As a blogger with a background in media distribution, I realise that it isn’t enough to have good (well I like to think it is good) content, you also need to have great distribution networks to ensure that your content is read. This is true of real-world content as well as digital content. I therefore do my best to disseminate my content as widely as possible. My blog therefore posts to Facebook, Google + (yes it seems it still exists…), Twitter and other social media and blogging platforms. I do this to reach people wherever they choose to read my ramblings (and indeed my Ramblings).
One platform that I share content to is Tumblr. I also share my Instagram posts to Tumblr. More on this later.
Now, I have never been an avid Tumblr user, but I do pop in from time to time to check on my content, deal with any messages and interact with a few blogs that interest me. Now those of you who are Tumblr users and those of you who have an interest in free speech will probably know this already, but to others this may come as a surprise. In the past Tumblr has always been a bastion of freedom of expression and had a very ‘free’ policy with respect what sort of content could be posted by its users. As a result, a fair number of people posted a fair bit of adult content on their blogs (apparently more than 10% of the top 200 000 Tumblr accounts primarily featured ‘adult’ content). Unfortunately, some users also pushed the limits of what could be posted and there were instances of child pornography being posted on the site. I find any form of sexual abuse repugnant and am fully supportive of all attempts to remove child pornography and other examples of sexual abuse from the web.
It seems that Tumblr has been trying to control their platform for some time but have been unable to effectively moderate the platform and were forced to take radical steps when Apple removed Tumblr from the Apple app store after a child pornography incident. Sadly Tumblr has now over reacted and issued a site wide ban on all adult content, with effect from 17 December 2018. There have also been mutterings that this was the result of Verizon acquiring ownership of the site (the deal was done in mid-2017) and that Verizon (in line with its overall attempt to stifle the free flow of ideas, information etc on the internet) is attempting to sanitise Tumblr.
I was initially somewhat ambivalent about all of this. Firstly, my blog is most certainly not one of the top 200 000 blogs on Tumblr. Secondly, whilst some of the content I produce is adult in nature (I do discuss pornography from time to time, I do discuss sexuality etc) I would hardly classify any of my content as ‘not safe for work’ let alone erotica or even pornography. I also reject the notion that any discussion about transgender people, sexuality and indeed LGBT people is necessarily an ‘adult’ discussion. I am also no fan of censorship and I prefer content to be as freely available as possible, I am a proponent of net neutrality and I am certainly no prude. On the other hand, I do realise that private companies have the right, within the confines of the law, to do what they wish on the properties they own. So, I don’t think we can cry foul when Twitter (for example) decides to ban someone for using hate speech, or for that matter when Tumblr removes child pornography from a site.
I am also not a fan of private people posting pornography on social media (Twitter, Facebook etc) as I think such content should be sought out by the person wanting it rather than be pushed onto anyone and everyone passing by. This is a nuanced position, and there is plenty of grey area here, but I suppose what I am saying is that I would prefer not to have pornography displayed on my Facebook timeline simply because one of my acquaintances wanted to share it. I am however ok with someone (a friend or a stranger) posting specific adult content to a blog that I can choose to follow or not. In essence, I may want to remain ‘friends’ with a person, see their holiday snaps, scroll past their existential angst and ‘like’ their ‘proud-parent-moments’ and still not want to see pictures of them, or people they know, or complete strangers doing unspeakable things to cucumbers (for example). This may be an example of cognitive dissonance. It may also just be common sense.
Having understood that position, I did think that Tumblr’s decision was a sad day for us all. Tumblr was arguably built on a foundation of adult content. It had some fairly good methods to protect children from seeing age inappropriate content and it was policing its site to reduce child pornography and other abuses. Furthermore, it had a good system that allowed users to report problematic content to the sites custodians. It was by no means perfect but it seemed to be mostly working. I was thus saddened by the decision to curtail adult content on Tumblr. I was also amused by the inherent sexism that informed this decision. By their own definition, Tumblr has determined that female nudity is more objectionable than male nudity (although, kudos to them, they also seem to think that transgender women are just as ‘sexy’ as cisgender women):
- ‘Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting (my emphasis) nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.’
It occurred to me that the unintended consequence of this heavy-handed act would be that Tumblr could become the go to site for soft-core gay male erotica. The fact that male nudity (penises notwithstanding) would be allowed on the site means that all those Tumblrs showing hot men, even in a state of undress would remain. I wonder if the decision makers anticipated this? Is this just another case of unintended consequences being the ones that trip you up in the end?
But I digress… I did voice my displeasure at the new policy through a few posts that I only posted on Tumblr. I did not see the point of boring you all with my anti Tumblr rants. I am not sure if anybody actually read these posts but I felt better having vented.
Then it happened.
I was censored.
I posted this collage to my Instagram account and it was shared to my Tumblr account.
Within minutes of posting the picture on Instagram I received a message from Tumblr saying a post I had made had been ‘flagged’ for being in breach of the new ‘Adult Content Policy’. To be clear, I made this post on 10 December 2018. The new policy wasn’t due to come into effect until 17 December 2018 and Tumblr was already in full swing.
I knew that I had not posted anything that could remotely be considered ‘adult’ in nature, so my initial response was that I had been hacked and someone was using my account to disseminate pornography, but no, it was in fact this collage that had drawn the ire of the censors. I was surprised to say the least. I double checked. Had I inadvertently exposed a ‘female presenting’ nipple (the horror)? No. Had my dress crept up to expose my panties (a stretch, I know)? No. Was there anything ‘wrong’ with the post? No.
In fairness to Tumblr, they do have an ‘appeals process’ that I followed and it wasn’t too long before they recognised the error of their ways and reinstated my post sans the adult content ‘flag’. I sat with this for a while and then decided I would retaliate in only a slightly passive aggressive manner.
I trawled through my photographs to find something that might just work. After some searching, I found a set of pictures of me wearing a rather tight (too tight?) top without a bra. Result!
Female presenting nipples in full view without having any nudity! I posted the pictures and hash tagged Tumblr as well as a few other choice hashtags. The result? Nada. Nothing. Not a peep.
Having lived through apartheid South Africa, I know what censorship (even, or perhaps especially censorship that is practiced preserving public morals, or the ‘common good’) does. It closes down artistic expression. It makes society extremely conservative. It limits self-expression. It makes people afraid to step out of line. It makes even the comparatively ‘normal’ feel taboo. It drives people underground and blurs the lines between what is normal and healthy and that which is inherently wrong: if an adult woman’s nipples are taboo, then they become equivalent to the exploitation of a minor. I recall as a teenager that one of the boys in class found his father’s stash of magazines. This was an ordinary middle-class man who left the magazines in a place where his son could find them. The magazines included everything from the relatively benign Playboy to full on bestiality. I was shocked, but I believe this does rather prove my point regarding the blurring of boundaries that censorship engenders, this is a very bad place to be and leads to far greater societal problems than those that the censor was trying to address… Only the problems become subterranean, they become invisible and thus are harder to recognise, let alone cure. No good comes of it. Ever.