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Tumblr’s New Adult Content Filter Thinks This Bowl of Fruit Is NSFW

What do Batman, Garfield, and Big Bird have in common? They’ve all been marked for deletion by Tumblr’s faulty new algorithm meant to censor adult content on the website ahead of its outright ban on December 17.

Screenshot via @RBtheARTISAN/Twitter

Nobody is safe, not even Batman.

On Monday, December 3, Tumblr announced that it would ban all adult content starting December 17. Users logging into their accounts this week found red banners across certain posts flagged for explicit content. Awkward, considering that many of these posts included comic book characters, dinosaurs — and even a literal rock.

“Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content — including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations — that depicts sex acts,” the company wrote in its announcement, which was presumably not sent to its algorithm programmers.

Hilariously, one Tumblr user alleged on Twitter that the site’s algorithm marked a reblog of its own company notice as explicit.

Although the notice stipulates that Tumblr will allow some nudity in content — including breastfeeding photos, nudity found in art, nudity related to political speech, and written erotica — the rollout of this faulty new algorithm casts doubt on the company’s ability to divide the tasteful from the tasteless.

Neither a ballerina nor a bare ankle is safe from Tumblr’s haphazard algorithm. Users have also noticed that many of the website’s false positives flagged for explicit content include images of fully-clothed women. Illustrators and members of the website’s large fan art community have also noticed that their human figures have been marked for censorship.

Tumblr’s current war on porn is a striking reversal from the company’s more complicit origins. As journalist Lux Alptarum writes for The Verge, the social media platform had long-followed a “business in the front, party in the back” model of presentation. By January 2010, the site had a dedicated directory of erotic Tumblrs. By 2013, TechCrunch found that more than 11% of the site’s top blogs were adult-oriented. That same year, Tumblr executives decided to sell the business to Yahoo for a staggering $1.1 billion, a sum which the online conglomerate later signaled it regretted. By July of that year, Tumblr began to gradually hide NSFW blogs by removing them from the website’s internal search engine. Last year, the platform released a “safe mode” that would block what they called “sensitive content.”

Last January, two Italian universities in collaboration with Bell Labs released a study about pornography consumption on social media. Researchers found that nearly a quarter of Tumblr users came to the platform to watch porn. The study was based on the behavior of 130 million users, which is about half of the site’s entire user base. That would mean roughly 30 million accounts were consumer adult content at any given time. With an estimated 72% of Tumblr users being female, the study also found that young women ages 20–25 were watching porn at a higher rate than young men on the website. This indicates that Tumblr’s adult content ban will disproportionately affect young women’s access to erotica.

Tumblr’s imminent ban on adult content has surprised many of its community members who migrated to the site after a similar thing happened to LiveJournal in 2007, shortly before it was sold to Russian media company SUP Media for an undisclosed amount. Given Yahoo’s seeming distaste for the company, some are wondering if Tumblr will now follow LiveJournal’s path.

There may be a more pressing reason for the company’s adult content ban. Late last month, Tumblr was ejected from Apple’s iOS store after child pornography was found on the service. In a follow-up statement to the site’s announced ban on explicit content, the company clarified that “posting anything that is harmful to minors, including child pornography, is abhorrent and has no place in our community.” Tumblr says that its reasoning behind the porn ban is not necessarily related to its removal from the app store, but its desire to create a “safe place for creative expression.”

“There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content,” the statement continues. “We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.”

If the end of porn on Tumblr signals the end of the platform as we know it, some in the blogging community will be happy to see it go. (Besides, Pornhub is offering users free sanctuary.) The social media site is known for its vehement spats of online harassment.

It’s awful,” a Tumblr user named Danielle told Kotaku earlier this summer. “I have fantasies about Yahoo killing the blue hellsite overnight like they did with [social bookmarking service] del.icio.us. Force fandom out of this place and make us resettle elsewhere. I’d welcome that with open arms.”

She may get her wish soon enough.

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