Did banning porn make Tumblr worthless?

The social network's adult-content ban came at a great cost to the community


Nicole Karlis
August 16, 2019 10:00PM (UTC)

It has been a slow burn toward the seeming end for Tumblr over the last few years, and this week another change of the guard has been announced.

Reports first surfaced Tuesday that Automattic, the company behind the blog platform WordPress, had purchased Tumblr from Verizon. The news has left pundits speculating about the cause of the site’s stark decline in monetary value and users.

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While the Wall Street Journal first reported the price of the sale was an “undisclosed sum,” sources told Axios that the deal was "well below" $20 million and possibly even lower than $10 million. Axios business editor Dan Primack later said in a tweet that the sale price was below $3 million.

All three price tags, if correct, are a significant decline from what Yahoo paid for the platform in 2013: $1.1 billion. (Verizon subsumed Tumblr when it acquired Yahoo in 2017.)

Ironically, Automattic received a valuation of $1.2 billion in 2014. The site originally launched in 2007 under David Karp.

It is hard to pinpoint what triggered such a drastic decline in value in less than a decade. However, the most obvious suspect is Yahoo's eventual institution of a ban on pornography. The controversial ban brought an end to the platform's era of serving as a freeform, accessible hub for diverse sexual expression.

Porn was banned from Tumblr soon after the social network was removed from Apple’s App Store. Child pornography was found on the site, one consequence of the site’s relaxed content moderation approach. Instead of banning specific sites with child pornography, all not-safe-for-work content was banned.

Of course, the fall of Tumblr is contextual. As an early social media network that launched many writing careers when it still focused on blogging, the company has struggled with irrelevance at times. But it is worth asking: Did banning porn make Tumblr totally worthless?

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Tumblr's adult-content ban came at a great cost to a community who depended on the social network to be a forum where issues related to body image, identity and sexuality could be discussed and expressed in a healthy manner. As explained by the website Pride.com, the LGBTQ community depended on Tumblr.

“That content, next to RuPaul's Drag Race sh*tposts and gay culture memes, helped many isolated gay kids find their community, even if it was virtual,” Pride.com writer Taylor Henderson wrote in March.

"The Tumblr ban on adult content will affect queer and trans users by taking away a vital social component to a community that is bound together by their sexual orientation and sexual desire," artist Courtney Trouble told PinkNews. "Without social media that allows this kind of exploration, we are losing a lot."

While producers of adult content made up less than 1 percent of Tumblr’s content creators, a quarter of the site’s user base was made up of consumers of adult content. Researchers published a report in 2016 that found about half of Tumblr’s user base was a combination of consumers directly looking for porn — and those who were unintentionally exposed to it.

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When the ban was announced, many users threatened to leave the platform. After it was enforced, the Verge reported that the site’s traffic dropped by nearly 30 percent, leaving many to believe that users had followed through with their threats.

The ban also put a strain on sex workers. A cam girl for five years who raked in $50,000 in her highest-earning month told Salon last year that the ban would definitely effect how cam models found their clients.  “It can be extremely effective as a marketing channel,” she said at the time.

However, Anthony Babbitt, a business consultant with experience working on acquisitions, told Salon it can be argued that Yahoo paid too much for Tumblr.

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"Yahoo paid this amount, because they felt Tumblr was worth this much to them, instead of a valuation based on Tumblr's finances and/or revenues," Babbitt said in an email. "Yahoo anticipated the acquisition would improve their traffic by 20 percent and provide them a 50 percent increase in user base."

Babbitt noted that at the time, Yahoo was struggling against Bing and Google.

"The move may have been desperate. Had it worked, it would have been hailed as a genius move," Babbitt said. "Unfortunately, it did not."

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Nonetheless, a change in leadership does not appear to equate to a change in heart regarding adult content. Automattic Inc.’s CEO Matt Mullenweg told the Wall Street Journal that the company intends to keep the ban in place. In fact, he sees Tumblr as complementary to WordPress.com.

“It’s just fun,” Mullenweg said. “We’re not going to change any of that.”

Mullenweg elaborated in an interview with the Verge: "I will say that, overall, a really thriving home for adult content is probably best for a company or a website which is totally dedicated to it.”

In other words, a return of porn seems unlikely. But a return to the glory days of blogging on Tumblr? That is still a possibility.

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Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a news writer at Salon. She covers health, science, tech and gender politics. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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