Tumblr, Consolidation and The Gentrification of Internet.

Tumblr recently announced it will ban adult content.  Although partially in response to the discovery of a number of communities posting child pornography and subsequent ban of the Tumblr ap from the extremely important Apple ap store, a former engineer at Tumblr told Vox the change has been in works for months. The change was mandated by Tumblr’s corporate parent Verizon (which acquired Tumblr when it acquired Yahoo! after Yahoo! acquired it back in 2013. Why did Verizon want to ban adult content on Tumblr after 11 years? According to the same Vox article, it new ban is an effort to attract greater advertising revenue. Tumblr has a reputation for adult content which translates to advertisers as “porn” (unfairly, in the view of Tumblr’s supporters), and advertisers don’t like their products associated with pornography (or other types of controversial content.)


I can’t blame Verizon for wanting to make more money from Tumblr. But the rendering of Tumblr “safe for work” (and therefore safe for more mainstream advertising) illustrates one of the often under-appreciated problems of widespread content and platform consolidation. Sites that become popular because they allow communities or content that challenge conventional standards become targets for acquisition. Once acquired, the acquirer seeks to expand the attractiveness of the platform for advertisers and more mainstream audiences. Like a gentrifying neighborhood, the authentic and sometimes dangerous character rapidly smoothes out to become more palatable — forcing the original community to either conform to the new domesticated normal or try to find somewhere else to go. And, as with gentrification, while this may appear to have limited impact, the widespread trends ultimately impact us all.


I explain more below . . . .

Tumblr isn’t a porn site, although it has a great deal of erotic and sexual content. After all, anyone looking for hardcore free pornography has lots of opportunities online to find typical porn. Tumblr was a community based site, and the majority of its “NSFW” communities were fan driven or by independent sex workers looking for a safe space in which to operate and an opportunity to create erotica/porn that is not focused on the typical mass market of male straight/gay/fetish porn. As others have pointed out, this combination of multiple interest groups side-by-side with erotica and porn allowed people with offbeat, non-mainstream tastes and interests to explore all of these interests simultaneously. This in turn, allowed them to build a real sense of community and discover more about themselves. It’s one thing to segregate pieces of yourself, a quick look at porn on a porn site in private, then off to your “regular” life. It is another thing to have your sexual interests included as part of a sex-positive community, where you can talk about sex and sexuality in a way that is not degrading to self or degrading to others. Kind of like a digital version of San Francisco’s famous Castro district.


But for advertisers, porn is porn is porn is porn. And advertisers don’t want their products on platforms associated with porn. As is also typical of the mainstream, the vast majority of people don’t distinguish between “sex-positive community” and YouPorn. Big advertisers are a fairly conservative bunch, and while car companies and alcohol are all for using sex to sell products, they draw the line at being associated with pornography in the (probably accurate) perception that the association will damage their brand. So Verizon is doing the logical mass market thing — “sanitizing” Tumblr in an effort to attract more advertising. Of course, as Tumblr’s official announcement explains, Tumblr still wants to keep its offbeat, edgy reputation that makes it attractive to its existing user base. That’s what made it an attractive acquisition target in the first place. But Tumblr management now wants to sandpaper down those rough edges that scare off the mainstream.


This is an illustration of the broader homogenization of culture that comes from consolidation. It is essentially a form of digital gentrification. Platforms that become popular get acquired by larger companies. These companies shape these platforms to maximize advertising revenue. That means sanding off the rough edges that make a platform less attractive to advertisers or the larger mainstream audience that likes to feel hip and edgy but not quite that authentically hip and edgy. The result is that we have a platform ecosystem with a handful of hardcore porn sites catering to the pornography mass market, a variety of platforms that avoid sexually explicit content entirely (or try to), and no place in between.


The standard answer is to say that the Internet supports the development of alternatives. After all, many credit Blockbuster’s refusal to carry pornography with saving local video stores, who survived by carrying adult content in addition to competing conventional video fare. Dreamwidth (an open source platform that started after Livejournal was bought out) has announced that they will continue to have an open policy, so refugees from Tumblr may come to Dreamwidth and try to rebuild their communities there. Or individuals may create their own alternative platforms for their controversial content, like Gab.


But as those of us who fled Livejournal for Dreamwidth or other platforms when the Russian owners imposed obnoxious terms of service can attest, transferring from one platform to another is highly disruptive. Communities are broken up. The enormous investment of years in building a specific brand and developing social capital is destroyed and must be rebuilt. People who continue to use Tumblr may not be willing to add yet another platform simply to follow one particular community or individual. Nor is the Internet environment what it was years ago, when Tumblr was initially forming. It is now much harder to attract attention, gain a reputation, or pull people from the crowd of other existing platforms — even if those platforms do not provide the same kind of independent content. In the “attention economy,” rebuilding a base means competing not merely with similar content, but with all the demands on human attention. And unlike ten years ago, many of these competitors are now giant platforms with massive resources dedicated to attracting and keeping attention. Platforms that eschew the sort of sanitized guidelines needed to attract mass advertising are simply not going to be able to match the ability to attract eyeballs of their more commercial and safe for work competitors.


Understanding this impact requires understanding something that has become foreign to economic analysis in Policyland. A community is about more than any single business or brand. Even if individuals who produced the now banned content were all to manage to migrate to the same new platform, it would not be the same community. And if somehow the new platform managed to overcome the odds and recreate itself as a new successful community, its very success would make it that much more likely to be acquired by a media conglomerate that would once again need to sanitize the community sufficiently to attract mainstream advertising and larger audiences.


Like any gentrification project, the short term impact falls primarily on the community that used to live there — particularly the powerless and the marginalized. Sex workers in particular have lamented the loss of one of the few remaining safe spaces in the post-SESTA/FOSTA world. Additionally, as is always the case with content filtering, an almost comical amount of non-pornographic and even non-sexual material has been flagged and banned (subject to Tumlr’s appeal process). While we can laugh about how Tumblr thinks Garfield the cartoon cat is too sexy for its site, this combination of overly broad content blocking and the tendency of such bots to go after non-explicit LGBT and kink imposes particular costs on those communities most in need of creative space to explore those things the mainstream finds intolerable.


In the aggregate, however, it is a loss for all of us. Whether as a result of the massive market power of distributors or other intermediaries such as Apple, or because of acquisition by massive companies such as Verizon, part of the cost of endless consolidation of corporate power is the loss of a vibrant creative culture able to take risks. And without those vibrant creative spaces, our own mass culture runs the risk of becoming stagnant. Much of the mass culture we consume in the mainstream has its roots in more diverse, often marginalized, communities. “Edgy” content challenges convention and helps to keep mainstream culture dynamic as ideas and innovations in art flow between “la boheme” and “les bourgeoisie.” Consolidation, like gentrification, drives out these communities.


Yes, we still have plenty of porn. But to paraphrase Hamlet: There are more things on Heaven and Earth, Hortio, than corporate walled gardens and porn As consolidation continues, the space for controversial creativity shrinks, and we are all the poorer for it.


Stay tuned . . .

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