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Tumblr’s latest ‘safe mode’ update is hurting adult content creators

A default filter has majorly concerned people on the social platform

Tumblr has long been one of the freest spaces on the internet for porn and sex-positive content, thanks to lax guidelines compared to Facebook or Instagram. Porn creators, fetish community artists, and more were able to share work with little trouble. Tumblr made a major change last year with the introduction of a ‘Safe Mode’ that initially filtered ‘NSFW’ content if users chose to enable it. Now though, Tumblr is making Safe Mode the default setting for users. 

The Safe Mode feature hides “sensitive” images – for example nude images, even, as Tumblr’s guidelines note, if artistic or education nudity like classic art or anatomy. As Motherboard reports, it’s a function that claims to give users “more control over what you see and what you don’t”, updating the ‘Safe Search’ option that the platform introduced back in 2012 that removed sensitive stuff from the site’s search results.

In its very early stages it was catching criticism – the filter picked up things with a heavy hand, and aggressively censored illustrations and other art that wasn’t explicit. Some users asserted that lots of LGBT content was flagged despite not containing anything of a sexual nature.

Rolling out the default setting means users will have to go out of their way to switch back and see unfiltered content. An email sent to Tumblr users last week states that they want to “make sure everyone has the chance to try it out”. 

Many adult content creators are concerned this will affect their work and space on the platform. Tumblr user, freelance artist, and adult comic-maker Kayla-Na told Dazed of her frustrations: “I understand wanting to make Tumblr a safer environment for younger audiences, but Tumblr has to remember that the adult community is still part of the website as a whole, and shouldn’t be suppressed into oblivion. 

“A NSFW warning before viewing an adult Tumblr page should more than suffice instead of just pretending that we don't exist. What they're doing now is just making it harder for adult bloggers to reach out to new people, and making it harder for new people to find said blogs.”

The UK’s online porn industry faces huge setback this coming April – under the Digital Economy Act, the government will bring in an age-verification requirement for all pornographic websites and people wanting to access them will have to prove they’re over 18. The act will also give the government powers to block websites that defy their content rules without court orders. 

Amy, a sex blogger at Coffee & Kink, asserts that Tumblr has been a space for adult work to thrive, where creators take care to mark things that are NSFW. “Tumblr has long, long been the social media of choice for porn and smut, rightly or wrongly – Fetlife notwithstanding of course. All the porn blogs I follow – and there are hundreds – clearly mark their content as 18+.” 

She describes the switch to a default filter is “another way to try to sneakily censor adult content creators without explicitly saying: ‘WE DON'T WANT YOU ON OUR PLATFORM’. Like all social media, Tumblr is part of how lots of us build and interact with our audience.

“Social media doesn't want us – that has become clear. But we’re a clever and resilient bunch and we’ll keep bouncing back and finding ways to share our work and spread our message. Joke’s on them, really, because the adult industry is worth billions worldwide and if they don’t want a piece of that, we’ll find plenty of places that aren’t so prudish.”

Adult content creators have also felt pressure from the change in Patreon’s guidelines – in October 2017, the subscription crowdfunding site updated its rules to explicitly ban pornographic content and sexual services. Sites like OnlyFans, another donation site, have been harnessed by porn and adult content makers to find followers and cultivate business.

Tumblr users have already been pointing out the failures of the Safe Mode roll out, flagging non-explicit content yet showing highly explicit works in the search results. It’s unclear how well Safe Mode even does its job right now – all that’s certain about it is that it’s harming one of its biggest communities, adult content creators.