Some Explaining to Do: Tumblr and Critics Tussle Over Porn Treatment

Published on July 20, 2013
by Liz Gannes

Some Tumblr users are angry about the company’s policies toward porn — or as the popular blogging service delineates it, not-safe-for-work (a.k.a. sexy) and adult (a.k.a. very, very sexy) content.


It’s a little dicey to parse a fight about who can see and not see what, and where — but the big issue is policies around making NSFW and adult content accessible to people who want to find them via Tumblr search and tags, as well as public search engines.

And the underlying question is whether Tumblr’s new owner, Yahoo, is exerting influence to whitewash a service where at least a tenth of popular content is not family-friendly.

Tumblr says to calm down about the corporate overlord influence, because nothing has changed. Well, not exactly. It says it “fixed” its internal search to allow people who explicitly want to find NSFW content to actually find it. But it’s not clear how long this particular feature was broken.

CEO David Karp wrote in a blog post last night that “there haven’t been any recent changes to Tumblr’s treatment of NSFW content, and our view on the topic hasn’t changed.”

He also explained that Tumblr is blocking some widely applicable tags — like #gay — within some apps (this means Apple’s iOS, where Tumblr’s app is at risk of getting blocked). Tumblr’s staff has picked some apparently less popular tags — like #lgbtq — to moderate by hand so they can appear in the apps. It’s kind of odd.

Close reads of Karp’s post have not been friendly, citing differing public explanations of Tumblr policies over the past year, as well as things like Tumblr’s alleged pullback from earlier support of a category devoted to erotica.

But if you read those close reads closely, the issue seems to be that Tumblr should make it clearer what the difference is between what it calls NSFW (occasional nudity) blogs and adult (substantial nudity) blogs, and explain who gets to decide that, and why.

In fact, TechCrunch’s takedown of Tumblr’s explanation actually shows that Tumblr policy has apparently made so-called NSFW content more findable over the past year. It used to be withheld from Google search, and now it isn’t.

According to the most current policy page (which actually says it’s outdated!), the adult blogs are the ones that are explicitly blocked from most mobile apps, Tumblr searches and third-party search engines. The NSFW ones aren’t (or shouldn’t be).

So perhaps people should stop complaining about Tumblr changing the rules, and ask it to actually explain the rules.

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