Silicon Valley’s Gentle Crusade Against ‘Adult’ Content

tumblr and blogger create porn ghetto

It’s a bad time for adult blogs on hosted blog platforms. Last month, Google changed the content policy for Blogger, its blog network, writing anyone who’d flagged their blog as “adult” (and a few who hadn’t) the following message:

On June 30th, 2013, we will be updating our Content Policy to strictly prohibit the monetization of Adult content on Blogger. After June 30th, 2013, we will be enforcing this policy and will remove blogs which are adult in nature and are displaying advertisements to adult websites.

If your blog currently has advertisements which are adult in nature, you should remove them as soon as possible to avoid any potential Terms of Service violation and/or content removals.

Blogger isn’t pulling adult content from its worldwide blogging platform; according to its policy, they are only prohibiting people who run adult blogs from making money from them. Per their policy:

We do allow adult content on Blogger, including images or videos that contain nudity or sexual activity. But, please mark your blog as ‘adult’ in your Blogger settings. Otherwise, we may put it behind a ‘mature content’ interstitial.

There are some exceptions to our adult content policy:

Do not use Blogger as a way to make money on adult content. For example, don’t create blogs that contain ads or links to commercial porn sites.

The problem here is that blogging has long since stopped being a silly hobby people throw their free time into. For many, blogging has become a way to make a living. Unfortunately, a lot of ad networks refuse to accept blogs with adult content. “Adult” doesn’t have to mean pornography. This site you’re reading, devoted to news about sexuality, is marked by Google as “adult” (though not hosted on Blogger, this label does negatively impact the blog’s ranking on Google Search).

“Currently, Blogger blogs marked as ‘adult’ include personal diaries, erotic writers, romance book editors and reviewers, sex toy reviewers, art nude photographers, film-makers, artists such as painters and comic illustrators, text-only fiction writers, sex news and porn gossip writers, LGBT sex activism, sex education and information outlets, fetish fashion, feminist porn blogs, and much, much more,” writes Violet Blue, who covered this for ZDNet.

The bottom line is that any blogger who wants to discuss his or her sexuality will be unable to join most existing ad networks. Those who found adult networks to monetize their blogs, if they are on Blogger, now face a difficult decision: move elsewhere or give up a source of income.

This gentle way to manage the question of adult content on the platform without risking serious backlash and cries of censorship seems to be a favorite among Silicon Valley execs. After Yahoo picked up Tumblr in May, many wondered about the fate of its many adult tumblelogs (an estimated 10 percent of the Tumblr universe). Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was quick to soothe users fears, assuring users that adult content would not be removed.

On the popular American television show The Colbert Report, Tumblr founder David Karp reiterated: “We’ve taken a really hard line on freedom of speech and supporting our users’ creations, whatever that looks like. It’s just not something we want to police. We have somebody like Terry Richardson or any number of very talented photographers posting tasteful photography, I don’t want to have to go on there and say, ‘I draw the line between this photo and this behind-the-scenes photo of Lady Gaga and her nip-slip.'” (Relevant segment begins at 3:55.)

What wasn’t clear until this week was how Tumblr was going to make itself profitable through advertising and keep the adult content, as most brands don’t want to face boycotts for running alongside “adult” content. Now, according to their policy for NSFW (not safe for work) blogs, Tumblr is going to begin excluding blogs with adult content from its internal discovery mechanisms.

Tumblr has two tiers for adult content: there is NSFW, for blogs with occasional nudity and adult content, and then there is Adult, for blogs with substantial nudity and adult content. In this chart below, they show how they treat these two tiers compared to “unflagged” blogs — that is, blogs that are neither NSFW nor Adult:

adult and NSFW blogs banned or limited from discovery tools on Tumblr

Tumblr doesn’t have the best search on the planet, and as a result, tag-surfing (clicking through a post’s tag and looking at other posts that are tagged similarly within Tumblr) has become one of the main ways to find new blogs to follow on the platform. By denying Adult tumblelogs the ability to show up in tag searches, Tumblr is making it impossible for these blogs to be discovered within the network, even when people are clicking tags that are pornographic. Banning both NSFW and Adult tumblelogs from mobile apps unless the person browsing is already a follower of a NSFW or Adult blog has a similar effect.

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at Daily Dot reports that several tags on iPhone are now returning no results:

It’s unclear whether this is directly linked to the new content restrictions, but for example, iPhone users searching the #gay, #lesbian or #bisexual tags have reported seeing the result “No posts found” although #bi, #lgbt and #queer still produce results.

Needless to say, the #gay tag is hardly likely to be any more “Adult” than the tags for #girls and #anime, which used to be full of NSFW content.

An update on the Tumblr policy change at Daily Dot mentions further deletions of tags available to search on mobile, from #sex to #depression. Seriously, depression is now an Adult subject and unfindable via tags on mobile.

Other tags that have gone missing: #porn, #lesbian, #bisexual, #transsexual, #twinks, #BDSM, #breasts, #penis, #vagina, #bitch, #MILF, #facial, #yaoi (homoerotic manga), #hentai, #panties, #suicide, #butts, #BBW (an acronym for Big Beautiful Woman), #toplesstuesday, #threesome, #jailbait, #fetish, #cutting, #blood, #lolita and #ana (short for anorexic).

But the most brutalizing penalty is banning Adult tumblelogs not only from Tumblr’s useless search but from third-party search engines. That means that people with tumblelogs deemed “Adult” won’t even be able to search within their own blogs, whether they’re using Tumblr or Google to do it.

When Valleywag says Tumblr is creating a sex ghetto, they’re not exaggerating. Like Google, Yahoo has found a very gentle way to let everything “adult” know that, while they profit from it immensely, they neither respect it, nor want it there.

As we have learned from other attempts to get rid of sex in its many variations elsewhere (Craigslist, anyone?), this sort of move doesn’t result in “cleaning up” the internet. Yes, the great content creators may walk away from adult content in order to make money and gain exposure from their labors, but the people who haven’t invested much are simply going to look for a way to continue generating revenue, whether by rolling the dice with Tumblr and Blogger by seeing how long before their blogs are yanked for not being appropriately flagged, or moving elsewhere.

Those who don’t generate income from the imagery, who are simply on Tumblr to post and browse, are simply going to move their eyeballs and posts elsewhere. Ideally, this “elsewhere” could be (which still looks like a porn version of Pinterest), but more likely it will be a place that isn’t stale as last decade’s nachos. Last month Kevin Morris reported on a fascinating trend — the pornification of Wikimedia Commons:

The Commons is so supersaturated with porn that explicit content bleeds into places you’d never expect. You can’t walk down a street on the Commons without stumbling upon some dude’s penis or something equally explicit or shocking. Search for a “wheel,” and you’ll shortly discover a photo from a BDSM torture session. The same goes for “jumping ball,” “bell tolling,” or “electric toothbrush.”

Few on Wikimedia would ever want to ban porn or explicit content. The community is admirably, if almost religiously, pro free speech, and the idea that it should remove images simply because you might find it offensive is, in turn, highly offensive to their techno-libertarian ethos.

The problem is that Wikimedia has refused to implement a voluntary image filter, meaning that anyone can stumble upon any explicit image at any time. A kid doing a school project on wheels will see that BDSM image, whether parents, educators, or the kid himself wants to.

Making things even worse are a small group of porn aficionados and exhibitionists who use the Commons as their personal playground, turning the high-minded educational repository into the world’s crappiest amateur porn hub.

Silicon Valley has to get smarter about the fact that adult content has a place in society. To continue to exploit it for traffic while making it impossible for creators to equally profit is an outrage. But the worst part is what the heavy-handed treatment of all things related to sex signals, whether these things are imagery or educational materials: that sex is something that has no place in our lives.

Sex does have a place in our lives. A big place. Sites need to get smarter about how they treat it.

In the meantime, for those of you with Blogger blogs, here’s how you get your content off that platform and set up a self-hosted blog where you can run ads to your heart’s content. For those of you on Tumblr, here’s how you migrate all your content to a self-hosted option. Otherwise, check out theadultlist, a tumblelog dedicated to connecting you with all the adult tumblelogs on Tumblr.

UPDATE: On July 21, we learned that the fury of the online backlash has prompted Yahoo to quietly restore search indexing to its adult blogs.

Header image features the work of the incredible Adam Connelly, who turns pixelated pornographic imagery into art. This one is “img_9465.jpg”.