Tumblr’s newly-announced ban on adult content — which takes effect on December 17 — should be a reminder of an internet truism: You cannot trust corporations to protect self-expression. When Yahoo! acquired Tumblr in 2013 for $1.1 billion, the blogging platform’s relatively ‘anything goes’ atmosphere was already threatened. Adult content on Tumblr proliferated for another 5 years mainly because Yahoo! just wasn’t very good at managing the social network.
Tumblr is now ensconced as a relatively unimportant part of the Verizon Media Group — the equivalent of the Mos Eisley Cantina being under the same management as the Death Star. For all the language in the statement from Tumblr’s CEO, Jeff D’Onofrio, about being “a safe place for creative expression”, this is about creating a safe place for advertisers. They don’t want their commercial messages in the same feed as fisting. That’s the… um… bottom line.
Like Facebook and Instagram before it, Tumblr is also propagating a double standard wherein exposed “female-presenting nipples” are immediately classed as sexual while male nipples are not. And by using an automated system for flagging ‘adult’ material, numerous embarrassing examples of false positives have popped up within hours of the change being announced — geometric shapes misidentified as nipples, an illustration of a witch swimming underwater classified as unacceptable filth.
Tumblr isn’t banning “exposed female-presenting nipples in connection with breastfeeding, birth or after-birth moments, and health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery,” but as we’ve seen time and again with Facebook, this kind of content will certainly keep getting caught in the net of its puritan algorithms. Similarly, while nudity — though not sex acts — will still be allowed in artwork, creators are unlikely to feel confident that they can rely on Tumblr as the place to showcase their work.
I find it hard to be shocked that Tumblr has made this change. The apparent freedom of the internet was built on self-hosted webpages and a freewheeling blogging culture. As so many of us have been shepherded into walled enclosures like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram, we have given up that freedom. The platform owners can change the rules whenever they like and the only recourse you have is to leave. But when you’ve built a community and made friends and connections, that’s easier said than done.
Tumblr’s founders built a platform where blogging was quick and easy, with images and GIFs at its heart. Its speed and the native ‘reblogging’ feature — which allowed people to easily share posts while maintaining credit — made it the fertile ground for fandoms and LBGTQ communities. But Tumblr sold those wild spaces to Yahoo! and it, in turn, offloaded them to Verizon.
One former Tumblr executive described being acquired by Yahoo! as “like a bunch of cool teenagers hanging out with your grandpa.” The trouble is, when grandpa owns the house, grandpa sets the rules.