Tumblr’s childish approach to adult content may be its downfall

Banning all adult content – and pictures of skins – is not just overkill, but censorship

Tumblr has announced that “adult content” will no longer be allowed on the website. Photograph: Michael Appleton/The New York Times

Tumblr has announced that “adult content” will no longer be allowed on the website. Photograph: Michael Appleton/The New York Times

 

Few people would say the problem with the internet is the lack of adult content available. Psychology Today reckons that about 5-15 per cent of the entire internet is porn. This is some way short of the 30-50 per cent thrown around by moral panic websites (which give whole new meaning to the term “conservative estimate”) but still, not an insignificant amount. It may be surprising, therefore, that a new battleground has opened up around people’s rights to share salacious or smutty stuff online. But that’s exactly what’s happening with Tumblr, the social media platform that was restored to the App Store this week after it pledged to remove adult content entirely.

“In order to continue to fulfil our promise and place in culture,” wrote Tumblr chief executive Jeff D’Onofrio “ … we’re taking another step by no longer allowing adult content, including explicit sexual content and nudity (with some exceptions).”

This followed its removal from Apple’s store in November due to the discovery of child-abuse images. While the prohibition of such content is an issue that needs to be tackled with vigilance, many worry that banning all adult content is not just overkill, but censorship. Tumblr is massively popular with fan culture, LGBT groups and kink communities. This latter subset, described by the Atlantic’s Steven Thrasher as “sexual subcultures that don’t always thrive elsewhere” are particularly enraged, since Tumblr’s simple layouts and re-share function made it the perfect stomping ground for consenting adults to share adult material among themselves, and for performers and creators to build a relationship with their fans. Moreover, legions of loyal users resent having their works, and their related communities, tarred with the same brush as child pornography.

Baffling decision

In a world where social-media platforms aim to harness the one killer app they can provide better than anyone else in the marketplace, Tumblr’s decision to annihilate this core function of its platform seems baffling, as does the fact that racist and white supremacist content – which loyal users have flagged many thousands of times – remains, while perfectly non-adult images are auto-scrubbed by the service’s administrators. “What a colossal waste of everyone’s time,” tweeted journalist Marie Le Conte (@youngvulgarian), sharing images that had been removed from her Tumblr, including decidedly unpornographic pictures of bare shins, classical statues and mannequin torsos.

“The new adult content ban is supposed to fight pornography,” wrote fan blogger @the_blue_fluffs, “but the porn bots are still there, and flagged posts have included pics of: minerals, pokémon, bread, etc. The only effect of this ban is to hurt real users.” How many of them will still be left remains to be seen, as Tumblr’s user base could be set to tumble further still.

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