The “Flaming Dumpster Fire” of the Internet
How Tumblr’s Porn Ban is Still Impacting Users
Tumblr has a problem and it’s got porn written all over it.
On December 3, 2018, Tumblr staff made the decision to create “a better, more positive Tumblr” by banning all adult content on the platform starting on December 17, 2018. The announcement was made after Tumblr’s app was taken off Apple’s App Store in the wake of the discovery of child pornography on the platform. After taking down the reported images, attempting to fix their content filters, and announcing the adult content ban, Tumblr was restored to the App Store.
The ban was not without backlash, though, as thousands of users flocked to the notes to express their sentiments. Even into February, users like sh4d0wy1 have still been expressing their discontent, asking, “What happened to ‘wide open creative self- expression’?”
This view represents a wider critique among users of the apparent crackdown on freedom of expression. rsraptor commented on the exodus of Tumblr users before and after the ban and boldly claimed, “Oh hey look tumblr more than half of your artists and community just disappeared.” Though this statement is unverifiable, as the exact number of users that have left Tumblr since the ban is unknown, personal statements from users that have left are common, and Tumblr itself has seen a massive drop in visits.
Another Tumblr user, thrashturbate, has been documenting Tumblr’s dropping site visits since July 2018, which supposedly stand at over 205 million lost visits. According to data from SimilarWeb, a web analytics site, visits to Tumblr have further dropped from 521 million in December 2018 to 369.5 million in February 2019.
Despite the outcry from many users, including the tag “#tumblrisdead” on Twitter, the ban went ahead, along with Tumblr’s final response to the issue. They clarified that adult content would not be deleted and that certain “not safe for work” (NSFW) content would be allowed, including “written content such as erotica, nudity related to political or newsworthy speech, and nudity found in art, specifically sculptures and illustrations.”
However, Tumblr continued to inspire backlash, particularly with the following statement:
“Although, photorealistic imagery or photography — images, videos, or GIFs — with real humans that include exposed genitals or female-presenting (yeah, we know you hate this term) nipples or depict sex acts is not allowed per our guidelines.”
That little parenthetical aside sparked a whole new sea of controversy, where users claimed that breasts are “secondary sex characteristics” and to ban them is “sexist.” This was also especially aggravating for users considering that Tumblr’s new flagging system just didn’t work. Art that was “safe for work” (SFW) was getting flagged left and right, and users began the great exodus to Twitter, Pillowfort, and other sites in an attempt to preserve their followings and keep their actual NSFW art alive. Much of that art is fandom-related, including THED0GFXCKS and MoonsCreature, who both create shipping fanart for Gotham. Some artists, though, create more general NSFW art, like hentai artist kittyodic or furry artist niceupdog.
Now, the ban has been in place for over two months. Where does Tumblr stand?
Speaking to Actual Tumblr Users for Once
Conversations among current Tumblr users reveal the discontent with how changes on the platform have been implemented before and after the adult content ban. One user, who I’ll refer to as Q, was largely indifferent to the ban:
“I thought it was really funny ’cause they keep announcing that they’re gonna change things and then things don’t change. I’ve been on this website for seven godforsaken years and the staff doesn’t do anything well.”
Another user named Wilson, known as jackmorrisson on Tumblr, laughed in the face of it. “I thought it was funny but bizarre. I was like, ‘Why would they do that?’” they said.
But as the ban was implemented, Wilson became much more furious:
“I think it’s a bad move. I think it’s a really, really bad move, especially for porn artists. I was gonna get a furry porn blog going, but not on Tumblr! Not anymore! It would immediately be flagged.”
Tumblr’s track record for change isn’t exactly smooth in the eyes of its users. Recently, Tumblr implemented a “facelift” to make the site more accessible for those with visual impairments by “upping the color contrast in [their] UI, most notably on the dashboard and everywhere else that familiar blue touches.”
But yet again, Tumblr was hit with a wave of criticism. Users largely respected the staff’s decision to make the platform more accessible, but in doing so, they created visuals that, according to Twitter user sh0rtysquadperi, “may cause eye strain” and “may reach the point that [users] can’t look at it at all.” Making the new visuals optional seemed like the way to go, but Tumblr hasn’t responded to the new critiques.
Public opinion of Tumblr staff on the platform isn’t great, either. When asked what they thought of the staff, Wilson immediately declared:
“Bad content. Stupid. Implement some good stuff. Like, oh, I don’t know, getting rid of the porn bots? The spam bots? I think staff is just stupid. I see their posts and I’m like, ‘Booooo!’”
Q thinks the way Tumblr staff interacts with the community is “hilarious.” And Sara, or catbot158, came from a PR perspective:
“They’re trying to be as blasé about [the ban] as possible and separate from it, kind of focus on things they actually want for their site. Which the problem is, they don’t address the issues that are actually relevant among the Tumblr community. And then they’re like, ‘Why are people against us? Why are people leaving?’ ’Cause you don’t do what we need you to do. You just focus on building this brand and you don’t do anything else.”
The ban itself doesn’t seem to have had the effect Tumblr wanted, either. According to Fast Company, porn creators and bots still run rampant on the site “with names like Eclectic Porn, Beautiful Women, Deep N My Queen, Dark Pizza Student, and ¡¡Pero que Chicotas!!.” In my perusal of Tumblr, I found a significant number of porn blogs lurking around — most of which were following my own personal, completely SFW blog.
Sara has the same problem. “A lot of my followers are porn bots,” she said. “They disguise themselves very well, but once you click on their blogs, it’s still the same crap.”
Q themselves doesn’t follow NSFW content creators, but they’ve found that even relatively SFW tags are still saturated with porn:
“The main parts of Tumblr where you find pornography is in the tags and it’s still there. I’ll look up something perfectly normal and not pornography-related, and it’ll be like, ‘Check out this porn site! Click on me!’”
Sara found the same was true in her own perusals of tags:
“When I was looking through Tumblr, I came across a Tumblr bot. And then another. And then another. And I was like, ‘You didn’t solve the problem.’ They’re still here. You’ve failed. This whole initiative failed.”
Tumblr’s staff have continued their policy of unresponsiveness to the bot complaints as well, according to Q:
“The only time I’ve ever interacted with the staff of Tumblr is when a porn bot attached itself to one of my pieces of artwork and reblogged it. I was like, ‘Hey, can you take this down?’ And then they didn’t. But I wasn’t really expecting them to.”
It seems that Tumblr has tarnished whatever reputation they used to have. But what did users think about them before all of this — the ban, the backlash, the exodus — actually happened?
Tumblr Wasn’t Always So Divisive… or Discourse-y
Tumblr used to be a well-liked website among its user base. Wilson met their current girlfriend on the platform. Even though Tumblr is, as Wilson put it, a “flaming dumpster fire,” “people will still stay because it’s been such a great platform.”
Tumblr is one of the few social media sites that Sara still frequents. “It’s a good platform, especially for what my type of aesthetic and what I look for in creativity is,” she said. “It’s just too addictive.”
But other users aren’t as happy. Q thinks Tumblr’s community is too toxic:
“There’s so much discourse. You can’t go ten posts without somebody complaining about something. If you like something, chances are there’s someone out there who hates it and wants you to hate it too for completely arbitrary reasons.”
Sara, on the other hand, blames Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr in 2013 for the changes the platform has undergone. Tumblr used to be “much more open” to Sara, as she said, “It was more, ‘This is how things are and we’ll help you.’ It was a free reign kind of thing. Users were able to enforce their own rules.”
Tumblr users who continue to create NSFW content have tried to keep that control by resorting to an old form of Internet tagging: the “citrus scale.” Created in the mid-80s by the anime fandom, each of the terms on the scale — “lemon,” “lime,” “lemonade,” “citrus,” and “orange” — describes a different level of erotic content. Generally, “citrus” and “orange” refer to light romantic interactions, while “lime” and “lemon” can refer to actual sex scenes. It was adopted by most other fandoms by the early 2000s, but it largely fell out of style once Archive of Our Own’s clearer rating system was implemented.
But now, in 2019, Tumblr users are bringing it back. The tag “lemon” was trending just a few short weeks ago, and one dip into the tag will reveal where exactly all the porn went on Tumblr. Some of it is hidden by Tumblr’s flagging system, yes, but users have found a loophole. Whether Tumblr staff is aware of that is another question entirely.
Though some of the porn has survived, the ban has actually been largely effective in purging most of the user-created content. Sara, who used to use Tumblr as a way to safely explore her personal kinks, isn’t able to find that content anymore:
“I managed to find a couple blogs that still managed to hold on towards the end. They recommended some places that you could go and check it out. But so far I haven’t really found anything that’s the equivalent of what I was looking for.”
Sounds like Tumblr banned what they intended to. But that came at a cost for Sara:
“I’ve been very reluctant to actually venture into PornHub and such because I don’t really have a firewall right now, so I don’t know what to do without that. I’ve been looking for alternatives, but I haven’t been successful.”
The question becomes, then, if Tumblr will take charge of the growing issues and attempt to fix them — for everyone. In an ideal world, adult content creators and SFW content creators could live in harmony while being supported by the platform in equal measure. Tumblr’s staff would be open to critique, and they would try to meet the demands of their user base to make their site more friendly to those who actually use it. Child pornography and other illegal activity would be banned from the site entirely, and moderators or automated flagging systems would, well, actually work.
But for now, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. Sara predicted that the only solution now is a new platform:
“Ultimately, I think [Tumblr] is going to end up the same way as MySpace, where a new site will appear and that will take its place. I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but eventually, it’ll trickle out into obscurity. You never know! Yahoo might just pull a Vine and completely shut it down out of nowhere.”
But Q had more of a doomsday prediction. When asked where they thought Tumblr would go moving forward, they only had this to say:
“It’s a long downhill slide. We’re just in the middle of it.”