What Oath Should Do With Tumblr After The Porn Ban

What Oath Should Do With Tumblr

Agghhh, Tumblr. A technically beautiful site which has influenced the biggest and best blogging platforms, and is still packed with little-known publishing tricks and delights. But management of the blue-walled behemoth has been so frustrating through the past five years. Tumblr has to make money, and it can, but if it is to survive, the proprietor must stop kicking its enticers in the teeth, and put them at the centre of the revenue-earning policy.

I’m going to explain how that could be done in this post, but first, let’s assess where things currently are…

SOME BACKGROUND

Since Tumblr was bought from its founder David Karp by Yahoo in 2013, and particularly since Yahoo was absorbed into Oath, the site has evolved in a number of negative ways. Perhaps most notably, in May 2018, Oath used the introduction of GDPR as an excuse to drive through one of the most oppressive tracking policies on the web – devastating blog visit stats in the process, literally overnight. The work bloggers had put into building those visitor stats meant less than nothing to Oath.

In order to stop a minority of random blog visitors blocking cookies (and thus not seeing targeted ads), Oath decided to deny access to all blog visitors until they manually accepted the company’s data-spraygun mandate… sorry, “privacy agreement”. Anyone who was blocking cookies, was unnecessarily forced to accept them in order to access any Tumblr blog, and that’s how things have remained.

Heavier tracking scripts have been introduced to Tumblr in the Yahoo/Oath era too.

Meanwhile, the userside technical capabilities of Tumblr have become more selfishly orientated towards Oath’s interests. Yahoo/Oath downgraded Tumblr’s SEO advantages, making the platform less attractive to serious bloggers; and then, from May 2018, completely untenable for anyone seeking to maximise search traffic.

Tumblr Under Oath

Tumblr has always been a ‘treadmill’ site, but in the past it was also viable as a means of long-term search visibility for anyone with SEO knowledge. Today it’s not seriously viable as anything other than a ‘treadmill’ site. A ‘treadmill’ site is simply an environment where the publisher must keep posting in order to stay visible. Any system characterised by a chronologically-ordered ‘timeline’ and ‘followers’ (as opposed to on-demand, qualitatively-ranked search) is a ‘treadmill’ site.

And increasingly, Yahoo/Oath have tried to monetise in their time-honoured fashion – with ads, in which nowhere near enough Tumblr users had any interest. As I reported in Has Oath Killed Tumblr?, my own #TumblrIsDead moment came over six months ago. I’d used the site since 2011, and stopped posting in 2017. I closed my main Tumblr altogether in May 2018, immediately after Oath killed off a third of the blog’s remaining search traffic.

THE ADULT MEDIA BAN

But now there’s a much wider cry of #TumblrIsDead, sparked by last week’s long-expected confirmation that Tumblr is to ban all visual media it considers to be sexual titillation.

Oath’s woefully ill-judged ruling against the display of specifically female nipples, but not male, has seen the organisation labelled “sexists”, and emigrating Tumblr users have posted a glut of anti-Tumblr memes on Twitter.

They’ve jibed at Tumblr’s headless-chicken auto-filter, censoring everything from fruit to dinosaurs in its quest to identify nudity. And they’ve asked why Verizon/Oath saw it as more important to filter-block “female-presenting nipples” than very highly offensive racist imagery and hate speech.

But it’s not just Tumblr’s outcasts who are crying foul. Oath’s announcement, which was obviously intended to improve the site’s image after an app ban by Apple, has resulted in a strong negative bias in mainstream commentary across the web. Major blogs and media organisations have angled the news of Oath’s drastic policy change with sympathy towards Tumblr’s sex worker, visual artist, and LGBT communities, who had found not just content and trade, but public acceptance, moral support and friendship on the platform. These are groups who generally don’t feel comfortable using porn sites, with their cold, mechanical, misogynistic and dystopian atmosphere. A lot of those users don’t, as such, want porn at all.

Tumblr under Oath

Not that the actual porn sites could grasp that. Like many other opportunists, porn barons have been tapping Tumblr migrants on the shoulder via Twitter, in a bid to ride on the potential virality of “where do we go now Tumblr has rejected us?”. So big has that viral potential been, that a range of ‘entrepreneurs’ have expressed an intention to build an adult-only version of Tumblr from scratch.

Are they serious, or just there to milk crowdfunding sites for donations before disappearing into the night? Well, I suspect if anyone was serious about building a real alternative to Tumblr, they’d have started it well before now. And the build-from-scratch brigade are not the only ones asking for money up front in the great ‘Tumblr alternative’ scrum. There are beta-phase sites pushing pay-to-join schemes at Tumblr users too.

The problem with any quest to replace adult Tumblr is that on the cusp of 2019, certainly in a revenue-earning sense, Tumblr itself should no longer be trying to be Tumblr.

SO WHAT *IS* THE ALTERNATIVE TO TUMBLR?

In the long term, there isn’t going to be any alternative at all for people who want to post porn to an unvetted online audience. Mandatory age-verification, which has been approved in principle but delayed in implementation due to logistical complexities, will eventually see all sites that harbour explicit adult content closed to everyone whose age cannot be proved. It’s unthinkable that Tumblr could ever have been laughed off as some quaint loophole to age-verification laws. And the same goes for Twitter.

Former Tumblr pornists who’ve trotted over to Twitter can be assured that any home they establish there will be temporary. There will come a point where no social media site without mandatory age-verification is even allowed to display explicit content, and Tumblr’s action really puts a spotlight on Twitter. How long does Twitter hold out as the final frontier before it too bans explicit content? It’s obviously not going to wait until the authorities are banging on the door.

But the fact that a site can’t host adult content doesn’t mean it can’t be adult entertainer-friendly, or make money out of those entertainers’ fans. We’ll see in due course how Tumblr could have held onto its adult workers and actually started to take high value users from Twitter, rather than lose them.

Tumblr under Oath

WHAT DO ADULT WORKERS THINK ABOUT THE TUMBLR BAN?

Another factor commentators have generally blind-eyed is the large group of adult entertainers, producers and photographers who are over the moon about Tumblr’s rule change. There are expressions of joy and shouts of “good riddance!” from adult workers right across Twitter. They may be harder to find than the dissenters, because they’re obviously not using the #TumblrIsDead hashtag, but they’re there nonetheless.

Whilst some people in the industry have used Tumblr’s free reach as a baiting mechanism to sell premium rate services and other offerings, others have seen the site as an open invitation for pirates and parasites to re-distribute stolen commercial content. Tumblr has given pirates the means not only to re-distribute stolen adult content, but also to monetise it. Anyone with a knowledge of coding has been at liberty to run their own third party ad affiliations on Tumblr, and that’s enabled porn pirates to earn from other people’s work, without investing in their own site or even having to identify themselves.

So this is not a clear-cut case of all adult workers hating what Oath did last week, although the company did not do itself any favours in pitching the policy change in such a negative light and such unfriendly, biased language.

SO COULD TUMBLR SURVIVE?

I don’t think the banning of adult content diminishes Tumblr’s chances of long-term survival. But Oath is absolutely not the right organisation to be presiding over Tumblr. Oath doesn’t understand the userbase, or care about the userbase. Oath has very crass, old-school values and still sees Internet revenue in terms of chucking targeted ads on top of populist news bait. It’s an aggressive, curt company which struggles to adapt, and does not have the ability to cloak its aggressiveness or curtness. It’s hard to imagine a proprietor having any less affinity with the Tumblr userbase, which is very human and emotionally driven.

If you look at successful modern start-ups on the web, they’re moving further and further away from the business model of third-party ads – pay-per-click or otherwise. Anyone who’s run blogs knows that ad programmes give an appalling return per thousand hits, as compared with the new revenue model of direct subscription. A host of new online facilities which allow creatives to paywall certain content, and which then take commission on what the creative directly earns, have shown incredible growth.

Tumblr under Oath

With its creative community, Tumblr should be giving thought to this business model, and other markets such as gifting – which would have enabled them to exploit a userbase they’ve now dispensed with. Amazon is not recognised as an adult site, but it makes an absolute fortune out of random men gifting strippers based on aspirational motivation. By introducing fan gifting options, financial or otherwise, Tumblr could have retained and indeed increased its sex worker userbase, still banned porn, and taken commission on gifts – all without being accused of profiting from pornography. That’s exactly what Amazon does. Oath had that market in their hands, but have now binned it, because they’re so staggeringly out of touch with the modern Internet that they would not spot that kind of opportunity.

Ultimately, money and personal gain is a phenomenal motivator. If you give site users the means to earn for themselves, they’ll also earn for you. That would work well on Tumblr, under new management.

Another element of social interaction that Tumblr could potentially better mobilise, is celebrity and influencer presence. Its hard to imagine what Twitter would be without its celebs and big influencers, and Tumblr could dip into that pie too. A few key revisions could not only attract more influencers and celebs, but also encourage a greater sense of celeb-accessibility for ordinary Tumblr users. But it’s not going to happen under Oath. No company that can somehow manage to come out of a site ‘cleanup’ being branded “sexists” and “racists”, without contradiction, is going to successfully tread a delicate line like that.

IN SUMMARY

Banning porn will not kill Tumblr, but engineering a climate of instability definitely will. When people invest their time in creating content and building audiences, they need to know that what they’re building will be safe, and valued. If the proprietor litters its history with yes/no indecisiveness and consistently treats its enticers like pawns, confidence will eventually reach a point where no one is prepared to invest their time. Tumblr under Oath has already entered that danger zone.

Oath; sell the business to someone who understands it. And if no one will buy it, take a step back and admire your tragic ability to transform a billion dollar plus purchase into an unsaleable wreck.