A Digital Age Book Burning

Censorship, GLBTQ, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: guest blogger Melaine Huyck-Aufdermaur

On December 3rd, tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio announced that the platform will “no longer [allow] adult content, including explicit sexual content and nudity (with some exceptions).” Tumblr is defining adult content as “photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.” The policy takes effect on December 17th, and the website will remove existing adult content from circulation as well. The plan to ban explicit content from tumblr has been in the works for six months, according to Vox.

There are dozens of conversations to be had about tumblr’s and its parent company Verizon’s decision to ban this content. There’s a conversation about the danger of relying on corporations to care about free speech when it’s measured against profits—the Vox article cites Verizon’s attempts to make more ad revenue from tumblr and that “Verizon couldn’t sell ads next to porn.” There’s the conversation about how tumblr is using an algorithm to find and flag mature content, and how notoriously unreliable these kinds of algorithms are.

There’s also the conversation about the impact of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (abbreviated together as FOSTA-SESTA), an impact that sex workers, anti-human trafficking organizations, and anti-censorship advocates uttered Cassandraic warnings about not long ago.

These are all conversations we need to have, as the internet becomes increasingly legislated and algorithms make more and more decisions. But they’re not what’s most pressing in my mind. As I thought more about tumblr’s and Verizon’s decision, I realized something: This is a book burning.

If you’re unfamiliar with tumblr and the culture of its users, this might seem like hyperbole. It is not. Let me explain.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines a book burning as “the ritual destruction by fire of books or other written materials. Usually carried out in a public context, the burning of books represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question.”

Nazis burned, in particular, works on human sexuality that were counter to their agenda and views–works on transgender, homosexual, and related identities and human expressions. In the late 1940s in the United States, a moral panic about sexuality and juvenile delinquency lead to the burning of comic books. The term “book burning” has a lot of historical context relating to censorship, fascism, the oppression of marginalized people, and moral and sexual panics.

How does this relate to tumblr’s mature content ban? Almost immediately after D’Onofrio’s announcement went up, articles started appearing. Articles with titles like

In case you don’t want to read all those, I’ll summarize. Tumblr was a haven for creators to disseminate their works to consumers, especially works of visual media. A fair amount of this work was adult oriented. It also was a place for queer people to connect with each other, and explore their identities. Additionally, it is the home of a huge and active multi-fandom community–the female led, queer led, transgressive and transformative kind. This kind of engagement with media, and the queering of media that takes place often makes people uncomfortable.

In short, tumblr users created a space that was queer and feminist and of many colors, and unabashedly explored the human sexual experience. There may be “no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content” as D’Onofrio said in his statement, but tumblr was perhaps the only place where women, queer people, and people of color were able to be both creator and curator on such a large scale.

In the name of a “better, more positive tumblr” and creating “the most welcoming environment possible,” tumblr is destroying a massive archive of culture, art, and transformative work. More than the loss of content, tumblr is shutting down a place for those creators to meet, exchange ideas, and make a living. And these creators and users are exactly the kind of people book burnings always target–artists, women, queer people, people of color, and sex workers. This ban tells creators that their work, their art, their bodies, their ideas, their selves are not only unwelcome, but inherently negative and dangerous.

The decision to ban and remove adult content from tumblr is a highly public, ritual destruction of materials deemed to be objectionable, and a censorship of marginalized voices and lives. There may not be a fire, but make no mistake. This is a book burning.

 


Melaine Huyck-AufdermaurMelaine Huyck-Aufdermaur is a queer young adult librarian. She’s fascinated by social media, internet culture, transformative engagement with media (aka fanworks), and the power of narrative to shape perceptions. She can be found on twitter @biblioprincess.

3 comments

  • Tumblr is a private business, not the government. It isn’t required to host any content that it doesn’t like, or doesn’t deem profitable. It can and will discriminate based on its company values. I think it’s important to remember that distinction, which is one that people are increasingly forgetting in conversations about free speech and censorship.

    Engagement and consumption of information tightly controlled by private businesses has exploded – but very few people stopped to question it as it was happening because the United States values profits and corporate structures. Until we question that as a value, what businesses choose to host in terms of content is generally a moot point.

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