Technology / 

08 Dec 2018

Welcome to the Glue Factory

For reasons not immediately apparent, Verizon has decided to take Tumblr out back and put a bullet in it.

Verizon, in its guise as “Oath Inc.”—a spectacularly villainous-sounding name if I’ve ever heard one—seems to exist as a sort of garbage disposal for formerly good ideas. Their porfolio is a sad list of stuff you could be forgiven for thinking closed up shop years ago—oh, hey, MapQuest!—which they apparently think they can “build” into… something.

Oath Inc. is a weird creature, formed out of the questionable acquisitions by Verizon of the remains of AOL and Yahoo. Their motto is “Build brands people love”, which is the sort of thing that no well-adjusted human being would have come up with or say with a straight face. And their website follows that up with “We are […] pouring our hearts and smarts into building brands” which is just depressing. Jeez, go build killer robots or something, at least it’s an honest living, and probably less embarassing to talk about at a party.

Anyway, exactly how Oath’s business model works is unclear, and it’s got more than a whiff of Underpants Gnomes going on. It seems somewhat unpleasantly reminiscent of the people who allegedly buy old racehorses and run them to death at the minor-leagues racetracks, hoping one might get lucky and win big before it breaks a leg or gets shipped off to become dogfood and glue.

If that’s the proper analogy, and I see little reason why it isn’t, apparently Tumblr has run its last race and is en route to the Mexican horsemeat plant. There’s just no other way to look at banning NSFW content on a platform that’s at least double-digit-percent porn.

The reason to ban porn is because advertisers don’t like it. For a variety of reasons, companies don’t think that ad impressions on porn sites are worth as much as non-porn sites, although I’m not exactly convinced that this is based on hard (ahem, sorry) data. But the NSFW content on Tumblr, which existed because of a conscious choice on the part of the original owners to take a tolerant approach, was one of the site’s key differentiators.

Even people who didn’t go to Tumblr for porn were, in many cases, going because of the presence of communities—those all-important “network effects”—which were on Tumblr because of either the tolerance for NSFW content directly, or in some cases the tolerant attitude more generally. Tumblr built a reputation as a ‘safe space’ (though not always), in some cases for highly-marginalized communities, including folks who often end up on the wrong side of content cops. (Sites that allow users to “flag” content for removal, which Tumblr has done, are often particularly biased against even nonsexual GLBT content. It turns out that people are very bad about deciding why something offends them, once they decide that it does.)

So the Great Tumblr NSFW Purge has begun, and like a bonfire of a billion Playboy magazines, some of the content will doubtless just go offline and never be recovered. Even if most of that content isn’t to your personal taste, that’s still unfortunate.

More unfortunately, it’s not clear yet where disaffected Tumblr users—and at this point even the most milquetoast Tumblr users should probably be considering what’s next—are going to go.

Movim has positioned itself as one path off of Tumblr; it’s a fully-decentralized (or at least, decentralizable) solution based on XMPP. Apparently it uses XMPP to propagate updates and hashtags from one instance to another, allowing a user experience similar to an integrated platform like Tumblr, even though each user’s blog could be running on a separate machine (which could be a Raspberry Pi in their bathroom, for all you know). It also does chat and other real-time messaging, since it is XMPP under the hood. And they even have a Docker image!

Plume also seems like a possibility, but a quick glance seems to put it more in the vein of Wordpress than Tumblr. But Tumblr users who were actually using Tumblr for blogs, as opposed to images with small amounts of commentary, might find it a good match. (I’m keeping an eye on Plume as a possible down-the-road replacement for this blog.)

Either way, much community-building stands to be lost in the transition, unless groups of users can decide on an alternative platform and move en masse.