Two months ago when Yahoo! bought out the social network Tumblr, many fans of the popular site shuddered with concerns about what changes the major corporation would be making. Tumblr users became primarily concerned about the possibility of more advertisements and feared that Yahoo! would not have quite the open minded approach that Tumblr CEO David Karp had envisioned when he founded the site in 2006. Sure enough, the Tumblr fandom has seen a spike in advertisements lately and now are starting to feel Big Brother breathing down their necks as Tumblr has begun implementing some controversial “censorship” of tags and blogs deemed as Adult or NSFW (Not Safe For Work).
The overhaul primarily affects the way users access Adult and NSFW content rather than the content or the blogs itself. Now, according to a chart posted on the Tumblr FAQ page, all blogs flagged as NSFW or Adult or any tags listed by the site’s administrators as sexual in nature are inaccessible through Tumblr’s mobile and browser-based indexes and all third parties’ search engines. On the bright side, for NSFW tags this is only applicable if the user is not logged into the site or if the optional “Safe Mode” is enabled—blogs flagged as Adult are still only accessible by those following the blog.
A number of complaints have surfaced in the past few days as the Tumblr mobile application has undergone some even stricter shifts in policy. Recently Tumblr, under pressure from Apple to take responsibility for the site’s more adult content, reluctantly reclassified themselves from 4+ to 17+. Since the reclassification and the Yahoo! takeover, the indexing system for mobile devices seems to be filtered differently than its browser counterpart. Several tags are altogether inaccessible on the mobile devices, largely those targeting pornography and various fetishes but some of the banned tags are as broad and generally as tame as #gay, #lesbian, or even simply #sex. Tags or blogs suggesting self harm like #cutting, #suicide, and #depression are also being blocked from the mobile app. In the mean time, as observed by Aja Romano of The Daily Dot, more obviously controversial tags such as #boy love and #self-harm are inexplicably allowed.
Despite the dramatic changes in the way Tumblr indexes what they consider “explicit” content, the new policies, while harsh, do not actually overstep any freedom of speech boundaries. Karp addressed the issue this week on The Colbert Report, earnestly insisting that Tumblr takes “a pretty hard line on freedom of speech, supporting our users’ creations, whatever it looks like, it’s just not something we want to police.”
Because Tumblr itself owes a great deal to several pornographic sub domains, most of which have been shut down now, who had boosted its popularity in its fledgling years, it has been, as a rule, pretty open minded (with some extreme exceptions) about maintaining a free creative environment for their users. The overwhelming majority of Tumblr users portray Yahoo! as the villain, justifiably asserting that the deep-pocketed corporation’s concerns are for their advertisers and not the website’s users.
Underneath the sea of complaints by users who fear the upheaval has undermined the freedom of expression and openness that Tumblr has always promoted, the problem isn’t really accessing content. Of coarse there’s several issues users have brought up, some fear the new indexing system will prevent open discussions about gay rights, others are simply livid that Tumblr’s space for Erotica posts has been deleted.
The real, underlying dilemma, however, is that the new indexing system presents a major roadblock when it comes to attracting new followers. For a social networking site whose blogs obviously depend on a steady intake of new fans to be successful, omitting tags from search results or detouring the results towards more “PC” options (#gay or #bi tags have been often rerouted to #LGBTQ) will render many blogs virtually invisible.
While a large part of the problematic tags blocked on the mobile application were regulated by Apple and not Yahoo!, any repercussions from policing NSFW and Adult content will eventually come back to bite Yahoo! in the end.
Dwindling fan bases and even the slightest odor of repression have certainly become unnerving for the Tumblr community. Already some fans have started organizing petitions to repeal the new safeguards. One such petition, posted on Change.com, has been circulating around the Internet and has, at this writing, found 20, 179 supporters with just fewer than five thousand left before it is to be sent to the Tumblr staff.
Tumblr users have not taken the change in the guard quietly and have loudly voiced their mistrust of Tumblr’s new parent company. Though the changes are defensible on a spreadsheet being passed around a boardroom table, it’s still too difficult to call who has the moral high ground. One way or another, unless the new protective screens are adjusted to meet some kind of happy—or at least happier medium, there are sure to be some serious ramifications to come.
Written By: Savannah Mealer