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In 2007 Tumblr started a community by providing users with a space for self-expression. Users could remain as anonymous as they wanted. They could truly post whatever they wanted, whether that be cute gifs of dogs, writing blog posts to express their views, or adult content to figure out their ever-evolving sexuality. However, after an unfortunate bug in their AI system failed to find an instance of child pornography, Tumblr has decided to pivot. As of December 17th, 2018, Tumblr no longer allows users to post any adult content. These new changes can provide users with a safer platform. On the other hand, the changes also go against the company’s original mission. An easy solution would be allowing users to opt out of sensitive content, but it is clear that Tumblr sees censorship as a far bigger issue than that.
In mid-November of last year, Tumblr disappeared from the iOS App Store. Soon after they released a statement stating that “while every image uploaded to the platform is “scanned against an industry database of child sexual abuse material” to filter out explicit images, a “routine audit” discovered content that was absent from the database, allowing it to slip through the filter”. Given Apple’s guidelines, Tumblr wasn’t up to their standards and had to be immediately deleted, however, the app remained live on Google Play for Android users. The company quickly stated that its priority is to have the app reinstated to the iOS app store.
Tumblr has decided to completely ban NSFW (not safe for work) content. This includes any content portraying “real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples” as well as any media involving sex acts, including illustrations. For example, if a mother were to post a photo of her breastfeeding her newborn baby, this will be allowed as long as her nipple is not shown. This begs the questions, are the over 30 million users happy about this? Is this an overall positive decision? The decision was met with a tremendous amount of backlash from users who see the platform as a way to express their sexuality. These users will be abandoning the site and they are part of the more than 423,000 users who have signed the change.org petition to make Tumblr rescind their adult content ban.
In response to critics asking, “why are you doing this?” Tumblr CEO, Jeff D’Onfrio, says that to foster a deep sense of community they must take responsibility and consider the impact their platform has across different age groups, demographics, cultures, and mindsets. He adds, “there is no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content”. He is equating a social media site to a porn website. Tumblr has always been prideful of reposting tool, allowing content producers to maintain ownership of their photos and not worry about copyright or trademark infringement. This fostered a community willing to share intimate moments. Next, they have a powerful reporting system in place. Users may report harassment, privacy violations and much more just by the click of a button. They value this type of feedback and has proved to act on it. Finally, they have made a commitment to ban all “images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals” or “female-presenting nipples.” This will also be enforced retroactively, with users being asked to take down posts which violate the policy changes. The official statement urges the public that these changes will be an opportunity for more people to feel comfortable expressing themselves, without pornographic images popping up as they scroll through their feed. The Verizon owned company believes this form of censorship equates to a safer platform.
While it may be “safer” for more audiences, Tumblr has faced a backlash from the gay community who believe the type of adult content posted by Tumblr creators isn’t quite like what you’d imagine seeing one a full-fledged porn website. The Washington Post interviewed an Atlanta man who goes by Mutabear. This is his story. He is 27 years old now so you can imagine when he was first discovering his homosexuality, it wasn’t as socially accepted as it is today. He goes on to say that “It was a safe space for me to explore things online that I would not necessarily want to try [in] real life, where that might not be safe realistically. More importantly, it was a way for me to connect with other like-minded people”. The erotic blog posts and visual gay erotica, as well as the online community of accepting and likeminded people, helped Mutabear find his true self. His following was primarily made up of gay males ages 18 to 25. Mutabear would receive dozens of direct messages pertaining to what he was posting, and it would create a positive dialog and give advice, allowing younger males to explore their identity and sexuality anonymously. Not feeling alone during a vulnerable time of their lives is priceless, and Tumblr was giving these users peace of mind. It appears that in the process of making Tumblr safer, it has also upset the community that felt the most welcome.
Finding child pornography on their “safe space” platform is no a laughing matter. Tumblr executives made quick and seemingly calculated decisions after the iOS app store story broke. The decisions were made in hopes of creating a better platform. The company was being transparent about the bugs in their system and the measures, which in this case include policy changes, they are taking to better themselves. Unfortunately, these changes come at the expense of the young men and women who use their anonymity to express themselves; to figure out who they are now and who they want to be in the future. There are pros and cons to each side. TechCrunch reported in 2017 the release of a new feature called “safe mode” which allowed users to enable censorship of sensitive content. This gave the power to the users, rather than the company executives. An article by the Verge provides an excellent point about the culture we are living in today. We are living in “a culture that positions porn as a “public health crisis,” that sees censoring sex as preferable to acknowledging its existence, that treats nudity as wholly incompatible with the daily lives of human beings, will be the only thing we have to blame”.
Everyone’s Tumblr is curated to their likes, like how we now have curated ads on Facebook. While the elimination of adult content does help more people feel comfortable expressing themselves, it has also eliminated a safe space for those figuring themselves out. It has in turn marginalized gender and sexual identities and taken away their safe space. The userbase has begun to flee to other websites like Newgrounds, Pillowfort, and even Twitter have since seen an influx of users to their respective platforms. Legally as well as ethically Tumblr has responded eloquently. However, users of marginalized communities believe that socially, the company may have acted irresponsibly.
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