Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that claims Apple holds illegal monopoly power over iOS’s App Store and thus over the apps that are used on iPhones. Today, Tumblr announced that it would no longer allow porn on its platform after December 17.
With its massive distribution and strict rules, Apple’s App Store has had a broad homogenizing and sanitizing effect on the internet. Tumblr’s iOS app has been unavailable since November 16 because child porn images were found on the site (the app was never removed from the Google Play Store.)
No site should allow child porn, obviously. But thousands of sites manage to effectively moderate to keep their platforms free of child porn, while allowing adult content more broadly. After being removed from the App Store but before making the announcement that it would ban all adult content, Tumblr began to purge some adult and NSFW artists from the site.
Monday, Tumblr announced it would ban adult content altogether. In a blog post, Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio wrote that “there are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content.”
“There are fan artists who stopped creating because of the shit they’ve been put through there”
But there are fewer and fewer mainstream sites and services that support porn and adult content, and much of that attitude has grown out of Apple’s strict controls over the App Store and the iOS ecosystem. Steve Jobs famously suggested that “folks who want porn can buy an Android phone,” and Apple has repeatedly leveraged its unprecedented power over millions of smartphones to sanitize the apps that are available on iPhones. Apple does not allow apps “that contain user generated content that is frequently pornographic.” In 2016, Apple famously deleted all third-party Reddit apps that allowed users to toggle NSFW posts on and off; even now, it is impossible to access porn on an iOS Reddit app unless you jump through various hoops.
We don’t know for sure whether Tumblr made this final decision under pressure from Apple, or because the platform felt like it could not competently moderate the platform any longer. But the decision to get rid of adult content wholesale is consistent both with the corporatization and sanitization of the internet that Apple has led the charge on.
Tumblr’s decision is even more disappointing because it’s obvious in D’Onofrio’s explanation that Tumblr leadership does not understand the important role that Tumblr held in the adult content community.
Tumblr’s leadership seems to believe that the community using Tumblr for adult content is the same as any other porn site—showing a serious disconnect with how its users actually interact and connect on its own platform. “We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community,” he wrote.
The value of Tumblr for NSFW creators and fans was in the autonomy to curate something original, and the freedom to express and share what they’re into—something that can’t be replaced by algorithmically-suggested porn on the rest of the internet.
That’s also becoming less and less true in the aftermath of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, signed in April, as sites have cracked down on NSFW communities or shut down altogether for fear of repercussions of hosting adult content.
“For many, that’s the one place we could find porn that represents us, made by indie performers who created their own content outside of an often racist, transmisogynist, fatphobic industry”
This writing has been on the wall for a while. In February, Tumblr turned Safe Mode on by default for all its users, essentially making adult content creators invisible to the rest of the platform unless users opted out of the feature manually.
In November, some Tumblr users started reporting being banned without warning—in some cases, permanently—for posting NSFW content. These included sexually-themed art and illustrations, and sex workers who use the platform to sell commissions for fans.
“It’s hilarious how they’ll ban anything even remotely adult, given it’s part of what made their platform initially popular, but they can’t handle actual hate speech, the pearl clutching ‘think of the children’ crusaders who attack anyone they deem ‘wrong’, or Nazi bullshit,” Abigail Sin, who uses Tumblr for NSFW fandom blogs as well as her own sex work, told Motherboard in a Twitter message. “By hilarious I mean ridiculous. There are fan artists who stopped creating because of the shit they’ve been put through there—everything from rape threats and death threats to character assassination.” Sin told Motherboard that she plans to shut down and try to find a new platform for her content.
This is yet another example of a platform ignoring adult content when it helps the platform flourish, and then leaving those users out to dry when it’s time to crack down for some monetary gain or face-saving. In addition to being a terrible way to treat your user base, banning adult content on Tumblr will stifle a lot of creativity.
Robert Yang, a game designer who created a game with a plot about leaked dick pics, told Motherboard in a Twitter message that Tumblr turning on Safe Mode was a turning point for his work—and now that the platform is banning it altogether, it’s not clear what will happen to these kinds of works.
“It’s kind of sad, because when I was evaluating different platforms to use for this, Tumblr was basically the only one that seemed big enough / with an art-oriented community / with a decent API / that would stand the test of time,” Yang said. “As someone who makes computer-based art, I worry a lot about preservation, and it kinda makes me wonder how much art and culture is getting destroyed here. Erotic art and sexuality is especially over-policed by platforms, by credit card companies, by fucked up laws like FOSTA.”
The communities that will feel this change the most will be the already-marginalized. “Tumblr banning adult content is a huge loss for the LGBTQ community, especially those with overlapping marginalized identities,” Kitty Stryker, a queer porn performer and consent activist, told Motherboard in an email. “For many, that’s the one place we could find porn that represents us, made by indie performers who created their own content outside of an often racist, transmisogynist, fatphobic industry. Tumblr was where our content could exist without pushing us into the restrictions of a misogynist, male dominated workplace.”
Stryker also brought up that it’s one of the few places where explicit sex education could take place, in a society that ignores or actively attacks queer, kink, and non-monogamous relationships. “I’d be shocked if, since this depends on user reports, this doesn’t disproportionately affect users who are not white, cis, able bodied, slender, and feminine,” Stryker said. “It’s a huge loss from an identity affirming perspective, from an educational perspective, from a feminist erotica perspective.”