Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have always had pretty stringent policies when it comes to sex, nudity and pornography. But Tumblr had always been different, proving to be more “anything goes” than “keep it clean, please” — that is, until Dec. 17, the day which Tumblr had announced would be the day it officially turns over a new leaf. As of Monday “adult content” is no longer allowed on Tumblr, a change that disproportionately harms the LGBTQ community.
Under the new Tumblr policy, here’s what is no longer allowed on the platform:
Don’t upload images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples — this includes content that is so photorealistic that it could be mistaken for featuring real-life humans (nice try, though). Certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity are fine. Don’t upload any content, including images, videos, GIFs, or illustrations, that depicts sex acts.
Going forward, “adult content” will be viewable only to a Tumblr blog’s owner, not the public.
It’s a drastic decision by the platform, which as of last year saw around 20% of clicks to the desktop site come from adult content. (The next largest category of content driving clicks was “books and literature,” driving less than 8%.)
The classification of certain posts and pages as explicit began shortly after Tumblr’s big announcement, and as could be expected, there were kinks in the process. The platform’s flagging technology was inadvertently pegging as “adult” all sorts of laughably inexplicit posts and images. At one point the below still from the show Sesame Street was pegged as explicit.
— this_isnt_explicit_tumblr (@IsntTumblr) December 4, 2018
But what led Tumblr to adopt its new adult content policy in the first place?
On Nov. 16, Tumblr was removed from Apple’s app store due to child pornography found on its pages. The platform issued a statement detailing how that happened: “Every image uploaded to Tumblr is scanned against an industry database of known child sexual abuse material, and images that are detected never reach the platform. A routine audit discovered content on our platform that had not yet been included in the industry database.”
Less than three weeks later, Tumblr announced its new adult content policy, though the platform claims the recent discovery of child porn shouldn’t be conflated with its new “no adult content” policy. Tumblr says it simply wants “a better Tumblr.”
But others have pointed out Verizon’s acquisition of Tumblr owner Yahoo, completed two years ago, and the fact that a sterilized version of Tumblr will have a much easier go at finding advertisers. Corresponding with that sale of Yahoo, Tumblr has been more actively policing its content, though heretofore it had been hate speech and revenge porn in the line of fire. As one researcher and professor who studies adult content on Tumblr told Quartz, “This is clearly a profit-based decision [referring to Tumblr’s new adult content policy], as it is difficult to sell intermittently NSFW feeds to advertisers.”
And then there’s FOSTA-SESTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in March. The acts have quite literally changed how the internet works, in that a web platform (Tumblr, Reddit, Craigslist, Patreon, for example) can now be held criminally and civilly liable for the illegal actions of its users. FOSTA-SESTA singlehandedly led to the closure of Craigslist’s personals section and Patreon’s crackdown on users featuring adult content on its crowdsourcing platform.
All of these business decisions and legal advancements have contributed to the new Tumblr policy of “no adult content” in some way.
The LGBTQ community just lost an online home
While it cannot be challenged that the World Wide Web as a whole has acted as a “safe space” for the LGBTQ community — which still faces discrimination, torture and death in many parts of the world — it’s also the case that as a platform, Tumblr has been particularly popular among queer youth. A 2016 study found that 64% of LGBTQ people aged 16–35 use Tumblr, a high percentage when compared to straight and cisgender groups.
The reasons for Tumblr’s popularity among LGBTQ communities are many.
That same 2016 study found that many LGBTQ youth felt they were able to safely explore non-mainstream sexual and gender identities on Tumblr. These young people regularly encountered art, mental support and others’ documented experiences, and they made social connections on Tumblr.
Among the individuals the study spoke to, many remarked that Tumblr was where they learned their way of identifying existed in the first place (“I actually learnt about agender and all the other genders from Tumblr”; “I would’ve never realised my real gender or sexual orientation without tumblr”), and that Tumblr is also where they ‘came out’ as their preferred identity (“I came out as Pan on Tumblr a few years ago”).
Due to what one academic article calls the “default publicness” of user experiences on platforms like Facebook, queer people of color have been shown to prefer Tumblr “to express intimate feelings and personal politics.” Another study completed last year reports that queer women specifically encounter less discrimination on Tumblr than on other social media platforms.
The Advocate last week spoke to two gay trans men about how Tumblr had been not only a venue for expressing their sexual and gender identities but to learn about them as well. They speak about connecting to other trans men who documented their transitions before they undertook their own transitions; how Tumblr was one of the very first platforms to house content by and for trans men; how resources for trans men and the broader trans community were regularly posted to the platform; and, yes, how the amount of pornography featuring trans men was plentiful as well.
But as of today, all this is changing.
Tumblr has changed. Now what?
Tumblr’s new policy concerning adult content means many people are losing their primary source for porn. On the day the new policy was announced, Tumblr’s statement read, “There’s no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them ….”
But more importantly — and here’s what Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio, who wrote that statement, doesn’t seem to understand — LGBTQ people (particularly young queer people and queer people of color) are losing a platform that for many years had been a judgment-free, sex-positive, gender and sexual identity-affirming community. And that’s so much more than porn.
So where will these LGBTQ communities go now? Is there another platform currently in existence that could welcome them even if it wanted to?
For those who had blogs on Tumblr, many scrambled to backup their self-created and/or highly curated work before the Dec. 17 deadline. And many have successfully migrated to new blogs on platforms like Timbr and Partiko. But both of those platforms lack any semblance of the progressive community found on Tumblr. Even Twitter and Reddit — platforms with considerably less strict policies on adult content — are said to be lacking the sense of community LGBTQ individuals relished in Tumblr.
What’s most likely is that an altogether new platform with lenient content policies will emerge in the near future, filling the hole left by Tumblr’s departure from the adult content space. And while it’s likely that these new platforms will attempt to lure the LGBTQ community into the fold, whether it’s even possible to recreate the validating, supportive atmosphere Tumblr once offered is yet to be seen.