Brianna Dym on Tumblr’s Death and Fandom’s Future

In this episode of For Love And Money Rae D Magdon talks to Brianna Dym on Tumblr’s Death and Fandom’s Future. The blogging platform tumblr, and its recent decision to ban NSFW content (including queer content) has seen a major lashback from the community.
We discuss
  • The details of tumblr’s NSFW ban.
  • How tumblr’s ban affects queer artists and spaces.
  • Where queer audiences will potentially gather next.

Listen To This Episode Here


please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect

Hello everyone and welcome to the lesbian talk show this is for love and money with Rae D Magdon and today’s guest is soon-to-be PhD Brianna Dym from the University at Colorado Boulder so I brought you on today to talk about a very specific topic that has actually impacted my career as an author in my advertising methods I wanted to talk about the website tumblr and its recent decision as a blogging platform to ban all not-safe-for-work content entirely so um could you could you tell us what you know about tumblr and how it got to this point so first of all I just want to clarify some things tumblr is banning adult content quote-unquote and I am specifying that because words matter especially when it comes down to information and categorization and what’s going on with tumblr is a classic categorization problem they announced this change on December 3rd of 20 2018 so last week and they announced the change sort of because they got taken down from the iTunes Store and they were taken down because there was child pornography on the site and they always had a no tolerance policy on no child uncut child pornography they just didn’t enforce it as well as they could but hearsay is that tumblr has been planning to roll out a ban on adult content for a while what they stated is that starting December 17th they’ll begin enforcing this policy the problem is no one’s really received any notice that their blogs have been flagged or their posts have been flagged as explicit I’ve talked to a lot of community members and and some people have blogs with like tens of thousands of posts on them so it’s very very difficult to go through and find that content that’s been marked as explicit if I have 18,000 posts to my name on my tumblr and I have been muted in certain tags because my content is considered explicit but I have no clue which posts are and which posts aren’t and why it’s it’s a black box algorithm which means that nobody really knows how it works except for the people at tumblr I want to get back a little bit more to like defining words though because that’s a really important thing going on here so adult content is what’s banned and you might be wondering okay what does that actually mean what does that phrase mean according to Tumblr’s official site adult content primarily includes photos videos or gifts that show real-life human genitals or female presenting nipples and any content including photos videos gifts and illustrations that depict sex acts now a lot of people are getting flagged in marketing marked as explicit even though they might have only artistic drawings of stuff that’s sexual in nature on their blog I believe that your blog ray had mostly written erotica on it and a few like illustrations of sexual content that were fanarts for the most part yeah so clearly what they’re defining as adult content is broader than what is written in their official statement and that’s a problem that’s where a lot of confusion is coming in the because clearly what’s stated in their official statement is not matching up with what’s happening in real life as they roll this out furthermore they say that what is freely permitted are female presenting nipples that are in connection with breastfeeding birth or after birth moments and health related situations such as post ex mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery which is just kind of because of women’s breasts shouldn’t be sexualized like that they also state that written content such as erotica nudity related to political or newsworthy speech and nudity found an art such as sculptures or illustrations are also stuff that can be freely posted on tumblr and you know they rolled out their algorithm and it immediately started hitting a lot of false Flags you know it was flagging art left and right it was flagging stuff that didn’t even make sense to be flagged and furthermore whatever they’ve done to enforce this ban has completely broken the site I can’t search for half the posts on my blog and I almost never reblogged anything that was not even just drawings of artfully naked people so it no one knows what’s happening and when when no one knows what’s happening you can’t respond or continue to function you know tumblr staff have said you know we don’t want queer people and we don’t want them well no they said they don’t want queer people to leave they don’t want communities about sex to leave they don’t want any of that to happen but the problem is the way that tumblr is functioning right now and what they have done that adult content banned it means that tumblr is no longer a home for any of this stuff they’ve killed these communities whether they intended to or not so one thing that I found interesting is how they’re trying so hard like you said to say we don’t want we our people to leave we want this to be a home for you and yet when you go in the tags I know for a fact because I tried it for a while tags like bisexual and lesbian we’re just gone are they back now so I they weren’t permanently gone but like if you’re considering people’s identities to be adult content which it seems like some of Tumblr’s black box algorithm is then that’s a really serious problem because our society sexualizes queer people in this really fetishistic and harmful way and yeah that’s exactly part of the problem but another part of the problem is that queer communities need to have some some queer communities need to have some level of sexual exploration allowed because we don’t have anywhere else to do it this is the only place on the Internet where queer people were allowed to safely explore their sexuality on their own terms women to straight and gay women women of all shapes and sizes were allowed to explore themselves as sexual beings without the pornography industry or the male gaze dictating how they do so and I think that’s something that tumblr allowed for in a lot of really amazing ways but and so by banning adult content you are also banning those expressions in those ex duration and they can’t exist on your site anymore no matter what you try to do those rules are still in place and that you can’t roll them back and tumblers black box algorithm I’ve been poking into the source code a little bit and you can’t change anything on it like you can change tumblers banner to say penis instead for like just your page and no one else’s page but that’s all you can really do with the source code I tried I found a query at the bottom of the source code that basically just says is the search that you just typed in not-safe-for-work and they’ll say either true or false and if it’s true you don’t get any search results coming back and if it’s false you get search results so if you follow that query up you see that there is a model that it that the tag is being run through and if the model has determined that that search query is not safe for work then it gets marked as true now the problem is we don’t know how that model is determining what is and is not explicit because it’s a black box and like so I’m guessing like wildly speculating that what’s happening is that this model is going through all the posts that are tagged a certain thing and it’s looking at them and it’s applying whatever algorithm they have to say like are their titties present are they sexy titties and it’s ranking that in terms of like doesn’t mean a certain threshold to be marked as bad and you know tags like lesbian or bisexual when that model was initially ruled out probably pinged it censors because you probably had a lot of people tagging for sexual content in those tags it seems like they should have gone in and manually made sure well they did that after the fact because because those tags have come back now right yes but why didn’t they do it before they release this it’s like they’ve released it like haphazardly because they were afraid of Apple and the new what’s the new law that they passed fastest esta fastest esta that’s fun to say that’s the abbreviation – not fun that it is passed but fun to say yeah it was a law designed to curb but it’s aimed at fighting online sex trafficking and especially aimed at like helping minors but it’s also not a well-designed act because it was sort of cobbled together by people who don’t necessarily understand how the internet actually works it’s my understanding that they made it so you can hold websites that have illegal content legally accountable in terms of fines and such even they were not aware this content was on their platform and had taken steps to guard against it exactly it kills any amount of risk that the website is willing to host and running itself sex trafficking is terrible child pornography is terrible we need to do things to stop these things from happening but attacking a fine illegal illegal fine or legal accountability onto a specific website isn’t necessarily the immediate direction to go there’s other ways to go about doing that the the risk that a company takes just by allowing any not-safe-for-work content their shareholders might decide is too much and then you only end up with not-safe-for-work content on like corn hub which is not safe for welcoming for women and queer people exactly that the law conflates not-safe-for-work content with sex trafficking and so how you start to piece apart those two problems is is one piece of it but tumblers um tumblers policy like the it’s problem is that it is messy it’s this algorithm is hitting false positives left and right and there is nothing tumblr can do as much as it wants to to fix this I am 100% convinced because I don’t think tumblr is going to come out and say you know what never mind we’re not going to ban this and that is literally the only thing that they could do at this point because when you get rid of adult content you get rid of a very important avenue of people’s voices that they had on this site I know that it’s going to my voice and my ability to share my work my Twitter following is not nearly as vast as my tumblr following and it’s gonna be a challenge to rebuild like my mailing list my Twitter my facebook and these other social media avenues to make up for it because I’ve just lost thousands of followers who I mean assuming my blog doesn’t get muted or deleted or purged they’re just not gonna be on tumblr anymore they went to tumblr to look at porn and to connect with other queer people if there’s no porn and there’s no queer people they’re not gonna be there to see my updates yeah and not just porn like just erotic art erotic stories and I think there’s also some like fallacy whenever people talk about this whenever people talk about this tumblr issue oh if they just get rid of the porn then the problem will be on is like you know people do have a right to enjoy sexuality and to look at this stuff sex trafficking is the problem but porn is also not the problem like I don’t know how to better state that like those two things are separate and I think we conflate them whenever we talk about what’s going on with tumblr you’re listening to the lesbian talk show the lesbian talk show calm you’ll have of podcast information so okay this is my big question for you now is the era of tumblr is coming to an end it’s it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion now where are people gonna go next where are these artists and writers and these queer people these sex-positive people going to land these fandom people these refugees so pillow fort was looking like it would be a good space but pillow fort is also struggling to do the uptake they’d honestly just don’t have the server capacity to deal with the massive influx of people from tumblr so pillow forts not going to be the number one home for people right away a lot of people have been using Twitter as an interim space a lot of people have been making their own private discourse and fleeing to different discord communities and a lot of people have been like you know going back to dreamwidth or some other LiveJournal replacement sites that were made after LiveJournal was bought out by the Russians but those sites never got popular because tumblr had come along I think the community will not homogenized and gather into in the same place for a very long time I think that we don’t have any really robust sites to immediately uptake people we only have sites that can host small amounts of people for like Twitter is there and Twitter can has everyone on it but people don’t use Twitter for fandom for a lot of reasons it’s just how Twitter is designed and it’s how Twitter functions I don’t see fandom taking you on Twitter and aside from that there’s no other major players in the sites that will successfully adopt all of like these millions of people that are like leaving in this max exodus from tumblr I think over the next two years or so people are just going to be siloed into separate groups and then eventually a site will get its footing and sort of become the tumblr replacement whether that is pillow fort or dreamwidth or somewhere else people will eventually migrate back to that one homogeneous space it’s just going to take a little bit of time because there’s no site that was immediately prepared to suck people up from tumblr because if a site had been people would have already been on it because a lot of folks hated how tumblr functioned so if a site were to rise from the ashes and meet the needs of fandom how would you like to see it designed to be more stable and more secure and allow these artists to flourish well I think I think pillow fort has some good ideas and that they’re sub community controls and you have a lot of control over your individual privacy I also think pillow fort doesn’t have the money to host all the content of visuals and videos and gifts and all that so I’d like to see a site that has fandoms values baked into it in its design I think so feminist HCI is the sort of idea in my field of study where it’s feminist human centered computing it’s this idea that like you build a technology technological thing like the the actual users who are going to use it build it and they build their own values into it by just by the virtue of they’re the ones making it and they also like build certain forms and ways of functioning into it just because it’s the community that’s going to use it archive of our own is a textbook example of feminist HCI so if a site were to come along to replace tumblr as fandoms like artists and social space I think it would be really cool to see it built by fandom again because archive of our own has been such a huge success could you talk a little bit about the organization for transformative works and ao3 and just very briefly what those are for listeners who might not have heard of them before so archive of our own is a massive fanfiction repository that was originally coded entirely by a team of women those women were all in fanfiction communities that got kicked off of livejournal in what was called the strike through a lot of communities featuring adult content were banned and so everyone was like you know we need a place of our own we need an archive of our own to host our fanfiction and so Naomi Novik she’s public about this she was someone in phantom at the time Naomi Novik being a famous sci-fi slash fantasy writer put out this call for everyone just sort of like rally together and build their own archive online to host fan fiction and they did it and archive our own is wildly successful it is the premier site for hosting fan fiction and it does not censor what is posted there if they allow what is legal they drew the line at legality which is unpopular with a lot of people but it still works they also baked in a content warning system into the site which is one of the most successful content warning systems I’ve ever seen implemented and they are also part of a nonprofit group called the organization for transformative works which hosts their own journal and also employs lawyers to help fan creators continue to make their work without being threatened by copyright owners it’s a really incredible place and it’s all entirely run by fan volunteers people from fandom who are volunteers it’s a really excellent resource for the queer community for women who don’t see themselves represented in television for all sorts of marginalized people organization for transformative works is also a really big proponent for accessibility and designing for accessibility from the ground up which is why archive of our own functions the way it does in a lot of ways is that it was designed to be accessible from day one for a lot of people who have different like um for a lot of people who are differently abled and how they have to access Internet content thank you so much for taking the time to talk about this with us it’s a really important issue it’s an issue that affects my livelihood and and I’m really grateful to know an academic who is basically one of the world experts on fandom communities and where they live because where they live is where my readers are yeah I was so honored to be able to speak to this thank you so much for having me on and goodbye everyone thank you so much this was the lesbian talk shows for love and money with rady Magda and special guest Brianna dim today we talked about the implementation of tumblers adult content ban and the impact it has on writers artists and other creative people including marginalized communities thank you so much and we’ll see you in two weeks [Music]