Tumblr's porn ban abandons the marginalised

Dave Lee
North America technology reporter

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Communities on Tumblr were developed around specific tastes

Tumblr has a major porn problem - bots, spam and, most seriously, images of child abuse.

Tumblr has decided to give up, rather than do as other sites have done and invest in measures to handle illegal content, while allowing sexual expression.

“There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content,” said Jeff D’Onofrio, the site’s chief executive, in explaining the decision.

He’s right, of course. There’s a lot of porn out there. But Tumblr has long offered something different, and important.

Founded 11 years ago, Tumblr is a platform where users can publish text, images and videos quickly, as well as share and comment on other submissions. The site’s popularity peaked in 2014. Yet as its use dwindled, its reputation as an alternative corner of the internet grew, not least as a place to find unique adult material.

Unlike typical pornography sites, which overwhelmingly cater to men, and serve an often narrow definition of what is attractive, Tumblr has been a home for something else - content tailored at vibrant LGBT communities, or for those with tastes you might not necessarily share with all your friends.

If society deems it acceptable for any porn to be on the internet, then that acceptance must surely be inclusive. Unlike most of those other sites Mr D’Onofrio speaks of, Tumblr has been a space where different body types are sexually celebrated, not degraded.

'I had feared this day would come'

In 2015, Cosmopolitan described Tumblr as a place where women "can explore their sexuality with the support of women without judgement or fear”.

It argued that Tumblr's design seemed to cater to different physical need: offering a slow, building stream of visual and emotional content - rather than the instant video gratification of sites designed with hurried male audiences in mind, fast-forward button and all.

Many on Tumblr have been fearing a porn ban since the network was acquired by fading web giant Yahoo in 2013. That time, the adult content was allowed to remain. But in 2017, when Yahoo was acquired by Oath, the digital arm of telecoms giant Verizon, the writing was on the wall.

"I had feared this day would come,” wrote one user, who runs a fetish account, in response to the chief executive’s message on Monday.

"I’m so sad to see this happen, and can’t believe I’ll be losing this blog. I honestly don’t know what I’ll do without it, but I truly hope that the kinky community comes up with a new place for us all to get together and share.”

When the new guidelines come into effect they will prohibit any depiction of human genitalia, “female-presenting nipples” or sex acts - including illustrations. There will be exceptions for classical artistic works and political protests that involve nudity, but the company warned enforcement might be inconsistent. Users are able to export their posts if they wish to leave the platform.

"We’ve given serious thought to who we want to be to our community moving forward,” Mr D’Onofrio said. “We’ve realised that in order to continue to fulfil our promise and place in culture, especially as it evolves, we must change.”

That change means marginalised people, those who are all-too-used to being ostracised in their offline lives, now face it in their online space too. Some of the internet’s most-needed communities are now homeless.


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