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Meet the Tumblr refugees trying to save its adult content from oblivion

“The internet is for porn,” goes the song from musical Avenue Q. Since Tumblr announced this week that it will no longer be part of that internet, many users are mounting an exodus to existing networks like still-freewheeling Twitter, as well as efforts to build a new kind of Tumblr–or rather, the kind of Tumblr that Tumblr had been until now.

“There were people sharing their discovery of their sexuality. There were people sharing the journey of themselves going through hard times,” says LolaBohemia, a professional dominatrix from Florida. “This was intimacy. It wasn’t just pornography.”

Though less active on Tumblr now, she tells me she used her blog there as an informal way to communicate with clients. “Those that were interested in getting a session or spending time with me [got] to see me as a human being as I would share art that I liked or I would post my own [art],” she says.

The platform’s ban on visuals of “adult content, including explicit sexual content and nudity (with some exceptions),” which officially begins on December 17, has already flooded bloggers’ inboxes with automated alerts about suspect images, videos, and GIFs. The gaffes from Tumblr parent company Verizon’s poorly trained computer vision are often hilarious, like mistaking a raw chicken for a human in the raw. But they still aren’t funny for bloggers who are seeing the majority of their content flagged.

In addition to flagging visuals, Tumblr seems to have filtered its searches. Hashtags like BDSM (a catchall including bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism) now return no results at all. No erotica or other text appears either, despite Tumblr’s assurance that the new content rules don’t apply to text posts.

Tumblr acknowledges to me that its image-recognition tech has a lot to learn. There is an appeals process for flagged items, and it’s unclear how much content will ultimately be blocked–although straight-up porn certainly will be. But many adult bloggers get the sense that they are no longer wanted. “There are [sic] no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content,” wrote Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio in a blog post. “We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.”

Among those sites, “there’s a lot of people planning on moving to Twitter, actually, which is the one mainstream social network that we have that isn’t censored,” says a Tumblr user from Portugal who goes by RiotCinema, and works as a “community organizer and activist for consensual non-monogamy.”

One of many, many search terms that now reveal no results.

Twitter’s media policy states that “some forms of graphic violence and/or adult content in Tweets marked as containing sensitive media,” are allowed. One crowdsourced Google spreadsheet, “The Tumblr Exodus Lifeboat,” lists over 700 NSFW Tumblrs impacted by the site’s new policy, and alternate places to find the creators. Many are Twitter accounts.

For her part, RiotCinema aspires to build a brand-new home for Tumblr refugees, at a site called TumblrX–an idea hatched in jest in a Twitter conversation. “I wasn’t really expecting to get a response from it,” she says. But she registered the domain and created a Google form for volunteers. Construction by a handful of volunteers is well underway. Although the URL still shows just a blank page, an early mockup I saw looks roughly like a spare version of Tumblr

Twitter has, “much more of a like-based community,” says RiotCinema. “Tumblr was a lot about the reblogging and the continuous sharing of content, and that’s what gave its community power in the end.”

She says that about 80% of images on her blog have been flagged. Some do show female nipples or even sex, but many are quite tame, like a photo of a navel or drawings of sexy clothed women.

Two posts on RiotCinema’s Tumblr blog flagged as adult content.

Should the TumblrX effort succeed, RiotCinema would like it to be as freewheeling as Tumblr had been “for sex workers as well as artists and the community at large of supporters and fans.” Funding for servers, storage, and bandwidth will initially come from donations. If the site grows, it may branch into ads, affiliate marketing, or premium memberships, says RiotCinema, whose day job is doing business development for a startup.

But there are other options if TumblrX doesn’t make it. Lively Twitter discussions have named many sites, including social network upstarts like Foxsake or Pillowfort, the latter a Tumblr-like blogging network that has raised about $60,000 on Kickstarter and is currently in closed beta. Other options are focused around content creators, such as Ello and Newgrounds (which has a big gaming culture component).

A prototype home page for TumblrX.

Another site, Sharesome, is essentially the Facebook of porn, with folks posting amateur shots and sex workers, like webcam performers, teasing their wares.

And Dreamwidth, which posted a big welcome message to Tumblr users after the new content guidelines were announced, has seen a surge in interest.

“We’ve had about 10 times the new accounts created over the past couple of days as we had the week before,” says Denise Paolucci, the site’s co-owner.

Dreamwidth itself is the product of a previous exodus, about a decade ago, from the community blogging site LiveJournal. “The ownership at the time decided that they were no longer going to allow people to create accounts that were not ad supported,” says Paolucci, who had already left before the changes took effect.

In 2008, she and fellow LiveJournal alum Mark Smith founded Dreamwidth as a user-supported site, with accounts ranging from free basic to $50 per year. Paid tiers expand about a dozen parameters, such as the size of user inboxes and the extent of cross-posting allowed. And they add about two-dozen extra features, such as running polls and Google Analytics.

“Our user base is very, very appreciative of the fact that they are our users and not the product that we’re selling,” says Paolucci. The site has about three and a half million accounts, with about 25,000 active users in the past month.

With limited resources and an aged codebase, Dreamwidth presents an un unironically retro interface.

I sent the Dreamwidth URL to LolaBohemia, who has worked in web design. She was not impressed with the spare, bright-white pages. “At first glance, it’s like, ‘Hum, what am I missing here?’ This isn’t inviting me to do anything,” she says.

I relay the feedback to Paolucci, who bursts out laughing.

“That’s the downside to being a small user-supported company owned by two people,” she says. “We don’t have the kind of resources that a Tumblr will have, either for spending on designers or programmers or UX people or even for [hosting] unlimited images.”

There’s also no support for video, as some Tumblr refugees have complained. But unlike Tumblr, Dreamwidth is largely text-based, with erotica, fan fiction, or whatever else floats your boat. Storage per account is limited to just 500 megabytes. The site still runs on open-source LiveJournal code from the turn of the century.


Related: The collateral damage of Tumblr’s porn ban


The upshot, says Paolucci, is that Dreamwidth doesn’t have to please advertisers or venture capitalists by censoring content or trying to reach unrealistic growth targets. The platform allows anything other than what’s prohibited by law (such as child pornography)–including hardcore pornography and hate speech that doesn’t incite violence.

“If somebody is expressing an opinion…and it’s in their own space and they’re not attacking other people with it or harassing other users, then we’re more likely to leave that alone,” she says.

If not enough advertisers or investors will pump money into new adult communities, what about dedicated users? How much Tumblr refugees will be willing to pay for a replacement isn’t clear. Meanwhile, funding adult content from small creators became harder in late 2017, when subscription payment service Patreon explicitly banned sex workers and porn creators.

That helped inspire the founding of yet another upstart site, called KinkRebel, which will host any legal adult content and feature its own built-in payment processing service for subscribers to fund content creators pages. Those creators then pay KinkRebel a 30% processing fee.

The LA-based company aims for a beta launch in January or February, and will start with limited social aspects, like the ability to comment. The cofounder, who gives only the first name Justin, says he would like to expand it to a more Twitter- or Facebook-style environment.

KinkRebel collects a 30 percent processing fee on all payments.

Community is the part that many adult posters from Tumblr are most afraid of losing–including the eclectic variety of a site that isn’t just for adult content. “There’s nothing like Tumblr that encompassed communities that are completely divergent,” says RiotCinema.

While there may be “no shortage of sites on the internet” for porn, the combination of a rich community and the resources for rich media could be hard or impossible to find again. That doesn’t mean that some won’t keep trying.


Contact me at seanjcaptain@gmail.com or through Twitter DM @seancaptain, where I can also provide my Signal contact information.

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