Tumblr's ban on adult content is pushing artists and sex workers to other sites, such as Twitter and Patreon

Key Points
  • The blogging site, owned by Yahoo parent Verizon, announced earlier this month it would flag and remove "adult content."
  • Former Tumblr power users are now looking for alternatives in sites such as Twitter, Patreon and Pillowfort.
  • Tumblr communities won't be easily replicated for users who explicitly dealt in adult content. The site's open policies allowed a community of sex workers and adult content stars to flourish.
David Karp, founder of Tumblr Inc.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Tumblr has long housed some of the most self-expressive, marginalized communities of the internet. The site welcomed LGBTQ and sex-positive bloggers, artists and creators, self-proclaimed nerds and those in need of support.

Now, with a strict and poorly executed ban on adult content, Tumblr is alienating power users and pushing some to other sites.

The blogging site, owned by Yahoo parent Verizon, announced earlier this month it would flag and remove "adult content" — most instances of nudity and erotica, with some exceptions for artistic or educational content. On Monday, the first of the flagged content was taken down.

"The thing that is so upsetting to me is that I see all of these people, most of them young people, who are trying to find a place where they can be themselves, where they can find people who are like themselves," said Wil Wheaton, a writer and actor. "And Tumblr is kind of taking that away by de-listing and hiding these things."

Wheaton has been on Tumblr for more than a decade and has watched as communities formed. Trauma survivors turned to Tumblr for relief, he said, and young artists found a sympathetic audience.

"Those communities took care of themselves. They did a really good job of policing themselves and caring for their members," Wheaton said.

He also watched as groups of white supremacists and misogynists formed at the margins of the site. Tumblr communities raised alarms about the groups, Wheaton said, but Tumblr turned on its core instead.

"You don't burn down the village to save it," Wheaton said.

In a blog post this week, Tumblr acknowledged the transition had been rocky and vowed to improve its systems.

"Tumblr has always been home to marginalized communities and always will be. We fully recognize Tumblr's special obligation to these communities and are committed to ensuring that our new policy on adult content does not silence the vital conversations that take place here every day," the company said.

'They claimed that our art would be safe'

Stephanie Carlson has been a daily Tumblr user since 2012. She creates and posts edited photos and graphics, often based on pop culture or popular movies. Several of her pieces were flagged after the content ban and hidden — "essentially destroyed," she said.

"There are so many creators on this site who have spent years putting love and hard work into their edits, art, literature, fan fiction and poetry, and it's heartbreaking that Tumblr seems to be viciously going after them," Carlson said. "They have not given us the chance to back up and export our blogs before Dec. 17. They claimed that our art would be safe."

Tumblr says content that is flagged is simply hidden from public view, not deleted. Carlson said several of her works were hidden from her own view and wiped of their tags, which made them easier to search for.

Carlson said she never posted material that was "not safe for work" — a label commonly used to identify more mature content on the site. The posts that were removed from her blog showed fully clothed, mainstream celebrities.

"I loved Tumblr for years, but not if they're going to make this statement and create an unsafe and toxic environment. There is no integrity in what they're doing," she said.

Hashtags such as #TumblrMigration, #TumblrLogOff and #TumblrPurge caught momentum on Twitter this week. A Reddit thread with hundreds of comments offered up Tumblr alternatives such as Patreon, a sort of freelancing site that lets users paywall their work or ask for monetary tips.

Several former Tumblr users said they were optimistic about Pillowfort, a blogging platform that combines features of Tumblr and Patreon. The site is currently in private beta testing.

Twitter's media policies allow for adult content in most use cases, but it's not permitted in live video, profile or header images. A spokesperson for Patreon said the company works with "creators of all types, some of whom might fall under the category of mature content." Both sites require that adult content be flagged as such.

Adjacent to the mainstream

Tumblr communities won't be easily replicated for users who explicitly dealt in NSFW content. The site's open policies allowed a community of sex workers and adult content stars to flourish. The content ban could put their livelihoods at risk.

Tyler Darlig Ulv used Tumblr to build an audience for the escort services he runs off other sites. He connected with artists in the adult content industry and found potential clients. Tumblr became a top referrer for his own blog and personal website, he said.

"What's described as a 'ban on explicit images' is arguably far more damaging than that language makes it seem," he said. "At the heart of this, what's being decimated with shadowbans and content restrictions is an ability to find and maintain community online."

On Tumblr, adult content sat alongside "mainstream" content and met a broader audience, Darlig Ulv said, to the benefit of his business.

"What I've witnessed in the last two weeks is a handful of other companies and platforms all vying for some designation as the 'next' Tumblr," Darlig Ulv said. "Nobody is having trouble finding porn on the internet. That's a misunderstanding of what Tumblr did ... People came to me who didn't know they were looking for what I did. This was the magic of this mainstream adjacency."

"There will be a void for a while. Probably a long while."

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