Tumblr porn ban raises questions on art, sexuality

Article by Natasha Gillezeau /
The Australian /
December 11, 2018 /
Original unavailable /

Social media A clamp on adult content has brought a backlash.

When social media and blogging website Tumblr announced at the start of December that it planned to permanently ban adult content and nudity from next week, it was a shock to millions … and not just because they had forgotten the site existed.

The Verizon-owned online platform, which has been around since 2007, still has a large, active and vocal user base, including numerous Australian artists, who are now wondering where they can showcase their work to an increasingly prudish online world.

In a blog post Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio reasoned that there were plenty of places online to look at adult content, and that he was working on “creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community”.

However, for many in that community, it represented the arrival of the more button-down, staid online world they had feared since Tumblr was acquired by fallen online giant Yahoo for $US1.1 billion in 2013.

For Tumblr users the changes will decimate its unique culture and differentiated market advantage, aping the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in their somewhat puritanical suppression of creative expression and sexual exploration.

Beyond the Instagram-style blogs on fitness and fashion, Tumblr has become a broad church with “sexual content” ranging from typical porn sites such as Pornhub, to professional artists, who have found their aesthetic increasingly unwelcome on other social platforms.

“They’re shooting themselves in the foot,” says Patrice Helene, 25, who joined Tumblr as a user and blogger at 17.

Helene says fellow bloggers are talking about leaving the platform. “I think it’s very backwards. It’s 2018 and we all know the difference between what’s OK and what’s not in regards to sexuality.”

In October, Tumblr had 558 million monthly global users, with 66 per cent of all visitors under the age of 35 and 39 per cent under 25.

It is rolling the dice in trying to go more mainstream having seen other platforms bleed users due to unpopular changes.

SnapChat learned this the hard way following layout changes in January, with mounting losses and slowing growth contributing to Snap Inc’s stock falling more than 50 per cent from its IPO price in March 2017.

Tumblr’s community guidelines were updated on December 6 to warn that a broad spectrum of material would be banned, including all photos and videos of “fully nude buttocks” and “female nipples”, except breastfeeding or post-mastectomy scarring.

Helene says that while illegal content such as child porn or adult content shared without consent should be policed, this new policy was out of touch with what users wanted and expected.

“I feel like there is a lot of talking ‘at’ and not a lot of talking ‘with’ when it comes to sexuality on social media,” she says.

Clare Smylie, 21, says the crackdown on nudity would give people fewer options for honest sex education.

“As a girl who struggled with her sexuality, Tumblr was a safe haven to explore and gain a greater understanding,” she says. “What they should be censoring is the incredibly explicit content of pro self-harmers. That is the true danger of Tumblr. Tumblr was the reason I began cutting.”

Between May 2011 and October 2018, the cumulative number of Tumblr posts surpassed 165.5 billion posts, including some pro self-harm, pro anorexia and other violent content.

“Brand safety” is a key concern for the monetisation of any social media platform. In 2016, YouTube suffered a major brand safety crisis after ads were inadvertently placed next to inappropriate content.

Tumblr’s “edgy” content is a predicament for monetisation. The platform has struggled to sell ads to brands increasingly obsessed with aligning to “safe” content.

On October 15, Facebook also quietly changed its content moderation policies. Content that engages in “explicit or implicit sexual solicitation” including “following, offering, or asking for: sex or sexual partners; sex chat or conversations; nude images” is now forbidden. This policy applies to public posts and private conversations in Facebook Messenger.

Instagram has a long-standing no nudity policy that has been criticised for applying to “female” nipples but not “male” nipples, but has been justified in terms of keeping the platform suitable for younger users.

The minimum sign-up age for Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram is 13.

Professional sex educator Georgia Grace says Tumblr’s new guidelines are positive given real concerns about the effects of hardcore porn that fails to convey the “intimate” side of sex.

But Grace says the ease with which Tumblr can control what users can and can’t see without consulting all various stakeholders was troubling.

“My other perspective is that this is really a form of social control. Tumblr has so many resources and safe spaces that support kink groups or queer communities. It’s been a place where really diverse sex ed and body-positive images are shared in a supportive way. And schools don’t teach this,” she says.

Lauren Rosewarne, a social and political sciences lecturer at the University of Melbourne, has been tracking debates around sexuality and the internet for over a decade. She says commercial pressures are increasingly driving content moderation.

“Users treat sites like Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram like they’re public space. So we get very angry when even things such as the display changes in the user interface,” she says.

Content moderation is an expensive, difficult process that no social media company has perfected. Banned content is flagged by automated algorithms and some human moderators.

“Tumblr have done this because, like a number of platforms, they don’t really want to be in this business of trying to create a foolproof filter,” Rosewarne says.

“They’re using child pornography to say ‘we can’t distinguish with bots or algorithms between child or adult pornography, so we’d rather have no adult content – anything that even seems vaguely sexual, we just don’t allow’.”

Tumblr says it is committed to keeping its sex-positive communities alive, but given the cost of adjudicating between legal and illegal content, its broad-sweeping content change suggests the eradication of some of its unique cultures is the price it has decided to pay for advertisers.