About a decade ago, I met up with Tumblr founder David Karp at a SoHo coffee shop. I was a writer for Gawker Media’s porn blog, Fleshbot, and Karp was overseeing the relatively new and still growing microblogging platform. We’d met through New York City’s surprisingly small digital media scene. Over coffee, around the corner from Gawker’s Elizabeth Street office, Karp outlined his vision for what Tumblr could do for porn, and what porn could do for Tumblr in return.

At the time, Tumblr was incredibly friendly to adult content. Twitter was too text-heavy to properly showcase erotic art, and Facebook was too prudish (and not nearly anonymous enough). Tumblr offered a happy medium. It provided enough anonymity to allow users to indulge in porn without ruining their reputations, and it was image-friendly enough to allow users to scroll through pictures with ease (which, along with GIFs, were the most enjoyed adult content on the site).

Many porn professionals looked askance at Tumblr’s adult content, pointing out that much of what was shared on the site was stolen from paysites and redistributed without attribution. But the Tumblr community adored and embraced the cluster of sites that offered “curated” selections of hardcore content, pairing photos and GIFs with quick comments and captions, or oftentimes, just allowing the content to stand on its own, creating an endless scroll of the hottest smut the tumblogger could find.

By January 2010, the Tumblr smut community was established enough to get official endorsement; that month, the site’s staff unveiled an officially sanctioned directory of erotic Tumblrs, which was listed alongside similar directories of Tumblrs devoted to art, fashion, photography, and food.

Back when Tumblr was a scrappy startup housed in the offices of Frederator Studios — the company behind Adventure Time — this sort of attitude made sense. Like many tech companies that built their business atop a mountain of user-generated content, Tumblr embraced a “business in the front, party in the back” model of presentation. Casual browsers — or corporate investors — could come to Tumblr and see a clean, friendly site that promoted creativity and connection, while savvy users knew that with the tiniest bit of digging they’d be able to uncover all the smut their heart desired.

For a time, this balance worked out well. In 2013, TechCrunch reported that a full 11.4 percent of the top 200,000 Tumblrs were adult-oriented, and adult sites were sending Tumblr a sizable amount of traffic. Porn helped build Tumblr’s empire, and Tumblr gave porn fans a safe playground to explore their interests, one that enabled them to check out hot smut and hardcore porn without having to venture to the darker, more unpleasant corners of the internet.

But then Tumblr decided to cash out, and that beautiful ecosystem began to collapse.

In spring 2013, Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo! Just a few months later, there were signs that the new ownership wanted to make some changes. By July of that year, Tumblr had set up a complicated filtering system where blogs featuring nudity were now marked either NSFW or adult, with adult blogs disappearing from search and tag pages entirely (a precursor of the “shadowbanning” tactic that would later become the norm on sites like Twitter and Patreon).

That summer, Karp appeared on The Colbert Report praising the risqué photographer Terry Richardson as the kind of artist he’d want to keep on Tumblr. It was a confusing statement, given that Richardson’s actual adult work was never really featured on Tumblr, and artists who did dabble in Richardson-esque smut frequently found their content hidden from public view.

THE CHANGES WERE PERCEIVED AS AN OVERZEALOUS ATTEMPT TO ERADICATE THE SLIGHTEST HINT OF SEX WORK FROM ITS SERVERS
Once Tumblr became the property of Verizon — and, notably, Karp left the leadership — the relationship between Tumblr and its resident smut peddlers began to fray even further. Last year, the platform debuted a “safe mode” that filters out all “sensitive content” on the site (including, yes, all manner of nudity). In February of this year, safe mode became the site’s default: users interested in exploring the naughtier side of Tumblr now needed to explicitly opt in, creating an uncomfortable barrier that further segregated Tumblr’s NSFW accounts from the rest of the site’s offerings.

Then, at the beginning of this week, the romance between Tumblr and adult content officially ended. Smutty Tumblr users began receiving notifications that their content had been flagged for removal; the site’s terms of service was updated to indicate that, come December 17th, adult content would be explicitly forbidden on the site’s servers.

A number of people have floated theories about why Tumblr suddenly decided to show smut the door. For some in the sex work community, FOSTA — an anti-trafficking law passed earlier this year that enabled harsh penalties for any website presumed to be promoting or harboring sex traffickers — seemed like a likely culprit. Soon, the changes were perceived as an overzealous attempt to eradicate the slightest hint of sex work from its servers.

Others pointed to a recent conflict between Tumblr and Apple, suggesting that the ban might have been an overcorrection in response to the discovery of child porn being hosted on one of the site’s accounts (a discovery which led to Tumblr’s app being pulled from Apple’s App Store).

But whatever the inciting incident, it’s hard to feel surprised by Tumblr’s decision to set adult content adrift. As the internet has gone from being a Wild West to a sanitized corporate playground, pornography has become vastly less welcome in most mainstream corners. Pornography may have helped Tumblr grow and build its audience and gain its billion-dollar valuation, but the minute Tumblr graduated into the corporate world, it was obvious that porn wouldn’t be welcome by its side for that much longer.

And in this regard, Tumblr is far from alone. Next year, the United Kingdom is slated to unveil a nationwide age verification system that’ll require all sites that contain adult content to verify visitors’ ages before allowing them on the site. It’s possible that social media sites that happen to have porn on them will be allowed to skirt the regulation. But it’s also possible that they’ll come under pressure to comply with the law by either verifying users’ ages or getting rid of the porn.

If it comes to that, Twitter and Reddit may join Tumblr in saying farewell to porn — and a culture that positions porn as a “public health crisis,” that sees censoring sex as preferable to acknowledging its existence, that treats nudity as wholly incompatible with the daily lives of human beings, will be the only thing we have to blame.

 

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