Fear and Loathing on Social Media
AITumblr's Porn-Detecting AI Has One Job—and It's Bad at It
CrackdownTumblr's Porn Ban Reveals Who Controls What We See Online
Yes, I have other online communities now. Twitter, of course. Facebook, I guess. Instagram, for memes and insecurity. But none of those have the open, self-governing exchange of ideas that Tumblr once had. Frankly, we need it now more than ever.In Tumblr's halcyon days—which I'm going to place in the three or four years around the time Yahoo acquired the company for $1.1 billion in 2013 (Verizon got it when the company bought Yahoo in 2017)—community was key. The site was a library of fanfiction, a home to more memes and GIFs than any one person could ever look at, let alone reblog. Its myriad fandoms lit up the internet like a heat map of Shanghai suburbs. It became a hub of pop culture feminist discourse. Frank Ocean used the site to come out; Taylor Swift used it to address fans. (She still does.) Science nerds used it to make cracks about evolution. It was, and occasionally still is, a living embodiment of what the internet can and should be.
That, of course, also makes Tumblr the antithesis of other social media hubs like Facebook and Twitter and Reddit. In the years that those sites outpaced Tumblr in popularity and traffic, they often did so at the expense of users. Misogynist harassment , white nationalists, Russian trolls —they took off on social media. Tumblr, like Instagram but with more of Twitter's features, felt like a far safer place.Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Tumblr's new owner Automattic, seems well aware of this. In an interview posted today on the Verge, Mullenweb noted, "Tumblr pioneered a lot of what later would show up on Twitter, Instagram, WordPress, all sorts of other places. So it's always been a very creative team, and I really am looking forward to seeing that just unleashed." He wouldn't go so far as to say he wanted to challenge those competitors head-on on their own turf, but his willingness to not let the service wither at the bottom of a corporate balance sheet shows promise.
Angela Watercutter is a senior editor at WIRED covering pop culture.
That's not to say there aren't things Tumblr needs to do to bring back the spirit of '13. The site did have its own problems with "state-sponsored disinformation and propaganda" during the last US election. There's spam. There's also the issue of adult content. Late last year the site issued what was effectively a porn ban , sending sex workers into a panic—and onto other sites . Chances are, Tumblr's new owners won't bring back the porn (Mullenweg has said as much), but it could indicate that it'll do more to moderate, to let, say, erotic art continue to have a place on the site, even if hardcore pornography doesn't.
And so simultaneously the company mounted a huge effort, led by CTO Mike Schroepfer, to create artificial intelligence systems that can, at scale, identify the content that Facebook wants to zap from its platform, including spam, nudes, hate speech, ISIS propaganda, and videos of children being put in washing machines.
Truly, moderation is key. What made Tumblr such a haven in its heyday was that it felt like a place where freak flags waved proudly and everyone felt supported. Communities self-policed and everything was shared and shareable. Want to talk about Glee? Tumblr was there for you. Need the perfect Beyoncé GIF? News about Barack Obama's reelection campaign? Ask and ye shall receive. Politics, comics, essays, discourse—it was all there, and easy to find.