In Depth

Why Tumblr is banning porn

Critics warn move to clean up the platform leaves sexual minorities out in the cold

Social media platform Tumblr has announced that it will no longer host explicit content, ending its era as a locus of alternative sexuality.

From 17 December, pornographic images and videos will be automatically flagged and deleted.

Existing X-rated posts will be switched to “private”, meaning that they can only be seen by the original uploader, and will not appear in search results. Written erotica will not be affected by the crackdown.

In a post explaining the change, Tumblr chief executive Jeff D’Onofrio said that bosses had not taken the decision lightly, but had concluded that “without this content we have the opportunity to create a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves”.

He added: “Bottom line: there are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.”

Tumblr has long operated in two distinct arenas - as a central base for “fandoms”, communities for lovers of certain TV shows, movies or celebrities to indulge their enthusiasms, but also the home of a massive and thriving porn scene.

The juxtaposition has always sat somewhat awkwardly, and has made monetising Tumblr’s large user base a tricky proposition for parent company Yahoo, which was itself bought by media firm Oath last year.

Since the acquisition, “Tumblr has been cleaning up its platform more rapidly than it had done in previous years”, says The Verge.

In August, the platform unveiled new community guidelines that banned revenge porn, hate speech and posts that glorified school shootings - and now explicit content has joined the growing blacklist.

A recent scandal over child sexual abuse images appears to have been the final straw for Oath. Last month, Apple removed Tumblr from its app store after illegal pictures of children were spotted on the platform.

Under the new rules, artistic or non-sexual nudity will escape censorship - but for many users, the cultural impact of the ban goes far beyond the simple disappointment of losing a particularly fruitful source of X-rated content.

This is true for women, the LGBT community and other sexual minorities for whom the platform has long been a safe space for sexual expression and experimentation.

“Unlike typical pornography sites, which overwhelmingly cater to men, and serve an often narrow definition of what is attractive, Tumblr has been a home for something else,” says the BBC’s North America technology reporter Dave Lee. Its vibrant adult communities were a place to celebrate alternative sexualities, niche fetishes and diverse body types, he says.

The wholesale dismantling of Tumblr’s sexual cornucopia means that “marginalised people, those who are all-too-used to being ostracised in their offline lives, now face it in their online space too”, writes Lee.

The move also represents a milestone in the “death of the old internet”, writes Buzzfeed’s Katie Notopoulos, as the anything-goes landscape of the early days of the web continues to fall victim to corporate squeamishness.

Beyond simply being places to share explicit content, many of Tumblr’s adult spaces developed a distinctive “voice”, with common points of reference, in-jokes and a community spirit.

“Our digital lives are our real lives, and digital culture - Tumblr culture - is real culture,” she writes. “When we lose that, we lose whole communities, friendships, methods of communication, jokes, and artifacts.” 

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