Yesterday it was announced that, beginning December 17th, Tumblr will ban all pornographic content from its platform. For anyone who knows a single thing about the site, you will know that this was not a popular decision with users of Tumblr. This policy came after the site was pulled from Apple’s App Store over child abuse images that made their way past its filters. Explaining the choice, Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onorio said that the decision was rooted in wanting to improve safety on the site, and that ‘our actions are out of love and hope for our community.’
The new community guidelines forbid ‘real-life human genitals of female-presenting nipples’. While the guidelines claim that ‘certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity are fine’, Tumblr users have taken to other social media platforms to show how their tame art, photographs and other such content that does not break said rules has been flagged as inappropriate. One image of a user’s hands was flagged, as were drawings of fully-clothed gay couples lying on a bed together. Non-explicit fan art of all kinds has been shown as adult content since the rule changes. Some have joked that to ban all adult content from Tumblr will be to decimate the site of all its content, but that’s not too far from the truth.
Tumblr became the new fandom home after LiveJournal became plagued by spam-bots and terrible business decisions. In many ways, Tumblr is a far more laborious platform to use than LJ, which was basically an online diary that could be shared in an easier way across friends’ pages. Tumblr is all about the power of the reblog, and its legendarily labyrinthine conversations made the site something of a treasure trove once you got a grasp on its ecosystem. LiveJournal was about impeccably manicured creation but Tumblr was all about the chaos, albeit with the sheen of organization.
Crucially, Tumblr became an internet home for women, for LGBTQ+ fans, for marginalized communities that craved something tangibly theirs. has as much fan-fic as LJ ever did but it is also a much better platform for the sheer visceral pleasure of visual content. The fan-art, the gifs, the video storytelling, and yes, the porn. Take a browse on Tumblr and you can find mindfully curated fetish and kink pages, LGBTQIA+ communities with sex-positive slants, safe places for women and non-binary centered BDSM, and much more. All that and none of it with a price tag attached, which was of utmost importance to marginalized individuals in tough real-life situations. As noted by Lane Moore for Cosmopolitan in 2015, ‘young women have an ethical, aesthetically pleasing, easy, free community that features feminists and queer women and cunnilingus, goddamnit, where they can explore their sexuality with the support of women […] without judgement or fear.’
When Tumblr was sold to Yahoo! for over a billion dollars in 2013, Yahoo! originally promised that the porn would remain in place. Typically for their business practices, Yahoo! then did everything in their power to run Tumblr into the ground. A 2016 article by Mashable offers a detailed timeline of how Yahoo! screwed everything up. Mass staff departures, a lack of trust in Yahoo! boss Marissa Mayer’s questionable executive decisions, and an attempt to integrate ads were seen as the source of many of their problems. Eventually, Yahoo! declared a $240 million write-down on Tumblr as it failed to meet projected profits. They couldn’t make money off the site. This is nothing new on our deep and depressing internet - ask anyone working at Twitter how their finances are - but Tumblr was supposed to be the wunderkind that merged Silicon Valley with those pesky millennials. It was Mayer’s business savvy staying ahead of the curve. They did not account for why users liked the site in the first place, or how younger users were happy to jump ship to new platforms like Snapchat. They certainly didn’t care about those who stayed behind.
In 2017, Tumblr started filtering ‘adult content’. Nate ‘Igor’ Smith, a photographer and long-time Tumblr user, wrote for BoingBoing on how this decision affected people like him:
Instead of giving you an option to mark specific content adult or not, they just marked any Tumblr account with nudity as adult and the only way you could view these Tumblrs would be to log into your Tumblr account and turn off “Safe Search”. This meant anyone without a Tumblr account, or without being logged into one, wouldn’t be able to see anything I posted. So that means sharing to Twitter was done and it meant I could no longer send people links to my work via Tumblr. It gutted me. That was the end of Tumblr for me.
As Smith also noted, the passing of the FOSTA-SESTA bills did not help Tumblr’s cause. These bills, designed to tackle online sex trafficking, now hold websites liable for any sex trafficking and child pornography that happens on their platform. These bills have major consequences for the world of sex work - and Tumblr’s rules now ban ‘prostitution’ - but it affected Tumble the most after Apple kicked them out of the App Store. Now, instead of hiring people or companies to invest in tackling illegal content, Tumblr has chosen to poison the entire ocean to catch a few fish. Putting child pornography on the same level of ban-worthy as ‘female presenting nipples’ isn’t just insulting: It’s bad business.
Their new filter has already seen basic elements of fandom flagged, but now it seems that everything has been shoved under the same umbrella. For as long as the new guidelines page is, the rules themselves are still reasonably vague and leave plenty of room to interpretation. That gives them the power to ban a user or post without having to explain why. If they consider it ‘harmful to minors’ then they’ll get rid of it, and since so much of the flagged material is stuff like LGBTQ+ content, the implications behind that are borderline monstrous.
It won’t surprise me in the slightest if Tumblr goes the way of LiveJournal or MySpace, but where else is there to go right now? The law changes make it tough for flourishing online communities to continue creating safe spaces for marginalized communities. Twitter doesn’t give a crap, Facebook is actively hurting the planet, Instagram is a well-filtered mess. Someone will make something new and people will move en masse to greener pastures, but they shouldn’t have to abandon years of work like this. The internet’s problems are well beyond Tumblr but this presents us with a fascinating and utterly disheartening microcosm of how media monopolies, political over-reach and good old-fashioned condescension for your audience will lead everyone to go the way of Geocities.
Header Image Source: Tumblr.com