Screengrab from Tumblr.
Editorial Writer

If you never thought you would see people get weepy over porn, you’ve never been on Tumblr.

The site’s announcement on Monday that it would remove “photos, videos, and GIFs of human genitalia, female-presenting nipples, and any media involving sex acts, including illustrations” from its public-facing platform was greeted with a mass display of mourning. Users bewailed the change as a blow against vulnerable populations for whom Tumblr was a safe space to access adult content — and it is. But this story is much bigger than Tumblr alone.

At its core, the Tumblr tale is about a topic most of us probably associate with white supremacists or pill-hawking conspiracy mongers: content moderation. The first lesson is that it’s hard. Tumblr’s efforts to cleanse itself of obscene content have apparently led to a purge of “all anime,” “anyone fat” and “dinosaurs,” among other innocent content that the site’s algorithm has detected as explicit. Tumblr, it seems, is relying on artificial intelligence to screen its site. And a nonhuman system cannot realistically catch only the content a company wants without error.

This is not only a technological problem. It’s a policy problem. Armed with an imperfect weapon, Tumblr faced a choice: let some offending posts go or open up some acceptable posts to algorithmic attack. The platform appears to have picked the latter, and it’s betting on broadness more generally with its far-reaching rule against sexy stuff writ large. The reason leads to lesson two: On the Internet, there are moderators, and then there are the moderators’ moderators.

Tumblr says its rule against adult content exists only to build “a better Tumblr,” but most observers aren’t buying it. Last month, Tumblr was removed from the iTunes App Store over its failure to filter out child pornography. Tumblr could have tried to find a tailored response to the problem, pinpointing the problems with its current procedures that allowed prohibited posts to appear on its site. Instead, it targeted essentially everything that has anything to do with sex, including, yes, those “female-presenting nipples.”

It’s no wonder why. Apple, of course, doesn’t want child porn in its App Store. No one should. But Apple also does not want any porn in its App Store. The tech titan is legendary for its desire closely to control the kind of content users can download, and it’s legendarily prudish, too. Hence the prohibition on “apps containing pornographic material” or “user generated content that is frequently pornographic” — and hence desperate efforts a number of years ago to prevent explicit GIFs from being sent over iMessage by banning words such as “huge” and “butt” from its search function.

It’s much easier for Tumblr, now wary of Apple’s willingness to close the door, to take a stance against all bare butts than it is to risk running afoul of App Store strictures with a narrower response to a narrower conundrum. If Tumblr loses the App Store, it could lose everything.

App Store controllers such as Apple and Google are not the only moderator-moderators out there. Another potential motivator for Tumblr’s course reversal is the law Congress passed earlier this year holding platforms liable for prostitution or trafficking by users on their site. Again, it’s difficult for a company’s algorithm to spot only the sex workers, and simpler to spot sex in its every form. Why take the challenge and risk retaliation?

Put all this together, and you get expression-squashing caution. Moderation is inherently tricky. Under-moderating means punishment at the hands of an authority. Over-moderating, then, is the only route out. And in the Tumblr case, the end result of centralized control over the Internet’s content is more centralization still: Now, porn-seekers are more likely to find what they’re looking for only on the comparatively commercial PornHubs of the Web.

Mourning Tumblr’s pornographic content is more than mourning sexy GIFs. It’s mourning openness. The Internet democratized sex; suddenly, what was once too taboo to access without stigma was available to anyone with a screen and a search engine. Tumblr made that democratized system more democratic still. Its independent model emphasized performers’ agency, which meant posters’ output was more likely to be ethical and not exploitative. And a focus on creativity over merely clicks for cash led to bodies that were not stereotypically porn-ready, sexualities that sold less well on the mainstream market, kinks that were not presented as some strange sort of “other. ”

This is the sort of porn it is worth shedding a tear or two over, and its loss is a sign that an Internet that once seemed limitless may be getting a little smaller. It is hard to say now what the world will look like with a slightly less wide Web. One thing, though, is certain: We’ll know it when we see it.