Pluralistic: 29 Sep 2022 Porn on Tumblr is a complicated subject

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A Victorian pornographic illustration of a man in coat and neck cloth touching the exposed bottom of a grinning woman who is face down on a fainting-couch. The image forms the backdrop for an animation in which a grinning Tumblr logo bounces up and down over her bum.

Porn on Tumblr is a complicated subject (permalink)

In 2018, Tumblr announced a ban on "adult content." That call was made by Verizon, Tumblr's erstwhile owner, and to call the resulting mess "a shitshow" is an insult to good, hardworking shitshows all over the world.

Verizon enforced this policy with an automated filter, which was charged with analyzing images and categorizing them as "sexual" or "nonsexual." This is risible enough, like asking a computer to sort videos into "virtuous" or "sinful" but that was just for starters.

Verizon's ban included a ban on "female-presenting nipples" – a canonically hard-to-define category – but included exceptions for non-sexual nipple images. Hard to imagine that any serious, disinterested computer scientist promising that an algorithm could cleave "female-presenting nipples" from "male-presenting" ones, let alone decide which ones were "sexual" or not.

The filters were…not good. Verizon posted a selection of images that were explicitly permitted under its policies. That post was blocked by Tumblr's filter.

It wasn't just that Tumblr's AI couldn't turn its unblinking eye upon the nipples casting their shadows upon the wall of Plato's Cave and divine their true nature. Tumblr's AI thought everything was a nipple – or some other potentially "adult" body-part.

A series of nested Tumblr posts marveling at the foolishness of Tumblr's filter.

I posted an image of a hand producing a fingerprint. Tumblr's filter blocked it. I posted a followup about Tumblr's idiotic filter. Tumblr's filter blocked that. I did it again. The filter did, too.

Verizon was not good at running Tumblr, which isn't a surprise, because Verizon's core competencies are lobbying and union-busting. Eventually the company wrote down its online media assets, taking a $4.6B loss:

Tumblrites didn't know what to make of the writedown. There was a lot of trepidation, sure, because even after years of mismanagement by Yahoo and then Verizon, Tumblr was still a community that mattered to its members.

What's more, with the writedown, there was the possibility that someone else – someone less Verizony – would buy the company. That happened! Automattic, creators of WordPress, announced that they would buy Tumblr. Tumblr's filter blocked the announcement:

When Automattic took over Tumblr, there was a lot of hope that the adult content ban would be reversed. Tumblr's adult communities had been hugely important in creating and promulgating a sex-positive, queer-positive, sex-worker-respecting platform, utterly unlike anything else online.

The impact of contributing to and participating in these adult communities can't be overstated. In Tumblr Porn, Ana Valens offers a memoir of how profoundly Tumblr's sex-positive spaces ("vanguard of a user-generated sexual revolution") affected her life:

Verizon's sex ban didn't just shut those communities down – it consigned them to the memory-hole, blocking the archivists who scrambled to preserve them:

But despite the importance of sex to Tumblr's success and the manifest idiocy of Verizon's ban, Automattic did not bring back the adult content, and made it clear they had no immediate plans to change that position.

Now, five years later, Tumblr has made its first tentative moves to open the platform to NSFW materials, with a new dashboard that lets views opt into adult content and a labeling system that lets posters flag their uploads:

This is a far cry from Tumblr's original full-throated, wide-open NSFW policy, and there's a reason for that. In a new post, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg describes why Tumblr's old "go nuts, show nuts" policy can't work today:

It all comes down to chokepoints and liability. It's an open secret that Verizon's Tumblr porn ban was triggered by Apple's threat to block the Tumblr app for iOS users, in the name of preserving the App Store's "child friendly" policy. Remember when Steve Jobs announced that "Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone?"

Google Play – the Android version of the App Store – is only slightly less adamant about blocking adult material. With the mobile duopoly dead set against adult content, an NSFW-friendly Tumblr would have to be web-only. Mullenweg explains why that's not viable: "40% of our signups and 85% of our page views come from mobile apps."

Now, it's true that there are other apps for platforms with a lot of adult content that both app stores welcome (Reddit, Twitter). Mullenweg says "My guess is that Twitter and Reddit are too big for Apple to block so they decided to make an example out of Tumblr, which has 'only' 102 million monthly visitors."

Though, he adds, "Maybe Twitter gets blocked by Apple sometimes too but can’t talk about it because they’re a public company and it would scare investors."

Playing chicken with Apple's App Store censors is a losing proposition. As Mullenweg describes, the interpretation of the App Store rules varies from day to day, depending on which person is evaluating your app. If you submit an app update, Apple might arbitrarily change its position on whether you're crossing a line and block your app instead. When that happens, it's a big deal. Mullenweg: "If Apple permanently banned Tumblr from the App Store, we’d probably have to shut the service down."

But it's not just the mobile duopoly that holds Tumblr's future in its hands. Mullenweg actually ranks payment processors as more powerful than mobile companies. Credit-card companies hate porn. Adding adult content back to Tumblr threatens Automattic's ability to process payments for all its services, from WordPress hosting to ad-free Tumblr subscriptions. Without money, the company couldn't last long, and its 2,000+ employees would be out of a job.

At this stage, Mullenweg anticipates a chorus of cryptocurrency enthusiasts claiming that the solution to this is to accept payment in cryptos. He heads them off. No matter whether you think crypto might solve this problem tomorrow, "today if you are blocked from banks, credit card processing, and financial services, you’re blocked from the modern economy."

But even if you bypass the mobile duopoly and find a way to live without payment processing, setting up an adult-content-friendly site is still fraught. New rules (including SESTA/FOSTA) create civil and criminal liability for adult content hosting; as do rules against nonconsensual pornography (AKA "revenge porn").

Mullenweg doesn't want to host illegal adult content, not just because he doesn't want to go to jail, but because he decries the odious trade in sexual material made without consent, featuring children, or other unsavory circumstances.

But today's environment, filled as it is with networked pocket cameras, is fertile ground for the production of those materials. When anyone can produce sexual images, it becomes extremely difficult to establish whether everyone pictured is of age and consenting.

But even if Tumblr could hire the moderators it needed to make those determinations, it still wouldn't be in the clear, because market concentration elsewhere in the stack makes operating an "adult content business" far harder than it was in Tumblr's heyday.

Today, hosting adult content means finding specialized network connections, hosting, DDoS mitigation and more, because every layer of the "stack" of services other kinds of sites can rely on has been turning into an oligopoly with uniform anti-sex policies.

Paying for those specialized services is a problem, too, and not just because you will struggle to find a bank and credit-card company that will serve your business. Many investment funds are prohibited from investing in "vice" related businesses due to agreements with their own backers, and even the ones that can fund such a business choose not to.

Mullenweg sums up:

If you wanted to start an adult social network in 2022, you’d need to be web-only on iOS and side load on Android, take payment in crypto, have a way to convert crypto to fiat for business operations without being blocked, do a ton of work in age and identity verification and compliance so you don’t go to jail, protect all of that identity information so you don’t dox your users, and make a ton of money.

That's a sobering conclusion, but even more striking is Mullenweg's back-of-the-envelope calculations for what this would take:

I estimate you’d need at least $7 million a year for every 1 million daily active users to support server storage and bandwidth in addition to hosting, moderation, compliance, and developer costs.

Mullenweg closes with his hope that someone else will figure out how to "replace what people used to get from porn on Tumblr," but implies that for Tumblr itself, the best we can hope for are more baby-steps.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

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#1yrago Debts that can't be paid, won't be paid: The first David Graeber Foundation meetup, between Thomas Piketty and Michael Hudson

Colophon (permalink)

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