Tumblr did a bit of tumbling this weekend as it faced a sudden PR snafu and a backlash from its userbase for some of its new changes. Chief among them, Tumblr appeared on Friday to have completely removed their erotica category and removed all blogs tagged as “adult” from both internal and external search engines. This change came just a few days after Tumblr CEO David Karp said on national television that Tumblr wouldn’t touch the adult blogs, and only two months after Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo for $1.1 billion.
The Yahoo acquisition has left many users – especially those who say Yahoo has a history of killing websites once they’re bought up – concerned about the eventual fate of Tumblr. The change left any blogs tagged as “Adult” blogs in a place where no one could find them: the blogs were removed from user’s dashboards, and blocked not only from Tumblr’s internal searches, but also from search engines like Google and Bing. For most blogs, this would mean losing access to most of their regular viewers, and almost all potential new readers who might have otherwise found the blog. This made an estimated 12.5 million blogs almost completely hidden.
Even more, some reports claimed that any blog which reblogged any content from an Adult blog, even content that was as innocent as a kitten, would be automatically tagged as Adult itself (and thus be removed from searches in the same way). And in one of the most reviled changes, any blogs with keywords like #gay, #lesbian, and #bisexual were treated in the same way, angering Tumblr’s LGBT community and prompting some users to respond with phrases like “My existence is not porn.”
Faced with a sudden user backlash, Tumblr responded to the criticisms on their official blog. The blog-hosting company stated that the hiding of adult blogs was the result of a bug involved in new changes, not an intentional decision. Sadly, they said, though the removal of LGBT-based blogs was not due to any malice, it was an intentional change. Apparently Tumblr’s mobile apps had to have such tags removed for their mobile apps (like on Apple products), though the company said that the LGBT community could still use safe tags like #lgbt.
Many users are still worried, though it seems that Tumblr has rolled back almost all of the hidden blogs, leaving roughly 124k blogs still hidden. Tumblr claims these blogs are merely the “spammy” tools of commercial pornography sites and the like, though the company admits that some legitimate blogs may be caught by automatic sensors anyways. For those cases, it says, bloggers need only contact Tumblr’s support to get everything sorted out.
A Social House of Cards
This likely isn’t the last news for Tumblr you’ll hear over the next few months. Many users
have been on edge since the Yahoo Acquisition, and some of them are practically looking for a good excuse to le
ave Tumblr. While it makes business sense to try and discourage the power of Adult blogs on Tumblr, given that many of the advertisers they rely on don’t like being associated with such topics, there’s a significant downside to any exclusionary tactics.
Social Networks are a new kind of business because, in many ways, they don’t operate under the traditional assumptions about product quality. For a site like Tumblr or Facebook, the interface or the speed of the site isn’t the key to success; it’s the users themselves! This is the same reason that Google Plus, for all its interface innovations and integration with other Google Products, still lags noticeably behind the social behemoth Facebook. Users are drawn by the activity of other users, and not by much else.
And therein lies the danger for Tumblr. If the changes on Friday hadn’t been mostly reverted, Tumblr would have lost roughly 10% of their blogs. But that means more than 10% of their users; because users only maintain a presence on the social networking site because other users that they want to follow are there. Any sizeable loss of a userbase, even for “advertisement undesirables” like Adult blogs, can cascade like a row of dominoes into a huge loss of users. And that’s how social websites die.
This is the fear that many Tumblr uses are facing, but perhaps they shouldn’t be so afraid. After all, if there’s anyone who can decide whether Tumblr or any other website lives or dies, it’s the users themselves.