Starting on December 17, the social media site Tumblr will implement new rules to block adult content. But defining obscenity hasn’t gotten any easier . . . and this was one of the most nudity- and pornography-tolerant social networks out there. This odd choice will spectacularly destroy Tumblr, and reveal once again how platforms always fail at content regulation.
Since it began, Tumblr has had a reputation for permissive content policies. And because of its design, Tumblr makes it easier for people to reblog and spread viral content rapidly and broadly. The resulting social media ecosystem made for a freewheeling and vibrant site with an active, youthful base of engaged users. Everything from 50 Shades of Grey critiques to compilations of odd sex practices could find an audience there.
Tumblr’s corporate history has now collided with this culture. Yahoo bought Tumblr; then Verizon bought Yahoo and combined it with AOL in a huge content collection called Oath. Oath is pretty-much PG; Tumblr stood out. Now it’s as if Utah has annexed Las Vegas and is subjecting it to Mormon morals.
Much of the Tumblr user base is up in arms, and I think many of them will leave. Tumblr will never be the same.
Here’s an excerpt from what Tumblr’s management posted on its staff blog, with my commentary:
Since its founding in 2007, Tumblr has always been a place for wide open, creative self-expression at the heart of community and culture. To borrow from our founder David Karp, we’re proud to have inspired a generation of artists, writers, creators, curators, and crusaders to redefine our culture and to help empower individuality.
Commentary: A great example of burying the lede. No one cares about Tumblr’s self congratulation about what it did in the past. This back-patting accomplishes nothing but making its members madder.
Over the past several months, and inspired by our storied past, we’ve given serious thought to who we want to be to our community moving forward and have been hard at work laying the foundation for a better Tumblr. We’ve realized that in order to continue to fulfill our promise and place in culture, especially as it evolves, we must change. Some of that change began with fostering more constructive dialogue among our community members. Today, we’re taking another step by no longer allowing adult content, including explicit sexual content and nudity (with some exceptions).
Commentary: Tumblr’s management has defined “more constructive dialogue” as “no adult content.” These two things are not the same, and the relationship between them is far from obvious.
Let’s first be unequivocal about something that should not be confused with today’s policy change: posting anything that is harmful to minors, including child pornography, is abhorrent and has no place in our community. We’ve always had and always will have a zero tolerance policy for this type of content. To this end, we continuously invest in the enforcement of this policy, including industry-standard machine monitoring, a growing team of human moderators, and user tools that make it easy to report abuse. We also closely partner with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Internet Watch Foundation, two invaluable organizations at the forefront of protecting our children from abuse, and through these partnerships we report violations of this policy to law enforcement authorities. We can never prevent all bad actors from attempting to abuse our platform, but we make it our highest priority to keep the community as safe as possible.
Commentary: I don’t think anyone confused Tumblr’s original policy with tolerance for child porn. This paragraph is a self-serving distraction.
So what is changing?
Posts that contain adult content will no longer be allowed on Tumblr, and we’ve updated our Community Guidelines to reflect this policy change. We recognize Tumblr is also a place to speak freely about topics like art, sex positivity, your relationships, your sexuality, and your personal journey. We want to make sure that we continue to foster this type of diversity of expression in the community, so our new policy strives to strike a balance.
Commentary: “[W]ill no longer be allowed” is passive voice. The active version of this would be “We are prohibiting adult content,” but that would draw more attention to Tumblr’s management. Oddly, Tumblr has now decided that you can write about any kind of sex any way you want (except child porn and hate speech, of course), but you can’t show a picture of it. Couching this decision in terms of ways to speak freely and supporting diversity is hypocritical.
Why are we doing this?
It is our continued, humble aspiration that Tumblr be a safe place for creative expression, self-discovery, and a deep sense of community. As Tumblr continues to grow and evolve, and our understanding of our impact on our world becomes clearer, we have a responsibility to consider that impact across different age groups, demographics, cultures, and mindsets. We spent considerable time weighing the pros and cons of expression in the community that includes adult content. 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.
Bottom line: There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.
Commentary: Many of the adult sites that Tumblr’s management refers to are porn sites. Tumblr tolerated pornography, but because of how it was designed, the site encouraged dialogue with an explicit edge. This will now end. Speech rules that prohibits adult images will indeed make some people more comfortable — but those people are already on Facebook or AOL. It won’t make the teenager coming out as trans, or the S&M enthusiast, more comfortable, and it won’t challenge anyone else to experiences their viewpoints. Tumblr was unique in that it supported more explicit content without becoming a cesspool. That will now go away.
So what’s next?
Starting December 17, 2018, we will begin enforcing this new policy. Community members with content that is no longer permitted on Tumblr will get a heads up from us in advance and steps they can take to appeal or preserve their content outside the community if they so choose. All changes won’t happen overnight as something of this complexity takes time.
Another thing, filtering this type of content versus say, a political protest with nudity or the statue of David, is not simple at scale. We’re relying on automated tools to identify adult content and humans to help train and keep our systems in check. We know there will be mistakes, but we’ve done our best to create and enforce a policy that acknowledges the breadth of expression we see in the community.
Commentary: This will fail. Clever humans will outsmart the machines and overwhelm the moderators. Just watch.
Most importantly, we’re going to be as transparent as possible with you about the decisions we’re making and resources available to you, including more detailed information, product enhancements, and more content moderators to interface directly with the community and content.
Like you, we love Tumblr and what it’s come to mean for millions of people around the world. Our actions are out of love and hope for our community. We won’t always get this right, especially in the beginning, but we are determined to make your experience a positive one.
Commentary: When corporate bullshit matches up with smart young people on social media — well, let’s just say bullshit is the underdog.
Tumblr’s definition of adult content is pretty funny
Here’s the description that Tumblr provides for adult content.
What is “adult content?”
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.
What is still permitted?
Examples of exceptions that are still permitted are exposed female-presenting nipples in connection with breastfeeding, birth or after-birth moments, and health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery. Written content such as erotica, nudity related to political or newsworthy speech, and nudity found in art, such as sculptures and illustrations, are also stuff that can be freely posted on Tumblr.
Commentary: This is going to get interesting. First of all, what in the hell are “female-presenting nipples?” If you’re trans man who still has breasts, are your nipples “female-presenting?” This absurdity brings to mind the scathing commentary that the New Yorker’s cartoon editor wrote about Facebook’s similar policy, which ended up banning some smudges of ink because they were part of a cartoon depicting a nude woman. Meanwhile, Tumblr’s hyper-liberal and permissive side creates a bunch of exceptions for art, sculpture, illustrations, breastfeeding, birth, and surgery. What happens next is obvious — photos of people having sex next to new mothers, explicit pornographic sculptures, and illustration filters applied to fetish photos. It’s going to get ugly. And it’s going to get expensive and embarrassing for Tumblr/Oath/Verizon to police. These folks won’t go down without a fight, there are millions of them, and they’re very creative. The results will be amusing, that’s for sure.
Regulating speech is the bugaboo of the Net
The Internet is inherently free. Anyone can create anything and post it. And that includes hate speech, child pornography, and lots of nudity.
Platforms, on the other hand, can filter things. But it’s pretty hard to do that well. Where is the line between hate speech and satire? Where is the line between nudity and art? What’s the difference between fake news and opinion?
We must all be aware that the online spaces we occupy are fighting — and losing — a battle with fringe content. This is a never-ending struggle, and they will never be able to afford the cost of the necessary staff to enforce their rules, even if those rules were clear and easy to apply. And as powerful as AI is, I don’t think it can end this battle. These distinctions are just too fine, and too easy for people to evade. AI, properly designed, can make good judgments 90% of the time. The remaining 10% is humans outsmarting the machines; humans are endlessly inventive and, sometimes, evil.
Good luck, Tumblr. Your implosion will be an amazing spectacle. We’ll miss you.