Within hours of Tumblr announcing its porn purge on Monday, my dashboard on the site transformed into a blue wall of complaints, freakouts, and people sharing their Twitter and Instagram accounts “in case Tumblr dies tomorrow.” And memes. So. Many. Memes.
The purge was a long time coming. Tumblr’s a big, messy social media platform that’s now owned by a giant telecommunications company, and it was only a matter of time before its corporate parents chose to exit the pornography-hosting business. I’m honestly surprised it didn’t happen when Yahoo purchased the site in 2013, and almost as surprised that Verizon kept the NSFW content around for as long as it did. Of course the phone company doesn’t want to be the host of, like, TONS of nudes.
The ban sucks, and a lot of wonderful online communities — including troves of artists who make a living selling their work on Tumblr — are going to be torn up because of squeamish corporate overlords. But reports of Tumblr’s imminent death may be greatly exaggerated. Sure, when you add up the erotic fan art, furry fan art, kink communities, and just straight-up pornography, a pretty significant segment of Tumblr content is (was) NSFW. We don’t know what percentage, because Tumblr never released that kind of info, but you can safely assume it’s A LOT.
But that’s not what Tumblr is.
The 2018 internet is dominated by three giant platforms — Twitter (Do you like Nazis and being harassed for having the audacity to exist? Have I got a site for for you!), Facebook (Your elementary school best friend is getting divorced and your uncle just learned to take selfies, enjoy!), and Instagram (Here’s what your friends were doing without you three days ago when everyone said they just wanted “a quiet night in,” buy this laxative tea while you weep about how lonely you are, then feel guilty for laughing at this meme that got reposted without attribution.). And the joke’s on you — you HAVE to be on all three of them! Happy 2018!!!
This internet feels small, and it’s shrinking every day as its algorithms make everything feel increasingly the same. Amid all this, Tumblr has been a safe harbor of delightful, weird, and deeply human stuff, presented using the radical system known as reverse chronological order. This shouldn’t be rocket science, and yet here we are: Somehow, Tumblr is the only social media platform I use that just shows me the posts from people I follow, in order of when they were posted. The further I scroll, the older posts get. And that’s beautiful. Algorithms don’t try to anticipate what I want to see, and neither is my feed determined by the whims of a random group of people who can up- or downvote things into oblivion.
Tumblr is also fundamentally different than every other social media platform that exists today. The user experience is utterly unique — what other platform allows you to integrate videos, GIFs, still images, text, and links in a single, self-contained post? And what other platform allows your followers to share your original post while also adding to it in a manner that allows for humor and extended conversations? If you know of another platform like that, let me know — I want to sign up for it. Unlike its larger competitors, Tumblr is by design built to facilitate genuine sharing and discussion amongst communities.
Let’s say you’re a K-pop fan. Specifically, let’s say you are absolutely wild for BTS member Jungkook. On Twitter you can get BTS news, you can follow and retweet other Jungkook fans. You can tweet an image or a GIF, sure. On Tumblr, you can go deep. Every single thing Jungkook has done in public or on video is preserved for you and the other fans in countless ways — clips get turned into an infinite number of GIF sets, each one edited slightly differently, captioned in Korean or translated into dozens of languages. Artists draw innumerable portraits of Jungkook and the other BTS members. Talented photoshoppers edit still images of him, adjusting the lighting in ways that would make Snapchat filters weep. Remember the “flower crown meme” from way back in 2011? It was born on Tumblr and let me tell you, it is thriving. There’s enough fanfic to fill an entire library. You can find all this stuff just by searching Jungkook’s name.
You, a Jungkook stan, have all of this at your fingertips. You can follow the person who made that great GIF set of him drinking water behind the scenes at a concert in Malaysia. You can reblog those GIFs and add a reaction GIF or keyboard-smashing text or a deeply personal explanation of why you like him better than fellow BTS member Jimin. And sometimes, like a majestic whale surfacing right in front of a paddleboarder, those GIF sets and personal stories break out of the smaller fandom communities and get shared by nonstans just because they’re so well written, or funny, or bizarre. Memes are born from the depths of fandom and take on a life of their own.
That’s because this kind of passion and sincerity is truly appreciated by the larger Tumblr community. It’s kind of our thing. We recognize that, hey, it’s great to just find joy and passion in something. Or, sometimes, these communities do something so strange that everyone else on Tumblr just stops and blinks — I love you, Sherlock fandom, but y’all have done some deeply weird things.
The Tumblr experience is unique to each user. At least one-quarter of my Tumblr feed is just birds. Pictures of birds, GIFs of birds, videos of birds. Why? Because I like birds — and so do countless others. Birblr (bird Tumblr) was the 11th most active community on Tumblr in 2018. I also follow a lot of meme bloggers and various fandom blogs as well. And speaking of the porn ban: To be honest, I’m kind of looking forward to being able to scroll through the Star Wars: The Last Jedi tag without being inundated with art of a naked, fully erect Kylo Ren — no matter how beautifully and intricately detailed that art might be. Just let me find my GIFs of porgs in peace.
There are very good and understandable reasons why the porn ban has upset so many Tumblr users. Many came to know themselves better through Tumblr’s NSFW content: On a platform that skews toward teens and young adults, people have used Tumblr to come to understand their sexualities, gender identities, and preferences. Sex educators on Tumblr have taught countless people about safe (and fun) sex. And that’s really, really cool, and it’s really, really sad that this will be diminished in the future. It’ll be worst for the sex workers who have come to rely on Tumblr in a post-FOSTA era.
I don’t have a solution to all this. But here’s my tl;dr as someone who’s been on the site daily since 2011: If Tumblr eventually shuts down, it won’t just be because they banned smut. While Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others have all become ever more central to life on the internet, Tumblr has been in relative decline ever since Yahoo bought it in 2013, and the inability to sell advertising on Tumblr has, I suspect, been the core of Yahoo and now Verizon’s frustrations with the platform. The powers that be at Verizon/Oath could decide tomorrow to simply ax the site because it’s not worth all the drama. But I don’t think that’ll happen anytime soon. If Tumblr does eventually die, it’s more likely it’ll happen because its users just slowly trickle away — especially if a new platform comes along that allows for a similar amount of freedom, flexibility, and creative expression. And perhaps nudes.
Tumblr, I hope, will remain a place that brings together people with shared interests — I met both my partner and my best friend on there. I want this blue hellscape to be around for years to come. I want to meet more cool people, ideally the kind who like to spend their days making GIF sets of the short-lived late 2000s Fox TV show Lie To Me because they think Tim Roth is hot. I want to see users continue to dunk on themselves for being anonymous weirdos who never want to leave the beautiful janky site that connects them to equally strange and wonderful people.
And finally, if any of the corporate overlords currently purging the porn are reading this: Hopefully you can get around to banning the Nazis of Tumblr soon too.