Perhaps more than on any other major social network, being on Tumblr means existing in a constant state of fear. For years, the platform has existed in a state of limbo, mishandled by leadership and corporate overlords, as its userbase has waited in perpetuity for the site to get its act together.
Yesterday, Tumblr announced that later in December, it would be instituting a ban on adult content — “photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals” and content that depicts sex acts. While most social networks have similar bans, Tumblr has always been friendly to adult content, and a substantial community has coalesced around it on the platform. The ban poses questions for the Tumblr community at large, which is characterized by openness and inclusivity when it comes to discussing sexuality.
Almost immediately, the plan hit speed bumps. Posts that don’t feature anything resembling adult content were flagged as being in violation of the new policy, with large red banners appended at top. Tumblr’s prohibition of “female-presenting nipples,” a clumsy and inarticulate phrase if there ever was one, only led to more questions than answers (Facebook’s similar rule has been a perpetual headache for that company for years).
For the porn community on Tumblr, this is undoubtedly a terrible move. Porn has been allowed on the site for more than a decade, Tumblr has used adult content to help build up a substantial user base and community, and now the users who previously abided by the site’s rules for properly tagging their content, in order to hide it from search results, etc., are being shown the door. Curious users who benefited from that space are also out on their butts, so to speak. (The openness of Tumblr also led to substantial community-led policing efforts of how adults and minors interact, often to fill the void left by Tumblr’s lax moderation. The porn community was far from flawless, and full of spambots.)
So it sucks, but like I said at the top, Tumblr’s users have been in an odd sort of purgatory for years, at this point. In 2013, Tumblr was purchased by Yahoo for $1.1 billion dollars in a deal that seemed mutually beneficial. Tumblr would get a fresh infusion of corporate backing and resources, and the aging dinosaur of Yahoo, with its new CEO Marissa Mayer, would now own a trendy property used by young people and an increasingly valuable network of users.
For some users, the purchase also felt like Tumblr selling out. Users predicted that they would see more ads and become beholden to stricter rules. Here’s one such post, reblogged yesterday to react to the porn ban.
Luckily for users, not a whole lot changed in the intervening period. Yahoo mismanaged Tumblr, but did nothing to make fundamental changes, giving the site and its users a sort of stay of execution. Product changes were made and problems persisted, but the core spirit of Tumblr remained largely intact.
There were still repeated scares, however. In 2015, the site’s updated copyright policy sent users into panic mode, because Tumblr’s posting system centers around “reblogs” (reposting someone else’s content onto your own blog, sometimes with an added comment). That’s a thorny problem when it comes to intellectual property. Users feared that the new corporate Tumblr would finally give them the boot. In 2016, Yahoo took a $482 million write-down on the Tumblr purchase, causing users to again panic that their corporate overlords would once again cut their losses and shut down Tumblr entirely. In 2017, founder David Karp left the company after a decade, once again leaving users to wonder what would happen.
Earlier this year, Verizon subsumed Yahoo’s properties into the Oath brand. Last month, the Tumblr mobile app disappeared from the iOS App Store without explanation, setting off speculation, yet again, about a sudden end to the website.
It turns out Apple had removed the app due to the fact that child porn was appearing on Tumblr, and in working to get the app reinstated, Tumblr also started purging accounts with little explanation as to why. The effort was, as had now become the norm for Tumblr, slapdash and flailing.
Tumblr was dying. Again. Except, at this point in the cycle, the concern about Tumblr’s end is counterbalanced by plenty of jokes about it. The death of Tumblr has itself become a meme on Tumblr.
Tumblr occupies a unique space as a large social network that is neither particularly important nor financially viable. Facebook sustains itself and its subsidiaries, Twitter is not owned by a larger corporation but important people use it, YouTube’s centrality to online video keeps its future secure.
Perhaps the closest analog to Tumblr is Snapchat — whose users do not really form a coherent community à la Tumblr’s, however. Tumblr is large and active and full of cross-talk. And it could disappear at any point if it gets deep enough in the red. The Tumblr memes are similar to Twitter users’ complaints about that site, only the tone is a little more resigned.
Supposedly, Tumblr’s recent decision to ban adult content has been on the table for months. Users have been expecting it for at least five years. Would it be nice if large corporations were more progressive in their handling of sexual content? Sure. But is it also understandable why Tumblr might feel the need to step away from it given its reliance on advertisers and legal hurdles? Sure.
The ban is a serious step for Tumblr, and it will leave a large void on the site. But it is not sudden and it’s not like devoted users haven’t heard chatter of something like this happening for a long time. There are plenty of interesting porn-free parts of the site — memes, fandoms, artists, writers — and if the site continues to stumble over itself repeatedly, well, at least the meta-discussion will continue to thrive.