Tumblr’s porn ban is another case of social media sites misunderstanding their users

Tumblr was once a go-to site for young people’s sexual exploration. Now, its forthcoming porn ban reveals how little it understand its userbase. 

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Look, there’s no other way to say it: I have written this piece before. I’ve written it about Instagram, about Twitter, about Facebook… I’ve even written it about fucking PayPal. Really, I promise you, I’d like to stop writing this same piece over and over again, but tech companies keep making dreadful choices to alienate their users forcing me to beat this drum, it seems like, until the day I die. And now, here I am again writing another iteration of this article, but this time about Tumblr, the micro-blogging site, which has just added itself to the list. And that ever-growing list is that of tech/social media companies failing to understand its users – probably to the detriment of the platform itself.

If you were online yesterday afternoon, you probably saw people mourning Tumblr’s brand new code of conduct announcement: That it will be removing, and banning, all adult content from its site by the end of the month. In a statement posted to the Tumblr Staff account, CEO Jeff D’Onofrio explained that, as of 17 December 2018, all “images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples” and content (including illustrations) that depict “sex-acts” will be prohibited on the platform. He also noted that there will be an exception for “artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity”.

“There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content,” D’Onofrio wrote as the “bottom line” of the changes. “We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.”

While it may seem an obvious, or even clever, decision to remove porn from a site frequented by teens, there are actually two major problems with this change. Firstly (and also the painfully obvious drum I keep banging), is that it is yet another social media platform that doesn’t understand what its users want, what its users use the platform for, and, ultimately, what the platform itself is. Tumblr has long been known for adult content on its site. It is synonymous with being a safe place for young people to explore their sexuality and practice sexual self-expression. While also being a place for experimental art, sharing and creating memes and jokes, and poetry, short stories, and music, Tumblr’s porn content is key to the brand for its users, with many joking (following this announcement) that they won’t know where to go now for healthy “good porn”.

Far from being a straight-up porn site, tasteful nudes and sex GIFs have long been staples of Tumblr, and adult content has always been driving people to the site. Tumblr's revenue is mostly ad-based, so its decision could be interpreted as a move to woo advertisers, but it is not clear that ad money has been leaving because of porn on the site. In reality, the site has only grown over the last few years.To ban adult content, when that adult content is what swathes of users turn to Tumblr for, isn’t just thoughtless from a user-perspective, it's likely it could be a fatal business decision. 

The other problem, which was already evident even before the ban has officially began, is that this is and will be done in an embarrassingly ham-fisted way. Just hours after the announcement, people began to see their content being flagged as harmful under the new rules. However, rather than these posts being genitalia, nipples, or anything else that falls under Tumblr’s adult content umbrella, these posts were simply just bare skin, clavicles, and even plastic manikin heads:

This problem is arguably the larger of the two. Tumblr could manage to weather the storm of banning a huge portion of its content, investing time in promoting art and poetry on the platform. But what is likely to be its real undoing is this: rather than remove and ban porn, Tumblr’s porn algorithm will misidentify and remove some art and harmless imagery posted on the site. And when this keeps happening, despite following guidelines, users will start heading to other platforms to share content. Because if users painstakingly find posts that fit the guidelines, and the content is still removed despite zero violations, then what’s the point of using Tumblr at all?

Ultimately, there are plenty of complex things to say about this decision. Katie Notopolous at BuzzFeed in particular wrote a poignant piece yesterday about Tumblr’s self-inflicted demise, describing it as a sign of the larger trend of Noughties internet sites’ rapidly impending death. And to be fair to the micro-blogging site, the changes still have just under two weeks to be enforced; perhaps enough time to iron out any bugs that could maybe save Tumblr from shooting itself in the face. But the trend in social media platforms serially ignoring their users’ wants makes this unlikely. It seems that, in two weeks’ time, we’ll simply be met with not just this site-changing ban, but an endless plethora of content being removed, which in turn will send users packing. And Tumblr will be added to the endless list of social media companies failing to understand what their users want and what their platforms actually do.  

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.