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'I fear loss of community': Tumblr's new 'adult content' rules worry LGBTQ users

Some of Tumblr’s LGBTQ users fear the platform’s new “adult content” guidelines will unjustly censor their content.
Image: Many of tumblr's loyal LGBTQ user base disagree with the platform's decision to ban all explicit content.
Many of tumblr's loyal LGBTQ user base disagree with the platform's decision to ban all explicit content.NBC News

Tumblr, the popular microblogging site, announced on Monday that it would soon ban all explicit content from its platform. The move comes just days after a child pornography incident on the site resulted in the Tumblr app being pulled from the Apple App Store. But many in the site’s loyal LGBTQ user base are crying foul on the decision, claiming it will hurt queer content creators who have made Tumblr a safe haven for the community.

“I joined Tumblr when I was 24,” Charlotte, now 33, told NBC News. “It's the first place I came out online, and one of the few online spaces where I can be openly queer.”

“It had a lot more queer content than I was used to,” added Charlotte, who asked to be identified by her first name only, because some people do not know she identifies as queer. “With these Tumblr changes, I fear loss of community, history and a safe space.”

Charlotte isn’t alone in viewing Tumblr as a queer resort in an often hostile online landscape. A 2017 Daily Dot article named Tumblr the number one online safe space for LGBTQ people to hang out, thanks to its wide breadth of queer content and its robust dialogue around lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues. In the article, a high school student said they first encountered the terms “bisexual” and “non-binary” on Tumblr, terms they said shaped their identity.

Another Tumblr user, Luke Healy, told NBC News that the microblogging site was his safe space before he came out to people offline, and the explicit content allowed him room for self-discovery.

“It gave me a way to watch and view things and allowed me to explore my sexuality without being scared of someone in my school finding out,” Healy said. “Even now, seven years later, it still feels like that place. I’m scared young people in the closet today won’t have that.”

The Tumblr changes will rely on algorithms to flag content that might be considered “adult.” This, too, raised alarms from LGBTQ people on the site.

“A ton of posts have been flagged for absolutely no reason,” Cam, a 27-year-old Tumblr user who identifies as queer, told NBC News. “I have hashtags such as bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer, etcetera, sprinkled throughout, and I wonder if that’s giving Tumblr the impression my blog is not-safe-for-work.”

Cam asked to be identified only by her first name, because she is not out to some friends and family members in her conservative Oklahoma hometown.

LGBTQ people have reason to be wary. Their content has been censored before on various social media platforms, reportedly due to computer algorithms. Last year, LGBTQ YouTubers expressed outrage over the censorship of their videos, some of which, they claim, were filtered out in YouTube’s “restricted mode,” which hides “mature” content, simply for featuring same-sex relationships. YouTube ultimately reversed some of these restrictions.

When asked for comment in response to the LGBTQ community’s concerns, a Tumblr spokesperson directed NBC News to language in CEO Jeff D’Onofrio’s blog post on the recent ban.

“We’re relying on automated tools to identify adult content and humans to help train and keep our systems in check,” D’Onofrio’s stated. “We know there will be mistakes, but we’ve done our best to create and enforce a policy that acknowledges the breadth of expression we see in the community.”

But such language is unlikely to sway critics of the new policy, like Scout, a former avid Tumblr user. The artist, who asked that their last name not be published for the same reasons as Charlotte and Cam, preemptively made the social media migration from Tumblr to Twitter, where they now share their drawings.

“I’m bi and trans and put most of my art on Tumblr, but now all my drawings that feature LGBTQ+ flags or even drawings that aren’t remotely not-safe-for-work are being flagged,” they told NBC News. “Tumblr had a decent tagging system. People could see my art without me getting annoying with the hashtags. It’s really upsetting.”

Though Tumblr’s new policy does not officially go into effect until Dec. 17, several users, including artist Scout, are reporting that their content is already being flagged.

Of course, Tumblr’s official policy is not to ban LGBTQ content from its site. Its new “community guidelines” prohibit “videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples,” including “content that is so photorealistic that it could be mistaken for featuring real-life humans.” It will also prohibit “any content, including images, videos, GIFs, or illustrations, that depicts sex acts.”

But many LGBTQ people say it was Tumblr’s open, accepting atmosphere that drew them in, in the first place, and the new policy threatens to change that.

“Whenever adult content bans happen, LGBTQ+ is always the first to go, no matter how tame,” Charlotte lamented, “because all queerness is viewed as adult content and not child friendly.”