Tumblr, since December 17 of 2018, has been banning all adult content from its site, raising complaints from many users.
In this article, I will discuss how commercial entities often play a big role in making decisions regarding what kind of content we get to see online. These decisions have important consequences, as nowadays, platforms play a crucial role in regulating human interactions. Also, we will see that technology and users are inseparable, as in the case of artificial intelligence (AI) and user curators of content on social media.
Tumblr, as a distinct platform, constitutes what van Dijck (2013) calls a microsystem. All platforms combined constitute what van Dijck calls an ecosystem of social media - or better, "connective" media, because what is claimed to be 'social' is in fact “the result of human input shaped by commuted output and vice versa” (van Dijck, 2013, p. 21).
Each microsystem is sensitive to changes in other parts of the ecosystem, and this paper ultimately wants to address the role of Tumblr within the whole ecosystem of connective media.
Apple and the Tumblr ban
Announcing the ban on adult content, Tumblr wrote that all content including photos, videos or gifs that show real-life human genitals or 'female-presenting' nipples would be banned, alongside any content that depicts sex acts. The site specified that it would still allow non-sexualized images of women’s nipples, in situations such as breastfeeding or works of art. It also said that written content such as erotica, nudity related to political or newsworthy speech, and nudity found in art can be freely posted.
But, thinking about transgender people, for instance, who is to decide and how what counts as “female-presenting”? Who is to decide what is “political or newsworthy speech”? What is going to classify as “art”? And where do we draw the line between “erotica” and porn? These are highly debatable questions. Agnew (2018) writes in an article for The Guardian that “making that call is not simply a matter of standards but rather arbitrary, and it can involve politically charged decisions with very specific cultural repercussions”.
On November 20, 2018, Tumblr confirmed that it was banned from Apple's App Store after child pornography was discovered on its site (Wise, 2018). According to Tumblr Help Center, it was again available on the App Store by December 12 of the same year.
Tumblr did not cite the child pornography issue as the reason for banning adult content. Nonetheless, it is arguable that the decision has less to do with a desire to “[lay] the foundation for a better Tumblr”, as CEO Jeff D’Onofrio said, than with the need to bow to the pressures exerted by Apple, which has a strict no-adult-content policy (Agnew, 2018). Indeed, Apple has been consistent in its resistance against adult content: as Steve Jobs famously said: “users who want porn can get an android phone”.
Intimacy and digital platforms
We can notice a larger, disturbing trend regarding adult content: in March 2018, Craigslist closed its “adult personals” section in response to the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act that would hold platforms criminally responsible for any sex work facilitated through them (Thrasher, 2018).
Facebook also has new restrictive community standards, which aim to “draw the line – when content facilitates, encourages or coordinates sexual encounters between adults”.
Due to the moral policy implemented by Apple (and others), fewer and fewer services now support adult content. This is becoming the norm within the ecosystem of connective media.
To understand the relevance of these kinds of decisions, we have to be aware of the fact that a platform is a mediator rather than an intermediary: it shapes (rather than facilitates) social acts (van Dijck, 2013, p. 29). In addition to this, as Massanari (2015) suggests, the design and politics of a platform (which in this case changed quite heavily) influence content and behavior there.
Patterns of behavior existing in offline sociality are mixed with social norms created in online environments (van Dijck, 2013). The fact that Tumblr has long been known as a permissive and safe space for sexual subcultures (Mahdawi, 2018) and that it has always had a tolerant attitude towards legal adult material since its foundation in 2007 (Waterson, 2018) makes this decision significant.
For example, Nyx Serafino, a gender-fluid sex worker struggling with her identity and childhood abuse, says that Tumblr was a place where she found others like her. On Tumblr, they could celebrate each other, sometimes with explicit and sex-positive content. “It was a great place to mix art and adult content” she said. (Ho, 2018) Many Twitterers expressed their worries on the new Tumblr guidelines, saying that it would lead to a targeted erasure of LGBTQ content. (Reynolds, 2018) "They are trying to disappear us," said writer and LGBTQ activist Anthony Oliveira, while another user writes “how long until they declare anything queer to be "adult content" by default?”.
It’s not easy to opt out of using digital platforms, which are becoming as important as physical roads for human interaction.
As Thrasher (2018) points out, we now rely a lot on platforms for intimate encounters and relationships. He writes: “It’s not easy to opt out of using digital platforms, which are becoming as important as physical roads for human interaction. Professional, commercial, and even sexual interactions that literally determine life itself are mediated through these privately controlled communications networks”.
Furthermore, Agnew (2018) writes that “as our romantic and sexual lives become increasingly intertwined with our online lives, the adult content available in the digital commons is an important frontier where narratives can be negotiated and reframed, particularly those of women and gender non-normative people”.
The overcorrection of Tumblr AI moderation
Although the porn problem is real, some consider Tumblr’s decision to be an overcorrection, with many users expressing dismay over the bans. Agnew (2018) writes that Tumblr is (or was) “a space infinitely more tolerant and diverse than the rest of the porn world. It received praise as a space for gender transition stories as well as a place for queer sexual identities."
D’Onofrio attempted to acknowledge Tumblr’s significance for marginalized groups, as he posted about how they recognize Tumblr as “a place to speak freely about topics like art, sex positivity, your relationships, your sexuality, and your personal journey” but, he added “there are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them.” Because of this, D’Onofrio failed to recognize what the disappearance of Tumblr porn would mean for niche groups, especially for women. Tumblr was a free space for female experience and feminist expression, and while alternative sites are available, the reality is that in the current anti-porn climate, and the omni-presence of the App Store, it will be difficult to have the same widespread impact Tumblr had (Mahdawi, 2018).
As van Dijck (2013) explains, social media platforms were first expected to provide spaces free from corporate constraints, where individuals could pursue their communicative and creative needs. The ban Tumblr has incorporated is an example of how things are not user-centered. Even though platforms don’t like to emphasize it, their interest lies in commercial values. In fact, corporate owners have always remained cautious about exposing profit motives to user communities and kept nourishing the image of platforms as peer-production structures that put users before profits. (van Dijck, 2018 p. 15)
Content moderation is a real challenge for every platform, but especially for the most popular social media, because of the remarkable flow of content they have to filter. We have seen this in the past, for instance in Facebook’s failure to manage content during the conflict in Myanmar.
As intimate interactions are ever more mediated by tech giants, that power will only increase, and more and more of our humanity is bound to be mediated through content moderation.
Platforms would rather not take responsibility, but they have little to no choice. They have to be the judges of what is acceptable, because they have the power to take down things from the platform. Thrasher (2018) argues that “as intimate interactions are ever more mediated by tech giants, that power will only increase, and more and more of our humanity is bound to be mediated through content moderation. That moderation is subjective, culturally specific, and utterly political. And Silicon Valley doesn’t have a sterling track record of getting it right.”
In this case, in order to moderate billions of posts in a short time frame, Tumblr has turned to artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, AI was unable to distinguish clothed from naked figures, or whether a nipple was 'female-presenting' (Hern, 2018).
To explain the difficulty in using AI for content moderation, we can take into account an article written by Olivia Solon (2017) where we can find the testimony of Peter Friedman, CEO of LiveWorld: “It’s impossible for algorithms alone to manage human experience”. Moreover, Sarah T Roberts, UCLA professor who studies large-scale moderation of online platforms said: “this is highly complex work, and requires a mastery of many topics, current events, other cultures and languages.”
If we already have trouble drawing a clear-cut boundary between porn and erotica, how can we expect algorithms to do this job right? Leon Seltzer writes on the difference between porn and erotica in terms of “attitude toward sex and human sexuality that can be inferred from looking at the finished product.” Erotica is aesthetic and “manifests a passionate [...] affirmation of life and the pleasures of this world”. However, in the case of porn “the subjects seem reduced to […] body parts” and “any beauty appears subordinate to the overriding purpose of arousal”.
It is therefore understandable that, in the case of Tumblr and erotica, AI is to make mistakes. The thin line between porn and erotica makes it difficult to evaluate content correctly, even more so when it is not humans making direct judgement. In fact, the ban caused censorship of non-pornographic content such as a drawing of wonder woman, Jesus, or two men hugging, consequently igniting the hashtag #TooSexyForTumblr on Twitter. One user said that “Tumblr’s AI is basically a stoned 13-year-old boy. Everything looks like a butt.” (Agnew, 2018). Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio was aware that the ban would come with problems, as he wrote in a blogpost: “we know there will be mistakes”.
The female nipple issue
Big social networks have also been very active in battling breasts as if it was one of the most important things to do (Mahdawi, 2018). Users have reacted to this in different ways. For example, Instagram’s censorship of female breasts led to a social media campaign called #FreeTheNipple.
Facebook also exerts considerable energy in regulating women’s chests: its community guidelines state that nipples are generally not allowed, unless they belong to women who are actively engaged in breastfeeding, or photos of post-mastectomy scarring.
Oddly enough, I myself came across #freethenipple for the first time not online, but offline. While walking in Milan, I saw on a wall four little posters of women’s nipples of different skin color with #freethenipple beside all of them. I didn’t know what it meant back then, but now that I am aware of the “nipple problem” on social media, I can recognize it as an attempt to spread the word about what some consider to be an injustice.
Tumblr’s new policy therefore becomes “the latest installment in a ridiculous war against women’s nipples” (Mahdawi, 2018). Mahdawi (ibid.) adds: “women’s top halves have long been sexualized and policed in a way that men’s aren’t, both online and offline”.
Some artists spoke up against the censorship of female nipples. In December 2018, in Eindhoven at MU artspace, there was an exhibition named “The New Newsroom”. One piece in particular, “Pics or it Didn’t Happen” by Arvida Byström & Molly Soda (2017), shared a series of banned photos from Instagram, wanting to “explore the boundaries of photography in relation to sexuality and sexism”.
Coproduction of humans and machines
As van Dijck (2013, p. 12) points out, the word “social” associated with media implies that platforms are user-centered. But at the same time, social media are inevitably automated systems that manipulate connections, and as mentioned above, commercial entities influence the way we are social. “Social” has to do both with connectedness (what humans do) and connectivity (the automated side of things). Social media can be empowering while still being exploitative, as sociality is enjoyed through commercial platforms that also exploit online social activities for monetary gains. (van Dijck, 2013, p.18)
Online sociality has become increasingly a coproduction of humans and machines. Tumblr represents a clear case of this, as it relies on automated tools to identify adult content, but also on humans, to help train and keep the systems in check. For example, users are provided with tools that make it easy to report abuse.
The economic dimension of the Tumblr ban
In this article, I have suggested that Tumblr's new policy is part of a wider development within all social media platforms to ban adult content. Behind this, there is an economic dimension represented by Apple's App Store and its content policies.
The widespread ban on adult content has meaningful consequences: it can change our sensibility towards certain topics such as gay culture; it can change how we interact with other humans, as sociality is technologically mediated; and it can change our purposes in using social media. For example, Tumblr is/was a popular platform when it came to creating and being part of LGBTQ online communities.
The ban also raises questions about the degree to which users, who are creators of capital benefit for the platform, have a say in these kinds of decisions.
Agnew, R. (2018, December 11). Tumblr’s ‘porn ban’ will leave its marginalised users with no safe haven. The heteronormative values of Silicon Valley are being used to police what we can do in our increasingly online sex lives.
Reynolds, D, (2018, December 3). Tumblr's Ban on Adult Content Alarms LGBTQ Twitter.
Mahdawi, A. (2018, December 8). Social media sites should focus less on nipples and more on Nazis. Tumblr, long known as a safe space for sexual subcultures, has a new policy on ‘female-presenting nipples’.
Massanari A. (2015). #Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures. New Media & Society, 1-18.
Solon, O. (2017, May 23). To censor or sanction extreme content? Either way, Facebook can't win.
Thrasher, S.H. (2018, December 7). What Tumblr’s Porn Ban Really Means. The platform used to be a home for sexual subcultures that don’t always thrive elsewhere.
van Dijck, J. (2013). The culture of connectivity. A critical history of social media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Waterson, J. (2018, December 3). Tumblr to ban all adult content. Microblogging site says move reflects responsibilities to different age groups.
Wise, J. (2018, December 3). Tumblr to ban adult content after issues with child pornography on site.