Content Moderation Case Study: Tumblr's Approach To Adult Content (2013)
Summary: There are unique challenges in handling adult content on a website, whether it’s an outright ban, selectively allowed, cordoned off under content warnings, or (in some cases) actively encouraged.Tumblr’s early approaches to dealing with adult content on its site is an interesting illustration in the interaction between user tagging and how a site’s own tools interact with such tags.Tumblr was launched in 2007 as a simple “blogging” platform that was quick and easy to setup, but would allow users to customize it however they wanted, and use their own domain names. One key feature of Tumblr that was different from other blogs was an early version of social networking features — such as the ability to “follow” other users and to then see a feed of those users you followed. While some of this was possible via early RSS readers, it was both technologically clunky and didn’t really have the social aspect of knowing who was following you or being able to see both followers and followees of accounts you liked. Tumblr was also an early pioneer in reblogging — allowing another user to repost your content with additional commentary.
“We've taken a pretty hard line on freedom of speech, supporting our users' creation, whatever that looks like, and it's just not something we want to police.... I don't want to have to go in there to draw the line between this photo and this behind-the-scenes photo of Lady Gaga and, like, her nip.” -- David KarpYahoo CEO Marissa Mayer noted that the content on the site might prove more challenging for advertisers, but promised that they would employ “good tools for targeting” to help advertisers avoid having their brands appear next to adult content. However, she still supported allowing Tumblr to continue hosting such content.
“I think the richness and breadth of content available on Tumblr—even though it may not be as brand-safe as what’s on our site—is what’s really exciting and allows us to reach even more users.” — Marissa MayerA key part of how Tumblr managed this at the time was allowing its users to tag their content in a way that would indicate to others if there was adult content, while letting the users themselves set preferences regarding their own interest in avoiding such content. Tumbr’s terms of service at the time explained how this worked:
Tumblr is home to millions of readers and bloggers from a variety of locations, cultures, and backgrounds with different points of view concerning adult-oriented content. If you regularly post sexual or adult-oriented content, respect the choices of people in our community who would rather not see such content by flagging your blog (which you can do from the Settings page of each blog) as Not Suitable for Work ("NSFW"). This action does not prevent you and your readers from using any of Tumblr's social features, but rather allows Tumblr users who don't want to see NSFW content to avoid seeing it. — Tumblr’s 2012 Terms of ServiceNotably, those same terms did ban “sexually explicit videos” with a somewhat explicit reason for that ban: “We're not in the business of profiting from adult-oriented videos and hosting this stuff is fucking expensive.”Around the time of the Yahoo purchase, however, users began noticing a change. As shared in Tarleton Gillespie’s book “Custodians of the Internet”:
In May 2013, some Tumblr users noticed that blogs rated “adult” were no longer findable through the major search engines. A month later, Tumblr began using the ratings to selectively exclude posts from its own search tool. Posts from “NSFW” or “adult” blogs no longer appeared in Tumblr’s search results, even if the post itself was not explicit, and regardless of whether the search was explicit. Actually, it was even more complicated than that: if the searcher already followed the explicit blog, that blog’s posts would appear— if it was “NSFW.” If it was “adult,” the more explicit rating, those posts would not appear in the search results, even if the searcher already followed that blog. — Tarleton GillespieThe end result of this was widespread confusion among Tumblr’s users and fans:
“Clear? No? It was an intricate and confusing arrangement, one that users had a hard time following and the company had a hard time explaining. The principle behind this intricate policy is not an unreasonable one: let users continue to post explicit pornography, while using the self- rating to shield users who do not want to encounter it. But enacting this principle meant codifying it in a series of if/then conditions that could be automated in Tumblr’s search algorithm. And what the policy meant in practice was that while an explicit blog’s existing followers could more or less still get to it, it would now be much more difficult for anyone new ever to find it, given that its posts would not appear in any search results.In addition, there were other assumptions hiding in the new policy: that the rules should be different for mobile users than for users on their computers; that “logged-out” users (which includes users who have not yet signed up for Tumblr) should not encounter explicit blogs at all; and that explicit Tumblr blogs shouldn’t be appearing in search results on Google or Bing—or Yahoo. These represent somewhat different priorities, but get folded in with Tumblr’s apparent concern for balancing the right to share pornography and the right not to encounter it if you choose not to.” -- Tarleton GillespieCompany Considerations: