Tumblr – once the residence of internet goths, niche sex positive (NSFW) content, and the obscurest memes – is being sold for a reported $3 million (£2.48 million), a paltry fraction of the $1.1 billion (£910.6m) Yahoo paid for the site back in 2013. The social network is being sold by Verizon – the US telecommunications network that bought Yahoo in 2017 – to Automattic, the web development company that owns WordPress.
Founded in 2007 by David Karp, Tumblr was among a coterie of pioneering ‘microblogging’ platforms that included LiveJournal and Twitter. Its emphasis on personalisation and creativity quickly elevated it to the platform of choice for alternative internet communities.
But the social network has floundered in recent years, overtaken in popularity by Facebook and other rivals. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo at the time of acquisition, promised Tumblr users “not to screw it up”. Yet a series of missteps soon followed. A culture clash between the two firms (described by a former employee as like ‘cool teens being forced to hang out with grandparents’) led to fractures resulting in members of the Tumblr sales team fleeing the company.
There was also the issue of a suddenly imposed $100b (£827.7b) annual sales target that employees perceived as completely arbitrary. “Nobody knew where that number came from, but [Mayer] used it,” said a former executive from the company.
But perhaps the most catastrophic misfire of all was the notorious ‘porn ban’ that came into place on December 17, 2018 – a policy partly driven by a US law that made websites liable for sex trafficking that might take place on their platform. The ban covers ‘female presenting nipples’, genitals, and any depicted sex acts. Until then, the platform had remained a refuge for a devoted community of users, but this decision affected swift and dire consequences.
In March 2019, a mere three months after the ban came into place, the platform was already suffering: web traffic had fallen by 30 per cent. While December counted 521 million users, this number dropped to 370 million by February. But how did this prudish fate befall a platform whose editors once promoted the best erotic accounts in a dedicated directory, alongside more vanilla categories such as fashion and photography?
Since this permissive peak in 2010, the platform had faced steadily more censorious policies towards the site’s once celebrated ‘adult’ content. In July 2013, Tumblr introduced a more complex filtering mechanism, which meant that blogs featuring nudity were tagged as ‘adult’ and hidden from search and tag pages. In 2017, after its acquisition by Verizon and the departure of Karp, a ‘safe mode’ filtering out all adult content (containing nudity) debuted on the site. In February 2018, this mode became the standard, meaning users had to explicitly opt in to enjoy the smuttier side of Tumblr. This eventually culminated in the blanket ban triggered in late 2018, apparently when the presence of child pornography on the site led to Apple suspending it from the App Store.
In light of the news, the outraged reaction of users surprised non-Tumblr fans – who cited the abundance of porn elsewhere on the internet. ‘You do know Pornhub exists?’ was the general reaction on Twitter, while Pornhub itself twisted the announcement into a marketing opportunity, tweeting ‘Tumblrs: Pornhub welcomes you with open arms. Join our amazing community of millions’. Pornhub even claimed an interest in buying Tumblr in May 2019, although there is no confirmation that they actually made an offer.
But many Tumblr users say that the platform created a safe space for those with gender and sexual identities that fall outside of the mainstream. Tumblr afforded them a place to explore their sexuality in a non-judgmental environment, the likes of which doesn’t exist in other corners of the internet. People identifying as LGBTQ and trans especially flocked to the platform for this reason.
According to one report, in 2013, 11.4 per cent of the top 200,000 Tumblrs were ‘adult-oriented’. But outside of the people directly using the site to post or view adult content, Ysabel Gerrard, a lecturer in the UK’s University of Sheffield specialising in social media and society, and a user of Tumblr, says that the ban affected a broad swathe of users. “It’s more the ethos – it sends the message that we don’t necessarily want you guys here anymore. We don’t necessarily want Tumblr to be a space where you can explore your identity – we need to have rules, we need to be conforming to certain values now. That was a big part of it.”
She says that she believes these attitudes came from Verizon. “Because Tumblr, and the people who work there and the ethos they’ve always had, runs very much counter to the adult content ban.” At present, the company is using AI to flag and automatically block inappropriate material. This is reportedly having the unintended consequences in some cases of blocking content that isn’t ‘adult’, creating more annoyance for users. Could we soon see the porn ban reversed as Tumblr changes hands? Although Automattic allows adult content on its wordpress.com site, it says there are no plans to reverse the policy on Tumblr.
The platform’s slow death spiral has become a long-running meme within the community. Is there any hope for its continuation, even under different ownership? “Truthfully, I think that the best PR move they could do would be to reverse the adult content ban,” says Gerrard. “That would be a game changer.” In the absence of this, they better be preparing something savvy to attract new users or beckon deserters back to the platform.
More great stories from WIRED
💸 How the hell did Uber lose $5bn in three months?
♻️ The truth behind the UK’s biggest recycling myths
🤷🏼 How is the internet still obsessed with Myers-Briggs?
🚬 England has an ambitious plan to eradicate smoking by 2030
🕵🏿 It’s time you ditched Chrome for a privacy-first web browser
📧 Get the best tech deals and gadget news in your inbox