Tumblr just made some big changes to how it approaches NSFW content.
Earlier this week, the platform introduced a new “safe mode” that, when enabled, prevents users from seeing NSFW content unless they choose to view it.
That may sound like a pretty straightforward change, but it’s already proving to be controversial and not just for the reasons you may think.
First, a bit of context: the Tumblr community has long been known as a free-spirited group where just about anything goes, including porn and many other varieties of NSFW content. Not only that, Tumblr’s openness has given rise to countless communities of people who eagerly share and celebrate much of this content.
The company’s guidelines do prohibit certain types of material, like harassment, spam, and overly gory images, but in general the company has had very few qualms with sexually explicit content. So, naturally, Tumblr has developed a reputation over the years as the social network with the most porn. In fact, TechCrunch notes that so-called “adult content” is the top category that drives direct clicks to Tumblr’s desktop site, according to data from analytics company SimilarWeb.
Which brings us back to safe mode and why it has so many people concerned. For one, it appears Tumblr’s content filtering system is being a little overly aggressive in what is determined to be “sensitive” (which may include “nudity in an artistic, educational, or photojournalistic context,” according to Tumblr’s guidelines) or “explicit.”
Apparently tumblr has just set up a safe mode that also blocks LGBT content from minors regardless if sfw or not. Uh this might be the end?
— ♔Holly Adkins♔ (@tinytelephones) June 21, 2017
Many users are reporting that safe mode is mistakenly flagging harmless photos and illustrations as explicit. Others allege the filtering system is blocking LGBT-themed content that is not sexually explicit in nature (notably, this also came up in 2013 when Tumblr introduced safe search features that prevent NSFW content from appearing in search results).
This is particularly vexing to Tumblr’s legions of underage users as minors are not able to opt-out of safe mode at all.
The safe mode setting is also now automatically enabled for new users and logged out users. Furthermore, logged out users won’t even have the ability to opt out of safe mode beginning July 5th.
All this raises questions about Tumblr’s motives for “safe mode.” While Tumblr has positioned the changes as a safety feature meant to provide “more control over what you see and what you don’t,” it also just so happens to coincide with the finalization of the sale of Tumblr parent company Yahoo to Verizon. It’s not hard to imagine that Tumblr’s new corporate owners may have an interest in reducing the visibility of some of Tumblr’s more “unsavory” content than Yahoo ever did.
A source close to Tumblr says safe mode has been in the works for more than a year and reiterated Tumblr’s prior statements that the feature is about “choice.”
Whether that’s the entire story or not, though, the new changes are being seen by some as a worrying sign of what’s to come.