Tumblr’s Adult Content Ban Could Destroy The Website For Good

Tumblr was founded back in 2007 and ever since it has been a platform where users were able to express themselves freely by posting images, videos, music, and text. One of the most attractive things about Tumblr was the lack of censorship. Soon, the website became a community where even outcasts could fit in.

Tumblr is mostly a visual medium, and this is something that attracted artists right away. Many of them chose to promote their art through this platform. Tumblr also became a safe space, where young LGBT members had a chance to explore their identity. Unfortunately, all this is about to go away.

The adult content ban

Sadly, Tumblr’s lack of censorship attracted users who took advantage of it. While the website allowed NSFW blogs, disturbing content manages to make it through Tumblr’s filters. Everything peaked when Apple discovered child pornography posts. As a consequence of that, App Store removed the Tumblr app.

Staff’s means of solving this issue was baffling: the blogging platform decided to ban all adult content from the website. This is a blanket solution that will affect all forms of nudity. Such a rash decision can only prove Tumblr’s lack of tact, and it is truly disappointing to see this reaction from a platform with eleven years of experience.

The rampant pornography problem is something that Tumblr has swept under the rug for many years. Administrators ignored the severity of the situation, despite the user’s pleadings to handle this grave issue. Apple’s decision to remove the app from the App Store was the only thing that determined Tumblr to take measures. It appears that the company financial concern was more important than the ethical nature of the problem.

Tumblr is far from the small community it was originally. Yahoo acquired it in 2013. Verizon Communications purchased Yahoo in 2017, and placed Yahoo and Tumblr under its Oath subsidiary. At the moment it appears that profit has become Tumblr’s sole priority.

Ambiguous guidelines

Adult Content. 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.

The Community Guidelines were updated to include this information. Right off the bat, we can observe the carelessness of this announcement. It appears that there is no clear division between art and pornographic content. There is a certain ambiguity that does not seem to trouble staff members. Mentioning that “certain types (…) of nudity are fine”, but failing to mention which types, reveals staff’s indifference towards the topic. The fact that “female-presenting nipples” are also banned is not just misogynistic, but extremely confusing as well.

Targetting art content

By banning nudity, Tumblr takes a shot at most artists. Art can contain nudity, but this does not equal pornography. “Explicit content” is another vague term. Eroticism is present, and art and forbidding it is an obvious form of censorship. Tumblr staff did attempt to reassure artists:

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.

Nonetheless, these are empty words at most. Ever since the official announcement, the automated system flagged as explicit multiple art posts, including pictures of ancient Egyptian statues, ancient Greek statues, Victorian drawings that study the principles of light and shadow and classical paintings.

Flawed automated system

Tumblr decided to cleanse the website using an automated system. And this might just be their biggest mistake so far. The system is barely functional, and it fails to identify the so-called explicit content. So far countless posts have been flagged as explicit, despite being completely harmless. So far the includes pictures of cats, Jesus, sandwiches, the Japanese flag (apparently mistaken for a nipple), and numerous others. The bot did not spare text posts either. Posts that contain curse words have been flagged as explicit as well.

More than that, the criteria used by this automated system is concerning, to say the least. Multiple users have observed that it appears to target the LGTB community. For example, posts that use tags such as “gay” or “lesbian” are now flagged as explicit, regardless of their content. As a consequence of that, Tumblr has flagged for removal pictures of kisses (that did not contain anything sexual), photos of weddings and engagements or simply pictures of LGTB couples holding hands.

Tumblr could have relied on its userbase as reporters instead of attempting to use AI intelligence. Countless users have flagged harmful content for years, but none of their reports were acknowledged.  At the moment the automated system is blindly flagging posts. If your post has been unjustly flagged, you can appeal this decision.

Blogs have also been flagged for deletion, and their owners have less than three weeks to figure out what they are going to do with their content. There is also a new option which allows users to export their blogs. If you receive a message that warns you about your blog’s deletion you can export all your content. The option is available in Settings.

Driving users away

Tumblr appears to justify its decision by claiming that the website must become a safe space for children. Nonetheless, this reasoning is not pertinent. In a world where major websites such as Facebook and Instagram drastically limit the content posted, there was no need to create another online space “safe for the children”. It is also very disturbing that Tumblr has equaled child pornography with adult content and nudity.

It appears that this entire process is deeply affecting the website as well. Users have reported missing posts, old posts showing up as recent, empty archives and many other errors. The site is going down in flames and there still are a couple of weeks left until the ban becomes effective.

Tumblr was unique as a blogging platform because users were able to express themselves creatively and without restrictions. Children are not a huge part of the website’s userbase, and staff members will soon have to acknowledge that. The staff will (unfairly) delete many blogs, and numerous users have declared that they will leave this website after December 17.

Can users do anything?

Tumblr will delete “explicit content” starting December 17. At the moment there is a petition against the ban, and you can find it here. The petition has almost gained 300,000 signatures. Users can also message the Tumblr staff in an attempt to cancel this decision.

Most users are saying their goodbyes and sharing personal information so they can stay in touch. The way things are evolving, it appears that the blogging platform will lose most than half of its users Finally, Tumblr user raveneuse leaves us with one extremely pertinent conclusion for this entire situation:

This ban is a clumsy and heavy-handed panic of corporate and financial concern masquerading as a caring and progressive project of ethical betterment. The ban’s authors absolve themselves of responsibility by applying this blanket-treatment, while failing to take responsibility and be held accountable for their own years of negligence on the issue, for their wilful accommodation of the issue.


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