.

And then we get down to the consequences for those developing body image and sexuality. People discover their sexuality partly through viewing sexual media, and plenty of people work out how they relate to their own body by studying other peoples’ bodies. Social media often has a poisonous effect on self-image, but it can also be a means for people to view body positive pictures and discover who and what they’re attracted to. The sharing of erotic or nude imagery on such services can also serve as a way for individuals to express their sexuality and the self-image they aspire to. This is particularly important for many LGBTQ+ people who use such sandboxes to explore same-gender attraction, sex, and romance or to reinforce their self-image as a component of their trans or non-binary identity. Niche online spaces such as Tumblr blogs have been essential for many going through the process of sexual or identity discovery and expression because anonymised and close-knit communities built around the related content provide a relatively safe space to explore and express. The self-discovery D’Onofrio was talking about is contained right in this act of viewing, creating, and sharing the media that he’s about to de-platform. He talks about fostering community right as he’s laying waste to a large portion of the vibrant LGBTQ+ community under his watch.

Now, there are scenarios in which an organisation can stimulate expression and discovery in one community by limiting the freedoms of another. For example, people in vulnerable demographics are going to be more likely to use a website and more empowered when they do use it if that site can ban its far-right members, but that’s a result of imbalanced power dynamics between two groups, and you don’t lose anyone valuable when you ban fascists or white supremacists. It’s not like there’s a vulnerable community that you take the pressure off of by narrowing the experience of LGBTQ+ people or sex workers; they are the vulnerable communities, and when you remove them from your platform, you’re plunging your hand into the userbase and dragging out good people.

So why is Tumblr hitting this particular red button? It obviously doesn’t have anything to do with self-expression, inclusiveness, or any of the other ethical monuments they’ve been proudly gesturing towards. Tumblr’s potential motivation could be one or more item from a list of three things. Firstly, they recently got into hot water with users after becoming infested with porn bots. AI would seed accounts on the site and then post erotic pictures with some nasty links attached. Those links would then whisk users off to pages full of ads, malware, etc. Their pornography gave actual humans a reason to reblog the dodgy links, allowing for viral redistribution of the bots’ content with relatively little work on their masters’ part. You didn’t even have to go looking for salacious media to run into them; the bots would find and interact with users whether their blog featured NSFW images or not.

Tumblr may have been particularly sensitive to users thrusting pornography under unsuspecting customers’ noses when they had the potential to deliver it to underage audiences. It does sound like a ticking time bomb. Additionally, if advertisers ever worked out that the seemingly healthy user numbers on the site were padded out by expansive botnets, it could have damaged Tumblr’s prospects as an advertising platform. There are sundry methods to purify your site of automated accounts but if you want the cheap solution then just eradicate all the porn. That way there’s no need to try and separate the good actors from the nuisance bots.

Tumblr also had reason to stop any controversy involving children and pornography on their platform as Apple had recently removed them from the App Store after a routine audit discovered that they were hosting child pornography. Considering the seriousness of this crime, Tumblr was very lucky to avoid a media circus over it, but no one wants to be the child pornography site. The removal of all explicit photographs and videos from their databases may be their ham-fisted preventative measure to stop it from happening again. Instead of sorting the legal porn from the illegal, they throw it all on the same bonfire and hope the problem goes away. Is there any proof that a blanket ban of nudity will stop this issue cropping up again? No. Will there still be some form of explicit content on Tumblr that minors could still access? Absolutely. But it’s possible these measures reduce the rate at which these problems arise, and in business, sometimes it’s enough to look like you’re doing something. Although, if you think Tumblr’s word is worth anything, the letter from D’Onofrio claimed that the revision to the community guidelines wasn’t related to their child porn scandal.

And now we come to the final and most straightforward explanation for the deletions: A lot of advertisers don’t want their product shown next to pornography so dumping the smut could help Tumblr dip into a wider and more lucrative ad market. Oath, a subsidiary of Verizon, owns the site, and when they took over ownership of the platform, there was some relief that they didn’t immediately take an axe to the NSFW content, but the threat to such material existed in the long-term, not the short-term. Perhaps some wheels turned inside the company, and now they’ve decided it’s time to get serious about marketing, so it’s gotta go. It’s not a shock that Verizon would act this way; they’ve lined their pockets over the years by lording a control over end users and U.S. citizens that they really shouldn’t have. They’re one of a very small number of firms running the internet connection racket in America as many customers have little option but to put up with the shoddy service Verizon give them or begin the torturous process of moving to another provider who is likely to treat them just as poorly. Additionally, the company have spent tens of millions of dollars subverting democracy in their country by lobbying the government. When you realise that the people pulling the levers aren’t cute, cuddly Tumblr, but a ruthless telecommunications corporation, it all starts to make more sense.

So, a corporation has fucked over your community, means of income, or safe space. What do you do next? Is Tumblr right that people can just move on to another site with pornography on it? The answer might intuitively seem to be “yes”, but the problem is there’s not an exact equivalent for Tumblr anywhere else. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram ban nudity, and Pinterest has roughly the same rules against it that Tumblr is set to enact. DeviantArt exists but only allows users one image per post, doesn’t have the stream-like layout of Tumblr, and doesn’t let users customise their site. Wordpress and Blogger give artists a little more creative power, but their interfaces are still only so customisable, and they don’t have the strength as social media platforms that Tumblr does. There’s Twitter, but again, customisation becomes a problem, and the site tends to crop images which is anathema for many people creating visual art and entertainment. Not to mention, it’s rife with Nazis.

The reason that so many communities based around sexuality and pornography existed on Tumblr, in the first place, was because of the site’s unique robustness as a content platform, both in its tools and its welcoming policy towards the makers and consumers of nude and pornographic art. And even if disgruntled users could hop over to a Tumblr II, you can’t just ship entire communities from one site to another: people always get lost in the move, comments must be left behind, and the task of copying hundreds or thousands of posts to another social network is a logistical nightmare.

This might not even be a good thing for Tumblr. I don’t think it’s a given that they will have to shut down, but there’s a really good chance that’s what will happen. If you’re running a social media or content hosting platform, a lot of users will come and go, only checking the app a few times a year or signing up and then losing interest within the space of a few months, so you rely on your regulars. This is an absurdly competitive business, and you can easily lose customers to Facebook or Instagram or any more mainstream social network so you have to give your audience something they can’t get at those sites. When you do, you see communities of people put down roots and return to your platform reliably, and those core users become highly valuable to you. What Tumblr has done is it’s displaced a considerable number of those communities and taken away one big reason to use their site over many of the more popular alternatives. It’s possible that the owners of Tumblr ply the site with high yield adverts only to discover that no one has a reason to go there anymore and so no one sees them.

I think many of us have so ardently hoped that this is what kills Tumblr because it would create some justice. In the cyberpunk dystopia of 2018, often we can’t imagine a scenario where we win, only a situation where the corporation might make everyone a loser. The persecution of people outside the company is already a given and Tumblr would very much like you to think of its purge as removal of content and not an attack because that abstracts the process so much that it erases the people it affects. But when you delete art, you hurt artists, when you remove the products of sex work, you hurt sex workers, and when you ban LGBTQ+ content, you hurt LGBTQ+ people. This isn’t just a disposal of files; it’s a disposal of human beings. The same human beings that organisations have always considered expendable when it’s become inconvenient for them to associate with them any longer. Thanks for reading.

Further Reading
Tumblr’s adult content ban dismays some users: ‘It was a safe space’ by Vivian Ho

The “Log Off” Protest by dbdspirit

Moderator of Giant Bomb, writing about all sorts. This is a place for my experiments and side projects.