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18 months on from Tumblr’s infamous porn ban, where do NSFW communities belong?

Digital platforms are so deeply interwoven into every aspect of our lives, functioning as roads for social connection and belonging.

For many who feel isolated, the digital world can provide a sense of fellowship, offering miniature universes for every interest and passion.

NSFW

Artwork: MARIUS SPERLICH

Eighteen months on from the infamous Tumblr porn ban, the company has seen irreparable damage, but what has happened to the site’s once-prolific NSFW community?   

For the American micro-blogging and social networking platform Tumblr, erotica, sexual subcultures, and not-safe-for-work (NSFW) artwork and storytelling have thrived and flourished, celebrated for providing a sense of online intimacy and connection, especially to the queer community and other marginalised groups.

However, following the discovery that child pornography was prominent on the site in December 2018, Tumblr announced that they would be banning adult content in almost every form. This included all images and videos depicting sex acts, and real-life photos and videos depicting human genitalia or “female-presenting” nipples being banned from the service.

While it was clear that the presence of child pornography was an undividedly unacceptable issue that required urgent change, there was also undoubtedly a flip side to the coin. It made sense to tackle a large scale problem such as the presence of child porn with a large scale solution that was as cheap as possible. Rather than paying for the expensive task of patrolling the age of people in porn, Tumblr made the decision to overcorrect and ban NSFW content altogether. But at what cost? Almost immediately after the ban, Tumblr was criticised for censorship, instating digital homelessness in the colossal community of vulnerable people who once found solace in the platform. 

Many mainstream social media platforms seem to push an unattainable cookie-cutter lifestyle upon its users, measuring the worth of an individual based on the wealth and appearance that they digitally convey. However, Tumblr’s celebration of diversity was the key to the platform’s success. Conversely to mainstream internet sectors, Tumblr provided a safe space for sex workers, erotica writers and artists, LGBTIQ+ people searching for a sense of solidarity and people who wanted to explore sexuality, kinks and fetish without judgement.

The porn ban saw these users quickly bleed from the platform to the company’s detriment. While in 2013, Tumblr was sold for $US1.1 billion, 2019 (and not long after the ban) the company was sold for a less than $US3 million, reflecting that the NSFW community had driven the platform’s value.

As Tumblr dealt with their disastrous fall from grace, users were forced into a state of digital nomadism, seeking safe alternatives which provided the same sense of belonging. However, with Tumblr’s fast-paced demise came an ecological niche for new NSFW friendly sites to manifest.

All over the world, tech companies began creating what they hoped would be the most desirable retreat for this group of digital refugees. Within just a few weeks, Dean Abramson, chief architect at online gaming startup, Statabase, launched his side-project newTumbl, which humorously declared they would be filling “a void recently created in the marketplace.” The site’s FAQ section even went on to say that there’s a good chance that users will “instinctively know how to use this site” and may also find it “hauntingly familiar from the get-go”. newTumbl’s offer of asylum to NSFW bloggers was welcomed by many with open arms, gaining 200,000 users within just a few months. It’s growth over the following months, however, was far from impressive.

While it was predicted that the NSFW community would migrate to a platform which was specifically created to replace Tumblr, most users have dispersed to corners of the internet that already existed. While many have taken refuge in sites like newTumbl which function almost identically to Tumblr, others have found consolation in other types of social platforms.

In particular, Reddit has seen a considerable increase in NSFW subreddits, exploring every kind of sexual niche from erotic hypnosis to the humble foot fetish. Some of the most popular subreddits have millions of subscribers, while more specific kinks have much smaller communities which prosper all the same. While NSFW content was always accessible on Reddit, Tumblr’s porn-ban saw the platform become widely known as the most sex-positive mainstream social media platform. It has also been recognised as an educational tool in a world where sex education falls short when it comes to assisting marginalised people in understanding their sexual identity. 

While many Tumblr users were seeking a sense of connection with people around the world who they relate with, others desired quality NSFW that they could explore discreetly and in private. For many years Pornhub has been the most popular free pornography website. However, many ex-Tumblr users wanted content which has been made and distributed ethically. As a result of Tumblr’s porn ban, several ethical, feminist porn sites began to rise in popularity, despite the fact they cost money to access. These platforms provided porn which celebrated consensual sex, inclusivity, gender equality and body positivity. Furthermore, the recent accusations of trafficking have seen over one million people sign a petition calling for Pornhub to be completely shut down, seeing more and more people switch to ethical NSFW platforms and communities. 

Tumblr’s porn ban echoed a downward spiral into online censorship that aimed to protect a marginalised group; however, the decision subsequently hurt many others. Despite a plethora of alternative porn sites and NSFW community forums, it will be impossible to replace everything else that made Tumblr what it was; something they grew organically and into something truly special. While it is comforting to know that there is digital shelter for vulnerable groups who were left feeling alone and isolated after Tumblr changed forever, will they ever feel truly at home in the online world again? 

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July 17, 2020