Tumblr And The Cult Of The Safe – OpEd


Be aware of the titty. Or pudenda. Or anything else suggesting a copulative angle familiar to most adults with a decent constituency of desire. The world of Tumblr, home of the expressive identity and sexual subculture, has shrunk before the pressings of those averse to the flesh, and much more besides. The theocrats around the world will be proud; puritans will be celebrating with book-burning (app ridding?) excitement. The cult of the safe will have asserted itself with ghastly certainty under the usual pretext of protecting people from the serpent’s apple. In ignorant boredom, you are safe.

Two weeks ago, the sharing and microblogging site announced that it would be imposing a new set of guidelines. Not that this would have surprised anyone plugged into the modern zeitgeist of virtual censorship. The platform has, at points, engaged in such grand acts of condescension as reverting to “Safe Mode” and removing any reference to explicit content. “If the service is still working for you but the Safe Mode is turned on,” wrote Vikas Shukla for Value Walk in November, “you can manually turn it off to enter the forbidden land.”

That, it transpired, was linked to claims last month that child pornography had waded made its murky way through the site’s filters, leading to Apple banning it from its iOS App Store. The blow was so apparent as to make Motherboard remark that, “With its massive distribution and strict rules, Apple’s App Store has had a broad homogenizing and sanitizing effect on the internet.”

Mandatory in any such announcements is the preliminary salute to openness, a sure sign that it is about to be modified, if not done away with altogether. “Since its founding in 2007,” comes the explanation from CEO Jeff D’Onofrio, “Tumblr has always been a place for wide open, creative self-expression at the heart of the community and culture.” The pensiveness follows. “Over the past several months, and inspired by our storied past, we’ve given serious thought to who we want to be to our community moving forward and have been hard at work laying the foundation for a better Tumblr.” (The censors have been agitating.)

In true organisation agitprop, Tumblr claimed it had to change. Community members were supposedly consulted, but evidently only certain ones. “Today, we’re taking another step by no longer allowing adult content, including explicit sexual content and nudity (with some exceptions).”

This is telling: Tumblr has retreated into a world without adults, and embraced a childish, sex-free, or at the very least unsexualised space of engagement. But it is far more than that: the platform will be a “safe place for creative expression, self-discovery, and a deep sense of community.” The discomforting will be eschewed like the plague; the propagandists of safety will be heralded.

The company seeks to assure users that this new policy “should not be confused” with standard protocols on child protection, “including child pornography” which “has no place in our community.” While all “bad actors” can never be prevented from using the Tumblr platform, “we make it our highest priority to keep the community as safe as possible.”

The company admits, like all good censors both actual and prospective, that the task of “filtering this type of content” comes with its problems. “Automated tools” are being used to “identity adult content and humans to help train and keep our systems in check.”

A parental note of apology prevails: we are aware you will be unhappy being restrained from seeing or doing certain things, and mistakes will be made. When these happen, it “sucks”. Daddy D’Onofrio is clear on this: if you wish to see subject matter featuring adult content, take your viewing, and loading habits, elsewhere. We are playing happy families here in “creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.”

Many users reacted with the understandable rage of people forcibly infantilised, while also noting that other content – for instance stomach churning subject matter from the alt-right – remained permissible. (Mammary glands insufferable; Hitler, not exactly fun but tolerable.) Otherwise innocent posts were also netted, the result, according to the BBC, of “poorly performing algorithms”.

The company in its December 17 post, issued clarifications and adjustments. Posts containing GIFs, videos, and photos in violation of the platform’s policy would not be confined to oblivion but hidden. Such content would be flagged, in which case an appeal might be made. To puzzled identitarians, Tumblr “will always be a place to explore your identity”, a home for the “marginalised”.

This has been something of a snag for the content filterers given the frequent excursions of troublesome sexual fancy, or matters of the body, that finds its way onto the site. “LGBTQ+ conversations, exploration of sexuality and gender, efforts to document the lives and challenges of those in the sex worker industry, and posts with pictures, videos, and GIFs of gender-confirmation surgery are all examples of content that is not only permitted on Tumblr but actively encouraged.” Where the policy fits with dull heterosexual matters is less clear.

The December 17 post also seeks to clarify, if somewhat clumsily, that “erotica, nudity related to political or newsworthy speech, and nudity found in art, specifically sculptures and illustrations, is also stuff that can be freely posted on Tumblr.” And if you want further details, breast-feeding shots displaying the nipple suckled will be fine, including “birth or after-birth moments, and health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery.” (Such sanitised delights!)

The protests have been thickening the social media sphere, but these are about as confronting as damp lettuce in search of a colander. There will be no street protests, and it is unlikely that a massive exodus from the site will be precipitated. A Log Off Protest is being staged by groups wishing to avoid Tumblr for the first day of the ban, though it is unlikely to invoke the changes demanded. Central to the digital sharing age is not enthusiastic diversity but inadvertent submission; the tech controllers intent on predicting and ultimately influencing human behaviour have become a modern priestly caste.

A sense of the amateurish revolt against these minders, revealing a child-still-in-swaddling-clothes mentality, can be found in a post insisting that the log off be for at least two days, if not seven. Don’t delete the app. “Make noise elsewhere.” Even think of using other platforms, but importantly “do not give up.” Months might pass, maybe years “to make them realize that the adult band [sic] is bad. That Nazis and bots will exist after this.”

The rage of social media is, for all that, quick fire and amnesiac. The greater lesson in Tumblr’s approach is the realisation that the Internet and the world of apps, sharing and expression did not usher in an endless frontier of expression and engagement, but one as policed as any other. Market your service as if to children, and be spared the trouble.

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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