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Creating a Windowless Porn Ghetto is Bad

[Update: Tumblr responded to the hubbub pretty quickly, addressing a number of arguments from the last few days. Our initial concerns below are still valid, though, since what this post says seemingly contradicts the original doc (what we’ve all been responding to this week) regarding third-party indexing.]

Hi! Statistically, 1 out of every 10 of you reading this (provided you’ve a Tumblr account) run an nsfw or adult blog. Judging by our install records, there’s also solid chance you’re using Fluid to do so. Thanks for that: we have no issue with porn or “adult” content. That’s also my way of disclaiming that we clearly have a dog in this fight—we want the blogs that use our themes to be seen, and accessible. And as you may have gathered over the last few commentary posts I’ve written, we give a huge, spotlit shit about unrestricted free speech.

Which is why, like most of you, we find Tumblr’s new content restrictions really problematic. Gawker’s ValleyWag and The Daily Dot have posted much-reblogged rundowns of the new regime this week, and unlike most issues on the internet, there’s been a near-total (negative) consensus. So let’s cover exactly what we’re dealing with, what its effects will likely be, and what we can do to push back against it. 

First, Tumblr is not banning porn blogs. Not outright. To generalize it this way (which this petition does) hurts the pro-NSFW side by invoking a straw-man and not dealing with the details of the “soft” censorship system. What the content restrictions have done is more complicated, though likely with the same end result. They’ve divided content into three groups:

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They’ve removed blogs that fall into two groups (NSFW - occasional adult content; and Adult - “substantial” adult content) from tag pages and the mobile app for non-followers and followers browsing in safe mode. That last part’s not so bad, since it’s presumed that people who’re using safe mode don’t want NSFW content. However, the first part is especially problematic for bloggers who actually want to expand their audience. As the DD piece notes, “A large proportion of Tumblr’s many fandom users reblog adult-rated fanart and fanfic, meaning that they will almost certainly be blocked from tag searches, effectively crippling the way the fan community interacts on Tumblr.”

Even more troubling is pretty much everything in that third column regarding “adult” blogs, or blogs that consistently contain nudity/sexual/adult content. They’re essentially in a void now, without search indexing inside or outside the platform. This basically ensures that “substantially” NSFW blogs will be nearly impossible to find without a direct link, and that their follower counts will stagnate. Even NSFW tags—”NSFW,” “Porn,” and, ridiculously, “Gay” (?!?)—now retrieve 0 results when searched in the mobile app.

This troubles us. First, it ghettoizes content as opposed to outright banning it, which is equivalent to trapping an insect in an unventilated jar instead of just smashing it with your shoe. Tactics like this feel somewhat dishonest in their indirectness, as if the ultimate outcome of “adult” blogs either dying or leaving the platform isn’t readily discernible. It creates distrust when Tumblr should be seeking to strengthen relationships with its bloggers.

Secondly, it shifts the locus of control further onto the platform instead of the user. Despite David’s remarks on The Colbert Report Tuesday night, these new content restrictions do, unfortunately, seem like direct policing of content. Rather than expanding user controls on NSFW content, like creating an equivalent to Google’s “Safe Search” for Tumblr’s native search indexing, the new restrictions do exactly that—they restrict the ability of users to find content.

This seems wholly antithetical to Tumblr’s ethic up to this point, which let users find what they want, and disallow what they don’t. Better honing users’ ability to restrict what displays on tag pages and search results seems rational and effective (this user outlines a few positive ways to do so). Taking the power of decision away from the platform’s users has a chilling effect on participation and enthusiasm, at a very deep, ideologically sensitive level.

So, to invoke Lenin (and why not?), “what is to be done?” An important thing to remember is the fluidity of the platform. Remember post pinning? That idea came and died, with negative feedback assuredly accounting for part of it. So speak up: don’t just throw your name on a petition, but email, Tweet, and blog about it. Be reasonable, and be specific about what ideas and controls you think would better suit the community. But be strong too: the whole reason Tumblr became such a valuable commodity is because of its empowered and assertive user-class, and the threat of losing even 10 or 20% of it should genuinely terrify everyone involved.

To us, creating additional content-specific filters for users seems like a better alternative. Give users additional parameters to do basically what Tumblr has done now, and we’re willing to bet they’re grateful for it. While content restriction is certainly the prerogative of a privately-owned IP like Tumblr, we think it’s best when users are given the chance to make their own decisions.

[Tastefully modified SFW version of Gabrielle D’Estrees and Her Sister the Duchess of Villars” courtesy of Flavorwire]

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