Tumblr’s First Year Without Porn

There are two stories about what Tumblr was like in 2019, its first year after officially prohibiting sex acts, nudity, and “female-presenting nipples.”

The first is that it barely survived. From 2018 to 2019, the average number of unique monthly visitors to Tumblr’s website decreased by 21.2 percent, according to data compiled by the analytics service SimilarWeb. The total volume of visits to the site is in decline, and the visits per unique visitor is in decline, and the amount of time that visitors spend on the site is also in decline. From 2018 to 2019, the average site visit dropped by nearly a minute, and the average number of pages per visit dropped by more than one and a half. Even more strikingly, the average monthly volume of traffic to the Tumblr login page by US visitors dropped 49 percent, and the average number of daily active users on Tumblr’s Android app dropped 35 percent, making it unlikely that the dip in site traffic could be explained by users migrating to mobile.

The numbers are stark, but not surprising. Up until 2016, when Yahoo still owned Tumblr, but was not yet itself owned by Verizon, or merged with AOL, it had an in-house research team tasked with understanding the mechanics and sociology of the various websites it owned. The lab published one of its last studies postmortem, in January 2017, mapping the place of porn in communities on Flickr and Tumblr.

While porn creators belonged to tightly connected subgroups, they were linked to the rest of Tumblr’s network “with a very high number of ties,” and their productions “spread widely across the whole social graph.” In other words, they weren’t quarantined off in some illicit corner of the site—they were woven into its basic fabric: The average Tumblr user in the sample followed 51 blogs, two or three of which tended to be specifically porn, and another two of which tended to be “bridge” blogs, run by users who were particularly likely to reblog porn.

“My personal opinion about this whole story is that the numbers were very clear,” Luca Aiello, one of the researchers, tells me now. “People were very engaged with that type of content, and banning it would determine the fall of the community.”.


The second story about Tumblr’s 2019 was published yesterday on Tumblr’s Fandometrics blog, which releases weekly rankings of the site’s “ships” and subcultures, as well as a yearly data haul about its top communities, memes, and modes of thought.  Without porn, Tumblr still has plenty: photography, studying, The Sims, cats, dogs, reptiles, “fitness,” the main category in which some nudity still hides, alongside the devastating anorexia blogs that haunt the platform no matter what tags it prohibits.

The recap paints Tumblr as a vibrant tangle of memes and mini-communities. There, as everywhere else, the biggest meme of the year was Area 51. “Tumblr loves aliens,” data insights manager and “meme librarian” Amanda Brennan says. It was particularly into the “Naruto run” sub-meme of the meme, which was drawn from a popular anime series. There was also a Minecraft “Renaissance,” another big year for Keanu Reeves, and a resurgence of “incorrect quotes,” the Facebook feed’s favorite joke circa 2009.

In late January, the “Shaggy’s Power” meme boomed. A transplant from Reddit, it featured screenshots of Matthew Lillard, the actor who played Shaggy in the 2002 live-action adaptation of Scooby-Doo, and captions portraying him as a god-like figure with a range of mysterious powers, swinging wildly between indiscriminate violence and pure benevolence. “You are reading this now because I compel you to,” the edited subtitle text on one still of Lillard reads. “You are never free.” (“I have no idea what the heart of it is,” Brennan says. “I think it’s just absurdist.”) It eventually expanded to include other actors from the movie, also praising Shaggy’s powers, and then to include Tumblr itself, in a discussion of the meta horror of a divine meme springing forth from seemingly nowhere.

“The scooby doo memes are making me lose my shit. i have no idea where they came from, i doubt i ever will,” one user posted earlier this year. “This is the kind of content i signed up for when i made my tumblr.”

Tumblr is still where “ships” are born and nurtured, and this year’s most popular romantic pairing was the main characters from Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, played in a new adaptation this year by David Tennant and Michael Sheen. Number three on the list, Brennan pointed out, was a couple from a telenovela: Juliana Valdés and Valentina Carvajal are a canonical f/f pairing, even more popular than “Reddie,” the canonical male-male pairing from Stephen King’s It: Chapter 2.

The highest-ranking real-person ship was Park Jimin and Jeon Jungkook from K-pop supergroup BTS. (My favorite real-person ship, soccer players Tobin Heath and Christen Press, was number 27 on the list.) And the highest-ranking real person overall was Taylor Swift, who made Tumblr a central part of her summer album rollout, and who, fans joke, was late for the red carpet at the American Music Awards because she was busy liking posts about herself. (The New York Times’s Joe Coscarelli has been using Swift’s Tumblr activity to inform his reporting all year—possibly the first time the paper of record has cited Tumblr likes as evidence.)

#Taylurking, the tag that people use when Taylor is active on Tumblr and liking fans’ posts, was the eighth largest meme on the site this year. “We consider it a meme, because we follow the definition that a meme is an idea that goes from person to person and changes along the way,” Brennan says. “I’ve heard stories of people who have met in that tag and become friends and all they do is watch Taylor’s likes.”

It’s still Tumblr. “There was a decline,” Brennan says when I ask about how the NSFW ban affected the culture of the site. “But to me, and a lot of my friends who are very active on fandom Tumblr, it just felt like there wasn’t a change. It became less risky to open up your app in public and I feel like that’s been something I’ve heard from a lot of people. To me, the way I use Tumblr is very fandom-oriented and all of those people are still here, still active, still doing weird things and shipping people.”


For much of Tumblr’s existence it was a running joke that you couldn’t pull up your dashboard in public. But the joke was typically warm, and came at the expense of basically no one.

“Porn on Tumblr wasn’t treated as disposable, something just to be immediately purged from your browser history, but an aesthetic, artistic component of your page and your life,” pornographic filmmaker Vex Ashley wrote in a eulogy for Tumblr’s sexy art and safer sex work communities at the end of last year.

But Tumblr’s content filtration system did an imperfect job preventing the spread of child pornography—a failing that got it removed from Apple’s App Store a few weeks before the ban was announced, ostensibly instigating it. It’s also possible, based on a former employee’s account, that the porn was going to go away regardless, as part of a last-ditch effort to make Tumblr more appealing to advertisers. Tumblr’s staff has been shrinking, and it may not have had the engineering resources to keep porn on the site in a safe way—or it could have been a cynical spin towards making a wild garden of confusing subcultures into something more cleanly monetizable.

The NSFW ban, as explained on the company blog last December, under the heading “A better, more positive Tumblr,” included “explicit sexual content and nudity (with some exceptions).” The nudity exceptions given in the original post are “a political protest with nudity or the statue of David.” The updated community guidelines forbid images, videos, GIFs, and “photorealistic” artwork of “real-life human genitals,” the much-derided “female-presenting nipples,” and any kind of sex act. “Certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity are fine.”  

“The biggest thing that’s changed [this year] is an overall lack of content with diverse and mature themes,” Cat Frazier, creator of the popular Tumblr Animated Text, writes to me in an email. “I never followed porn accounts, but many of the people I followed were either deleted or left the platform out of frustration last year. That’s left a noticeable gap. In fact a month ago I was scrolling through my followed accounts and about 100 of them hadn’t uploaded since the ban.”

When Tumblr first rolled out the ban, the image recognition appeared to snipe basically anything with a human form. It scared users away who might actually been fine, and it still didn’t kill the porn bots and spammy ads that have riddled the site for years. Artists who used NSFW tags to draw attention to their work ended up drawing the wrong kind of attention—it’s impossible to search for these things anymore, because the tags have been wiped clean.

Madeleine Holden, a freelance writer who used to operate the extremely popular Tumblr Critique My Dick Pic—a community art project in which Holden would critically evaluate the pics, never the dicks, and always give an objective rating—stopped logging in to the site as soon as Tumblr announced the change. She’s surprised when I tell her that many of the dicks are still there—maybe even the majority—because Tumblr’s image recognition is actually very bad.

“I still get emails that go directly to a Promotions or Social tab where Tumblr just tells me every single time that it’s flagged one of my posts for potentially containing adult content,” she says. “I guess they’re going to send me 400 or 500 of those emails.” Her blog had 40,000 followers at its peak, and she says she has “something like 10,000” dick pics in her email account. Holden actively solicited dick pics from people of color, women, and non-binary people, and she looked for images that could be called “heart-warming” or “generous”—exploring “the gap between what most dick pics were like and what they could be.”

“It ended up being a space that trans people tell me they found affirming,” she says now. “It developed this community that was so much less seedy than you would imagine for a blog that was essentially just dick pics.”

Instagram is notoriously strict about nudity. Twitter can be too combative. Facebook requires real names. Reddit, well—you know about Reddit. The nascent social platform Pillowfort has been proposed as an alternative to Tumblr, but users are still required to label NSFW content. (And the platform can do it for them if they don’t.) Something like Tumblr a year ago seems unlikely ever to exist again on the internet.

“It’s almost become a joke,” Holden says. “There’s a certain kind of social justice sentimentality that people just call very Tumblr. There’s something about Tumblr that was more earnest, particularly around the topic of sex and sex that was a little bit at the margins.”


Cursed images, Tumblr’s ninth most-popular meme category in 2019, was number 24 on the 2017 list, but didn’t appear in 2014, 2015, or 2016, according to Brennan. (There was no year-end list in 2018.)

They did not originate there. In April 2016, The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino interviewed the anonymous operator of the Cursed Images Twitter account, which had already inspired the creation of a Cursed Images subreddit, which is darker than I’d like to explain. On Tumblr, the “cursed images” tag is a sillier hodge-podge of the horrifying and the stupid. A pretty famous teddy bear stitched together from slabs of raw chicken; a Halloween candy bucket full of “warm” scrambled eggs. Some of the things in the tag don’t scan as “cursed” because they don’t really scan as much of anything—just dirty rooms or weird-looking dolls, which aren’t cursed so much as they are garbage, and bad posts. But my favorite is labeled “cursed” and is actually just funny: a 7-Eleven with the street address “712.”

Revisiting her interview recently, Tolentino characterized 2019 as a “cursed” year online, she wrote, “It is hard—given the sheer extent of what is crumbling around us, and also the natural limits of our individual scopes of vision—to take in the fullness of contemporary cursedness all at once.”

Plenty of new, younger fandoms sprung up on Tumblr this year, according to Brennan, but it’s notable how much of what showed up on the year-end list for what has always been the most creative and arguably the most important platform on the web was regurgitated from other sites—or bland continuations of aesthetically-unchallenging trends that have been popular for years. (Like the biggest pop star in the world.) Tumblr can still be funny and strange, and there is still no better place on the internet to be a fan of something, explore a social or sexual identity, or reblog a convoluted joke about being young and online.

Tumblr had a starring role in one of the buzziest manifestos of the year, NYU doctoral student Andrea Long Chu’s Females, which had an entire chapter about the rise of sissy porn on the platform in 2013. “Tumblr made me trans,” she said in an interview recently—only partly joking, since that is pretty much what she argues in her book.

“Now I mainly see the same memes I see on every other platform,” Frazier says. “Reblogs that have been making the rounds since 2014 or ads. I understand that many people had a Tumblr just for the porn. But even those people had something to share when they weren’t jerking off.”

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Kaitlyn Tiffany is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers technology.

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