Tumblr and the Internet’s identity crisis

In recent days, the social media platform Tumblr announced that come Dec. 17, it would ban all adult content from its pages.

“We’ve realized that in order to continue to fulfill our promise and place in culture, especially as it evolves, we must change,” CEO Jeff D’Onofrio posted in a statement.

The definition of what would count as “adult content” on Tumblr was fleshed out in the site’s Help Center: “Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.”

Tumblr’s reasoning for the move is manifold. It certainly has something to do with Tumblr’s recent removal from the Apple App Store following the reported discovery of child pornography that slipped through the site’s filters.


And it certainly has something to do with parent company Oath’s skittishness over such discoveries, especially in light of recently passed anti-sex-trafficking legislation measures like FOSTA and SESTA, which hold website publishers responsible for third parties posting ads for sex work. It’s the same law that doomed the adult classifieds on Craigslist, and inspired the inevitable creation of decentralized offshoots like Switter — which operate out of countries where sex work is legal and aren’t subject to US law online.

But take Tumblr at its corporate word and the move was simply born of a desire for “a better, more positive Tumblr.”

“We spent considerable time weighing the pros and cons of expression in the community that includes adult content,” wrote D’Onofrio. “In doing so, it became clear that without this content we have the opportunity to create a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves.”

A 2016 study of 130 million Tumblr users (about half of its total base of active users) estimated that nearly a quarter of the platform’s users were there to consume and share adult content. It also found that only .1 percent of Tumblr’s users were responsible for generating that adult content. Meanwhile, and likely of most concern to Tumblr higher-ups, a full 28 percent reported unintentional exposure to porn on the platform.


Of course, what Tumblr now sees as an opportunity to reinvent itself strikes a swath of its longtime users as a deep betrayal.

Since its launch in 2007, Tumblr swiftly asserted itself as a niche for niche, a lab for the Internet’s most bottomless inside jokes, a habitat for its wokest denizens, and a digital fringe where fringe communities could find each other, assemble, and post all of the sexual fantasies about Tony the Tiger (just an example) they pleased.

The site’s accommodation of a wide range of media types, its customizable design capabilities, its air of anonymity (largely unpolluted by celebrities or pundits), and yes, the anything-can-happen aesthetic of the place, made Tumblr a hotbed of free-thinkers, fan communities, artists, assorted weirdos, and importantly, LGBTQ users seeking safer social media space.

“It’s a setback not only to the many sex workers, kink fans and artists who populate the site but also to the Tumblr ethos itself, which drew in so many queer people and made us feel at home, especially those of us in remote parts of the country without an immediate community to connect to,” wrote Tumblr user John Paul Brammer in an opinion piece for the Washington Post, lamenting the “lazy” solution as a “death knell” for this site. “It’s not that this content can’t be found elsewhere,” Brammer writes. “It’s just that you probably won’t find it sandwiched between a “Queer Eye” meme and a character analysis of “Wonder Woman” anywhere else on the Web.”


“Something about Tumblr—perhaps the sense of camaraderie I’d developed with mutual followers, or the way I’d carefully curated and filtered my feed—made me feel secure,” wrote Sam Manzella in another preemptive Tumblr eulogy (which is becoming its own microgenre). “It was the first digital community that made me feel like being queer could be an asset as a writer and creative, not a part of my life I had to shroud in secrecy or keep offline.”

In making the change, Tumblr also made clear that its new policy would allow for limited exceptions, meaning “written content such as erotica, nudity related to political or newsworthy speech, and nudity found in art, such as sculptures and illustrations” would be permitted, as well as “nipples in connection with breastfeeding, birth or after-birth moments, and health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery.” 

But delegating much of this early moderation work to the overzealous eyes of artificial intelligence resulted in everything from aggressively tame 19th-century portraiture to imagery from a Werther’s Original ad to its own policy change statement getting flagged by the new system as potentially explicit.

This mess of accidental automated overreach signaled a blend of incompetence and panic that further served to alienate Tumblr faithfuls, many of whom have found themselves pushed out of the place they once called home.


Upstart sites like Pillowfort (which seems to have crashed under the weight of fresh demand) and clearly-labeled alternatives like Pornhub (which previously has offered itself as a haven for Second Amendment types themselves digitally disenfranchised by YouTube bans) have welcomed the Tumblr exodus.

“You can use Pornhub for anything,” the site reassured potential users on Twitter, “In addition to video and photo, we have text posts your subscribers will get in their feeds.” It may just be a little harder to avoid the porn . . . on Pornhub.

It remains to be seen what Tumblr’s permanent shift into Safe Mode will do to its number of users, as well as to the thousands of communities that made it a destination in the first place. But what’s clear is a shifting sensibility on the Internet, one that stands to quash the freedom it was built to explore in the first place.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.