Thursday, 27 December 2018

The imminent and well-deserved demise of Tumblr

Truth Coming Out Of Her Well to Shame Mankind

On 3 December Tumblr announced it was getting rid of adult content, starting in two weeks from the announcement. Tumblr management has never been competent at the best of times, but this takes the cake. This will kill the site.

Those of you who don’t have Tumblr accounts will scarcely imagine what a dumpster-fire this is. Just to start with, the main draw of Tumblr was that it was the one social media site that allowed adult content. What Tumblr has just done is basically what I’ve seen a couple of local hospitality businesses do – a pub on the Otago University campus years ago, and a café in Port Chalmers more recently. Both had quirky art-work that gave them an alternative vibe; both were bought by new owners who removed the quirky art-work and tried to rebrand them as bland mainstream venues; both promptly went out of business. The campus pub was eventually revived by a competent proprietor; the Port café is currently sitting empty, a monument to the folly of erasing a successful enterprise’s main point of distinctiveness. The same fate awaits Tumblr.

I was on Tumblr for nearly two years. My original hope, when I joined, was to spread this blog a little further, since after six years I have exactly two followers here. This was not to be, because Tumblr’s search software passes over posts that contain links to other sites – far from the only way in which Tumblr fails its users – which meant that the links to this blog were only seen by those few of my followers who happened to be online at the moment I posted the links. Additionally, I gained Tumblr followers relatively slowly; I think my peak following, after two years, was 182 including spambots. I think this may have been because I declared on my blog header that I was a nudist but didn’t intend to post any nude photos, which lost me both the people who think nudism is skeevy and the people who want to see nude photos. But I can’t be sure.

(Tumblr advertises itself as being good for artists. How are they any good for artists if they make posts with external links non-searchable, you might wonder, so that artists can either get their art seen or link to places where people can pay them for it, but not both? Well, they aren’t, that’s how. And yet, so many of us put up with them, until now.)

The announcement came in the form of an official letter from the Tumblr staff account, which I would go through and point out all the lies except that it’s all lies. The new guidelines ban, and I quote, “images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples,” in case you were wondering why the phrase “female-presenting nipples” became a commonly repeated joke in early December. So Tumblr is apparently enlightened enough to talk in terms of gender “presentation”, and yet reactionary enough to frame femaleness as inherently more sexual than maleness. Remember, this is not an old policy. This is a policy devised in 2018 by the curators of one of the internet’s biggest platforms for feminist and LGBT content.

Most of us first knew something was going wrong on 16 November, when the Tumblr app disappeared from Apple’s App Store. For those like me who used Tumblr on our computers rather than on mobile, the first sign was when Tumblr responded by suddenly making huge numbers of posts non-searchable, based on their tags – not just things like #NSFW and #nudity but hundreds more, some quite inexplicable. I never did find out why we suddenly couldn’t search for #chronic pain. Meanwhile, posts tagged with things like #white supremacy and #white genocide continued to pop up in search results.

Our first thought was that this was a ham-fisted attempt to deal with the exponentially-increasing nuisance of pornographic spambots. Any post on any subject at all whose count of responses reached five digits would suddenly start getting reblogged by porn-themed accounts with generic comments like “Cool, see my site here.” You could report and block, report and block, report and block, and new bots would keep on coming. They weren’t intended to attract the eyes of the bloggers they were harassing, but to piggyback off them to hoist their coders’ porn sites up the Google search rankings. You see, the way Tumblr works, if you reblog a post and add a caption, then there is now a link to your blog from every other blog that has also reblogged that post. If thousands of people have reblogged it then that’s thousands of links, all from legitimate content-bearing webpages that real people read, and that’s what Google’s search algorithms look for. So our first response was: well, yay that the staff are doing something about this at last, but they need to get a lot smarter about it, please.

Of course we were quite mistaken to think Tumblr management had suddenly started caring about their users’ experience of the site. The pornbot coders wised up within a week or two and reprogrammed their bots to use the tag #SFW and no unsearchable tags, which it turned out was all it took to get past the algorithms. Those of us who conscientiously tagged Pre-Raphaelite paintings as #nudity (so people could filter them out on their work computer just in case their boss looking over their shoulder got the wrong idea) continued to be punished for our honesty.

The next hypothesis was that it was about the child porn, and that does seem to be what sparked Apple’s ire. Tumblr’s strategy for dealing with paedophiles was exactly the same as their strategy for dealing with Nazis, to wit “have a Block function and let the users do all the work”. I’m glad to say I never saw any myself, but many other users had been making complaints to the staff about the problem for years, with the same results as every other complaint to the staff. Getting dropped from the App Store, now that was something they cared about.

But while the App Store incident undoubtedly fast-tracked the adult content ban, the truth is it had been coming for months. Like many other social media platforms, Tumblr’s business plan is to hire out their users’ eyeballs to advertisers. They evidently noticed that their site was getting popular with the social justice crowd and in particular the Black Lives Matter movement, and they apparently had a big plan in the works to capitalize on that. And many advertisers baulk at the idea of people seeing their ads right next to GIFs of sex acts. So the nudity had to go. We used to think that if Tumblr had just one virtue, it was that they understood that not all nudity is sexual and not everything sexual is degrading; now it turns out they just didn’t care about being degrading until there was money in it.

On top of all that, there’s a draconian piece of legislation coming into force in the United States next year called SESTA/FOSTA – I can’t be bothered looking up the acronyms but the ST in both halves stands for “sex trafficking”. Nobody with any human decency could oppose stopping sex trafficking, which makes it the perfect pretext for interest groups pushing less creditable agendas. Under the new law, social media hosts based in the US will be liable for allowing sexual solicitation on their sites, even unknowingly, even if it’s just one ad. This is why Facebook, from next month on, is going to start cracking down on anything that could remotely be interpreted as a sexual invitation, up to and including posts consisting of “looking for a good time tonight ;)”. This legislation will incidentally stifle discussion of sexuality or sexual orientation in social media; I’m pretty sure that’s a plus as far as its originators are concerned, but it might come as an unpleasant surprise for some of its more liberal supporters.

How deleting Facebook posts saying “looking for a good time tonight ;)” will contribute to stopping sex trafficking is: it won’t. But at least Facebook understands that you need human intervention to make this sort of thing work. Tumblr think they’re going to accomplish it with software, and indeed with ludicrously simplistic software. They’ve promised that nude paintings and breastfeeding photos and news articles about nude protests will be safe once they get their programs properly trained, but the algorithm they’re using could not possibly make such fine distinctions even if you trained them on all the data on the internet for a thousand years. You may have seen funny Facebook posts about the photo-captioning AI, trained on pictures of fields of sheep, that tagged all fields as “sheep” and failed to recognise sheep in any other context. It’s the same algorithm.

Nude images follow.

Just to add insult to injury, the day the adult content ban came into force was 17 December 2018, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Presumably many of the supporters of SESTA/FOSTA belonged to that well-meaning subset of the population who think sex workers are best protected by stopping them doing sex work, and some to the overlapping subset who think sex work is sex trafficking by definition. But if you care about protecting vulnerable people you need to listen to them when they tell you what will and won’t protect them, and sex workers are unequivocal that these laws won’t protect them.

These laws don’t do what they’re designed to do. They don’t stop trafficking, they actually make it harder to find victims... Also turns out if you remove sites used to screen clients, pimps spring up offering safe client lists. Removing advertising also forces sex workers out onto street corners.
We’re about 160% as likely to be murdered as you are to get the clap, and about 4× as likely to be murdered as you are to go to the hospital for the flu. Consider... giving a shit about those numbers, maybe. That’d be nice.

That’s awful. How come people still do it despite the overwhelming danger?

Because we’re locked in a cycle of criminalization with résumé gaps, limited access to education and resources, hugely affected by classism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny, and kind of have no other options if we don’t want to die, Brenda.

“...Why are you so rude to civilians about sex work?”
Because of the countless [messages] I get saying that any violence I experience is my own fault for being a criminal in the first place – sometimes this includes being trafficked as a minor – and if I don’t want to get raped I should just get a real job since nobody’s making me work corners now.
Because the only time I’ve ever heard civilians talking about our safety even in the most left-aligned circles is when they’ve decided to take on the Nordic model, and a couple days ago when a few people decided to throw in “sex workers on Tumblr” as a reason to get angry about the NSFW ban while having never said a word about us before.
Because half of the people on twitter talking about SESTA/FOSTA have decided the primary issue is homophobia, not even bothering to nod at the whorephobia the entire bill was built and passed on.
Because every “good ally” civilian complains about how meanly I word my posts, because they care about us and I don’t have to be so aggressive, it makes them not want to help us.
Because even other sex workers treat people like me like shit and I am tired, I am so fucking tired of being friendly about this. I used to be! I used to be so fucking kind about this and what I got for it was this.
So yeah, I’m gonna keep being snide about our death statistics. Because that’s what me being mean is, see, it’s saying “Maybe care about the fact we’re being murdered.” It’s not suicide baiting, it’s not telling people they should get raped, it’s not even calling them rude words. That’s the shit y’all throw at me.
All I’m doing is making you a little uncomfortable, and you know what? You deserve to be.

Those are the words of a person who was a sex trafficking victim as a minor, and is now a sex worker. If a person in that position says that cracking down on online solicitation isn’t going to help sex workers or sex trafficking victims, I’m sorry, I’m going to believe them. In case you missed it, the central point about online platforms is that they allow workers to screen out potentially dangerous clients without having to make any physical contact with them or rely on a pimp.

So why social media? There are sites specifically dedicated to sex services; why can’t sex workers use those instead? Because they are just as untrustworthy as the pimps, and for the same reason. Sex work is illegal nearly everywhere, so sex workers have no legal recourse against employers who steal from them, which the porn sites accordingly do. Yes, including that one that’s been selling itself lately as being enlightened and socially aware. Especially that one. Tumblr’s anything-goes adult content policy allowed sex workers to cut out middlemen of every variety. Not any more.

As I say, nobody with any decency could oppose stopping sex trafficking. And it would be hard to disagree with the statement that nobody ought to be forced into sex work by their economic circumstances. But if someone has ended up having to choose between a bed some stranger pays them to share and no bed at all, taking the bed away by force of law isn’t going to do them any good.

I’m bisexual. It’s been seven or eight years now since I admitted this to myself and my partner; four since I quietly sneaked a mention of it into a discussion on this blog of something else; only two since I announced it on Facebook (by sharing a coming-out meme). It’s not a coincidence that two years is also about the length of time I had a Tumblr account for. I haven’t yet found another place where I can hang out with other bisexual people and get past the discomfort that still clings to the topic when you’re in the straight world.

Yes, yes, we’ve all heard it many many times. “I have nothing against gay people but I wish they wouldn’t keep shoving it in my face.” The thing is, every queer person quickly finds that for many of those who say this, any visibility whatsoever counts as “shoving it in their face”. I’ve seen such complaints erupt on a webcomic forum after one character in the comic expressed the hope that her son would find “a nice gal or fella to settle down with” – nothing more than that. Those two passing words “or fella” apparently constituted “shoving it in people’s faces.” Three years later one of the disputants is still coming back to vandalize the webcomic’s Wikipedia page.

In consequence, LGBT content on any broad public forum – material as innocuous as two women holding hands – gets relentlessly flagged as “adult”. We’ve seen this on YouTube and I believe Twitter as well. I don’t think their web programmers hard-coded them to automatically send the #gay and #lesbian tags to This Post May Contain Sensitive Content jail; I think homophobic users did the flagging and the algorithms noticed the correlation and finished the job. Again, on Tumblr nobody cared, until now. That’s why Tumblr became the home of the online LGBT community. Which was not without its negatives – you should have seen the endless sniping over whether asexual people belong in the community, or whether the word “queer” is a slur – but still, it was a place to be. Now all that is going away, and with it Tumblr’s hopes of monetizing the social justice movement.

And then there’s us nudists. Now I didn’t post nude photos on Tumblr until the ban was announced, after which I did it in protest for the remaining two weeks before deleting my account; but everything I said above about finding a place where I can be open about my bisexuality goes a hundredfold for being open about my nudism. No, I can’t just choose not to be a nudist, because I have sensory issues with clothing, probably due to my autism, especially in hot weather. But if it’s difficult to be openly bisexual in today’s society, it is flat impossible to be openly a nudist. We have no allies who’ll help us raise a stink when our lives are cloistered away behind #NSFW filters, which we must therefore just grit and bear. Tumblr was a place where you could mingle in general society as a nudist. Not any more.

Of course, Tumblr management being the incompetents that they are, we also had no recourse when people came in sexualizing our lifestyle and reblogging our images amongst porn and voyeur shots, which was why I had that no-nude-photos policy. Still, we had a space where we could be ourselves amongst other people and just occasionally demonstrate to them that we’re just like everyone else except for not wearing clothes. Now that’s gone.

It’s not just nudists who are hurt by this. Plenty of people who aren’t committed to the lifestyle still like getting their kit off in the open air now and then, not for sexual purposes but just because it feels better. Plenty of people whose bodies don’t fit our culture’s constricting norms of what’s attractive found strength in taking photos displaying their uniquenesses without shame. Casual nudity and body positivity shade into full-on nudism without a sharp boundary. But all of that is only possible in an environment where you can be reasonably sure your body won’t be either censored or sexualized. Most social media sites censor it by default; those that allow nudity allow it only behind the Adult Content curtain, where it is exposed to being sexualized. Tumblr was the exception – not that you wouldn’t be sexualized, but other decent people would have your back. All gone.

Here are some examples of the sort of thing that could only have happened on Tumblr. All of them were flagged unsuitable in the fortnight leading up to the ban. The first is a whimsical photo taken in a fleeting (and certainly not sexual) moment, and yet its impact would be completely blunted if any kind of censorship were applied:

A butterfly alights on a young woman’s breast in the sunshine

Here’s a body positivity shot. Consider the story this person’s body tells and the courage it must have taken to tell it this way. A clothed shot, even with the clothing adjusted to display the scar, just wouldn’t convey the same message:

A nude woman poses to reveal her mastectomy scar

And finally, a photo with far less artistic merit, but again certainly with no sexual content. The point here is that this is just an ordinary day in an ordinary life – a beach visit in summer. Nothing remarkable about it except for the absence of clothing – which is exactly the point:

Me nude at Pūrākaunui Beach on my 40th birthday

Now that people know what they’re missing, I think there’s hope that we’ll get a new platform within a year or two. In the longer term, we’re going to keep having this kind of problem until there’s a fundamental shift in society’s attitude to bodies and sexuality. We thought Tumblr was helping facilitate that shift, if only through apathy. I’m still annoyed (maybe you can tell) that they’ve fallen through. But now that I know how far you can trust them, I won’t be going back.

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