Tumblr’s porn ban is depressing. Here’s why

Washington – If you never thought you would see people get weepy over porn, you’ve never been on Tumblr.

The site’s announcement that it would remove "photos, videos, and GIFs of human genitalia, female-presenting nipples, and any media involving sex acts, including illustrations" from its public-facing platform was greeted with a mass display of mourning. 

Users bewailed the change as a blow against vulnerable populations for whom Tumblr was a safe space to access adult content – and it is. But this story is much bigger than Tumblr alone.

At its core, the Tumblr tale is about a topic most of us probably associate with white supremacists or pill-hawking conspiracy mongers: content moderation. The first lesson is that it’s hard. Tumblr’s efforts to cleanse itself of obscene content have apparently led to a purge of "all anime," "anyone fat" and "dinosaurs," among other innocent content that the site’s algorithm has detected as explicit. 

Tumblr, it seems, is relying on artificial intelligence to screen its site. And a nonhuman system cannot realistically catch only the content a company wants without error.

This is not only a technological problem. It’s a policy problem. Armed with an imperfect weapon, Tumblr faced a choice: let some offending posts go or open up some acceptable posts to algorithmic attack. 

The platform appears to have picked the latter, and it’s betting on broadness more generally with its far-reaching rule against sexy stuff writ large. The reason leads to lesson two: On the Internet, there are moderators, and then there are the moderators’ moderators.

Mourning Tumblr’s pornographic content is more than mourning sexy GIFs. It’s mourning openness. The Internet democratized sex; suddenly, what was once too taboo to access without stigma was available to anyone with a screen and a search engine. 

Tumblr made that democratized system more democratic still. Its independent model emphasized performers’ agency, which meant posters’ output was more likely to be ethical and not exploitative. 

And a focus on creativity over merely clicks for cash led to bodies that were not stereotypically porn-ready, sexualities that sold less well on the mainstream market, kinks that were not presented as some strange sort of "other. "

This is the sort of porn it is worth shedding a tear or two over, and its loss is a sign that an Internet that once seemed limitless may be getting a little smaller. It is hard to say now what the world will look like with a slightly less wide Web. One thing, though, is certain: We’ll know it when we see it.

The Washington Post                         

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