On Monday, December 3, Tumblr announced that it would ban all adult content starting on December 17, 2018. This is a result of the demands of its clients, who pay for advertising space on the site, and these demands more than likely have something to do with Tumblr being removed from the Apple App Store.
Along with this announcement, Tumblr implemented an algorithmic image filtering system that is laughably flawed, and people have been posting humorous examples of images that were tagged as “NSFW” by this system, including a screenshot of Super Mario in a bathing suit, Bowser with a Pride Flag background, a drawing of Garfield the cat, a drawing of an alligator in an Aloha shirt, a link to an article about the flaws of this system that uses an image of a desert as its header, and the announcement post itself. For what it’s worth, the drawing of an anime man holding a cartoon pig that I posted about earlier was also flagged (thankfully, I was able to make a successful appeal for this post, which remains completely harmless).
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to appeal posts that have been flagged by the algorithm, as a user can only make an appeal by clicking on a button attached to the original post as it appears on their internal dashboard. If the post is recent, this is mildly annoying; but, if the post is older, the user will have to scroll through hundreds or even thousands of their own posts to find the original, as the appeal button will not appear on a reblog. There is no way to find posts that have been flagged except to scroll through all of them. In addition, since flagged posts no longer appear on internal searches, there is no way to call up a post that the user knows has been flagged. What this means is that Tumblr is going to delete an extraordinary amount of inoffensive and totally safe-for-work content, and there is very little that anyone can do about it.
There has already been a massive migration from Tumblr, and many people have closed their accounts in protest. In my circles of fandom, artists have been announcing a move to Twitter (where most of them have been active for some time), while writers have largely gone silent. I’ve also starting to come across a few conversations concerning a potential split in fandom.
I think this already happened to a certain extent in 2016, when cultural tensions surrounding the American election had a major effect on the radicalization of fandom spaces. Specifically, people who could migrate to Twitter did so, mostly because it was easier to mute people and block tags there. The people who successfully made this transition tended to be artists who were already popular and comfortable with using their real names for the sake of professional advancement. After all, the creative industry expects that artists are going to make fan art, right? Meanwhile, writers don’t seem to have been able to make this transition, or at least not in the same way. I suspect this has to do with their livelihood being more dependent on their privacy. Like, Heaven forbid that a librarian writes gay fanfiction about Harry Potter; they must be some sort of deviant!
I don’t know the full story behind the planning and launch of Pillowfort, but I think it probably had something to do with the frustration of all the people who felt left behind after communities on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth stopped attracting substantial traffic and activity. I personally feel that the platform has incredible potential; but, in its current beta state, it’s ugly and clunky and not particularly active. It had also been temporarily shut down due to security concerns, a planned outage that could not have had worse timing. What I genuinely hope is that Pillowfort replaces Tumblr in the same way that AO3 has become the preferred platform over FFN, a shift that may create an initial division but just might make everyone happier in the long run.
I think the transition from Fanfiction.net to Archive of Our Own is a more useful model for what may happen to the central hub of fandom than the transition from Tumblr to Twitter. The collective migration from FFN to AO3 was essentially a shift from a proverbial pit of (distressingly young) voles to a platform managed by experienced community organizers, while the migration to Twitter has been a shift toward more explicitly stated and concretely realized capitalist value structures. There’s always going to be a need for lawless and mostly unmoderated spaces with no barriers to entry, and there’s always going to be a need for a space where creative people can make the jump from amateur to professional, but I don’t think either of those types of spaces are a good place to host common forms of self-expression that have been essential to fandom communities for decades.
The alternative may indeed be a split into smaller factions that are almost impossible for an outsider to find or access, such as servers on Discord. Although this is almost impossible to document due to the nature of the platform, I can say from personal experience that I’ve seen horrifying things on Discord, both on servers I joined from Tumblr and servers I joined from Reddit. Because they’re private, exclusive, and almost hermetically sealed, communities on Discord are in danger of becoming echo chambers where truly awful things are said and done. In the same way that private chatrooms associated with 4chan facilitated Gamergate, private Discord servers have led to younger fans being mobilized to participate in harassment campaigns targeted at both fan creators and showrunners. On the older end of the spectrum, many refugees from LiveJournal are still active on Dreamwidth, but communities on DW tend to be deliberately esoteric and opaque, a holdover from LiveJournal culture specifically meant to keep these communities hidden from “outsiders.”
Despite the annoyances and petty dramas of Tumblr, I enjoy being active on the site, which has introduced me to amazing people and helped me discover cultures, communities, and perspectives that I never would have been exposed to otherwise. Tumblr’s enthusiastic embrace of fandom and queer sexuality also helped me come to terms with my own identity and express myself creatively, both of which I had been struggling with my entire life. Although obviously – obviously – everyone wants child pornography and pornbots removed from Tumblr, I’m afraid that the ban on NSFW content is going to disproportionately affect LGBTQ+ people, people of color, neurodivergent and differently abled people, and other minorities who found something resembling a safe space within the inclusive and left-leaning social ecosystems on the site.
By using an algorithm to institute a blanket ban on all potentially “adult” content, Tumblr has committed itself to destroying a lot of healthy and creative self-expression, which will be driven underground into potentially dangerous and radicalized spaces. As I wrote last week in my post Censorship in Fandom, I don’t think deleting “problematic” content serves anyone except advertisers who attempt to monetize social media in order to generate revenue. After all, we’ve been through this before, and it wasn’t pleasant for anyone. I’m worried about what will happen to the communities that were dependent on open self-expression, and I hope that fandom, as a collective community, finds a better place to exist online. As for me, I’m going to give Pillowfort another shot.