This week, the CEO of Tumblr Jeff D’Ontorio announced that the site will no longer allow adult content to be published, in a move which has angered many users.
Under new community guidelines, due to be brought into effect on the 17th of December, images of genitalia, content depicting sex acts and pictures of so-called ‘female-presenting nipples’, will all be prohibited. These guidelines do not just apply to photographs – anything deemed ‘photorealistic’ will also be banned on the site.
This move comes two weeks after Apple removed the Tumblr app from the app store because the blogging platform’s automated systems had failed to detect and remove child pornography.
Although the motivation for the changes is perhaps well-intentioned, the reality is that such a move will harm marginalised groups who for years have used the platform to build community spaces.
I was thirteen when I first logged onto Tumblr. I had heard that it was a space to find LGBTQ+ content and, as a young person still figuring out her sexuality, it was a lifeline. Here, I was able to take my first tentative steps into the LGBTQ+ community in a safe environment, protected by my online anonymity. I was able to access a wealth of content – from educational resources I so desperately needed, to people’s personal experiences. Older members of my community acted as role models and mentors to me as I began to come out in my real life. I even my first girlfriend through a Lesbian Tumblr blog.
Put simply, Tumblr was an instrumental part of my development as a young queer person, a supportive place to go, especially when my coming out resulted in my becoming ostracised by people in real life.
Tumblr itself appears to recognise these issues this ban could have on communities, with D’Ontario stating in a company blog post that “We recognize Tumblr is also a place to speak freely about topics like art, sex positivity, your relationships, your sexuality, and your personal journey. We want to make sure that we continue to foster this type of diversity of expression in the community, so our new policy strives to strike a balance”. Whilst these words seem reassuring, given the changes will fundamentally restructure the site, it is impossible that Tumblr can remain a place where people are able to ‘speak freely’, especially where sex and sexuality are concerned.
One of the driving forces behind the change is that Tumblr’s automatic system failed to recognise and remove abhorrent and illegal content such as child pornography. Although Tumblr could have invested its infrastructure as other companies have done to prevent this kind of content making its way onto the site, it has chosen to ban outright anything potentially explicit, in a move which many envisage will trigger the eventual demise of the platform.
D’Ontario elaborates that “There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content” and whilst true, this statement shows a real failure to acknowledge that what Tumblr offered was unique. Tumblr allowed those outside of what would be considered the norm the to have a space to watch, talk and be open about sex in a way that mainstream pornography sites and culture have never done and will never be able to offer. Tumblr also offered a platform for sex workers, many of whom are concerned about a loss of audience and revenue.
The fact that Tumblr is able to determine what is and is not explicit raises alarm bells, especially for those of us within the LGBTQ+ community. Whilst not all LGBTQ+ blogs are inherently NSFW, under similar rule-changes in 2013, tags such as ‘lgbt’ and ‘gay’ became unsearchable within the app. Additionally, the issue of LGBTQ+ content being erroneously deemed adult is not an issue limited just to Tumblr, with other social media sites such as YouTube bringing in policies which directly harm LGBTQ+ content creators.
When the CEO of Tumblr states that “We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community”, the question must also be asked to whom is the site to be welcoming? Large swathes of LGBTQ+ folks, sex workers and fat activists in particular are to be effectively forced off the site after years of community building. The very people to whom Tumblr owes its success as a platform are being disregarded in a move which is so demonstrably antithetical to its founding belief that anyone should be able to publish online content.
Regardless of whether attempts to ban ‘adult content’ are successful, the message is clear - even spaces which historically allowed marginalised people to exist are no longer safe for us.
Editor’s note: HuffPost and Tumblr share a parent company, Oath Inc, which is a subsidiary of Verizon