The Tumblr brouhaha shows again that the Internet is not free

The Thinker by Rodin

So my daughter and spouse both have Tumblr accounts. In case you weren’t aware, Tumblr is a blogging/social media site. Both my wife and daughter are LGBTQ-friendly but I had not really tuned in that people like them haunted Tumblr because it is, or was, LGBTQ-friendly.

All that changed Monday when Tumblr announced that effective December 17 the site will permanently ban explicit adult content. This caused a great furor amongst the LGBTQ Tumblr community, who apparently make up much of the site. Tumblr is full of risqué content that does not appeal to its corporate overlords, Verizon, but does appeal very much to people who post and hang out there. Verizon owns Yahoo, who bought Tumblr. And Verizon is controlled by people who frankly largely don’t understand this universe and how important is for these marginalized people to have a safe space to be themselves.

In the future, having a safe space on Tumblr will include not allowing a lot of erotic content. It will keep many sex workers from having a place to rant. For those into Slash (erotic fan fiction) like my spouse and daughter, simply sharing these erotic stories that often go into dark areas like bondage and domination on Tumblr will get dicey. The service’s automated algorithms will decide if content is too racy or not and if it is, snip!

This decision seems motivated by a rare case of obvious child pornography posted on the site, which was quickly removed. But the main issue was that the LGBTQ community, sex workers and all these alt-blank people were too weird for the corporate masters that run the site. It didn’t look good in Verizon’s report to shareholders when they had to report they were facilitating the exchange of such socially unacceptable behavior. So Tumblr will effectively be neutered and these communities of people have to figure out — again — where to hang out online. The irony is that a lot of these people migrated from Reddit, which became overrun by the right wing. Reddit too has changed policies to clamp down on things, but not to the extent that Tumblr has with its draconian action.

So it sucks for members of these communities. They keep looking for the Promised Land on social media only to be ultimately disappointed. Twitter looks like their next place of refuge, but Twitter too is not beyond censoring or removing content. They recently removed millions of fake accounts. In any event, violate their terms of service and unless you are the President of the United States you too could be cast adrift. Ask Alex Jones, who is finding it hard to find any place in social media to broadcast his racist, hate-filled stuff.

All is not entirely lost. For the Slash community, there is still Dreamwidth, which caters to those who like to write erotic fiction oriented around existing TV shows and movies, often with heavily homosexual-ized story lines. It’s not the same thing though as Tumblr. While many of these writers are LGBTQ (or at least LGBTQ-friendly), the focus of the site is fan fiction.

Social media sites are of course costly to set up and maintain, which is why major companies like Verizon own the popular ones. All those server racks, software and site monitors don’t come cheap. Moreover, it seems impossible to create one of these public sites that won’t eventually censor some content. Some stuff like child pornography is clearly crossing a line, at least by 99.9% of us. Invariably though people like those on Tumblr will test the boundaries of how much freedom these social media companies will allow. And eventually they will discover they will transgress a boundary, largely because the needs of large corporations diverge from the social media people they attract.

So I don’t expect this problem to get any better. These Tumblr denizens will be forced to move elsewhere, but they will probably be evicted there at some point too. There will always need to be some policing of these sites. There will always be some limits on just how much freedom you are allowed on these sites. Where they are owned by large, profit-making corporations, the limits of these freedoms are bound to be more curtailed, and more prudish, than the people who will be using it.

Those who pay the bills ultimately win. It’s true for my blog too. If you post what I consider to be an offensive comment I will delete it. It doesn’t bother me and I don’t see it as a free speech issue because I pay the bills. This has occasionally bothered a commenter. Apparently they figure it’s my responsibility to host their disagreeable contents forever at my expense.

And I can’t post anything I want even on my own blog either. At the moment this blog is hosted at Siteground, and when you host with them you agree to their terms of service. This essentially prohibits me from posting pornography or doing things like inciting hate speech on my site. Essentially you have to be independently wealthy enough to create your own hosting center to have entirely free speech online. But even then you are subject to local laws. I might need to host my server in some place like the Cayman Islands to post content that would be considered illegal in the United States, but it’s likely even the liberal Cayman Islands has some standards I would have to adhere to.

What’s happening at Tumblr is unfortunate for this community who is already highly hassled and marginalized. But it’s hardly unexpected. The Internet is not free. It just offers to illusion of freedom. Unless your content is forever milquetoast, it’s always susceptible to being banned.

St. Louis

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s been thirty plus years since I was in St. Louis, and that was for an unmemorable business trip. If you are to visit though, it’s hard to pick a better location than the downtown Hyatt, as it is virtually in spitting distance of the Gateway Arch. I am here because NetRoots Nation 16 is being held here in one of America’s most chocolate cities. Their choice of St. Louis is perhaps in response to last year’s conference in Phoenix. There then new Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders encountered some virulent Black Lives Matters protesters, and epically failed to respond appropriately, as did its mostly white attendees.

That’s no problem this year. These liberal but predominantly white attendees at Netroots Nation have since gotten fully educated in this Black Lives Matters thing. While attendees are predominantly white, there is plenty of evidence of more people of color, perhaps about a third altogether. Still, it’s an often awkward dance between whites and people of color here. This is not an issues with the LGBTQ community, where seeing a black transgender in high heels asking to be pointed to the men’s bathroom is wholly unremarkable. (This happened to me yesterday while volunteering at the registration desk. Up the escalators and make a U turn, I told her while noting that her high heels and gams would be the envy of many women here.)

Getting vertigo looking up at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO
Getting vertigo looking up at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO

There might be more people of color here if this convention were more affordable. The official convention hotel rooms are $200/night and a discounted registration runs more than $300. The non-subsidized rate is $800. So with airfare it’s easy to spend $1500 or so for the privilege of communing with fellow progressives for three days and perhaps seeing an important politician or two. The cost is apparently not an obstacle for the 3000 or so attendees, and wasn’t for me although I chose the Hyatt because it is considerably less expensive with my AAA discount.

A driving tour of St. Louis last night facilitated by my longtime friend Tim left me impressed. The St. Louis area reminds me a lot of Baltimore with many traditionally ethnic neighborhoods. St. Louis is a bright blue dot and the economic engine of the state, but it is still in a red state. Unsurprisingly there are quite a few issues of local concern being discussed, including a so far failed attempt to make Missouri a “Right to Work” state. But it is a surprisingly pretty place and cooler than I expected in mid July, although this may be an aberration. While known for its beer, now owned by European masters, there are lesser known foods of interest. I tried one at dinner last night with Tim: toasted ravioli. Two thumbs up. If the rest of America knew how good it was, its popularity would quickly spread.

St. Louis from the Gateway Arch
St. Louis from the Gateway Arch

St. Louis has a metro, an apparently relatively recent creation undergoing a slow expansion. The trolley lines of a hundred years ago are being put back in in places. Their metro doesn’t go that far, at least north and south, but it does go to Lambert, i.e. St Louis International Airport. I took it into the city on Wednesday and found it both convenient and affordable. You pass stadiums, hospitals and eventually are deposited downtown where walking the mostly empty streets near twilight felt a bit scary. Along Big Muddy (the Mississippi) it is appropriately touristy with amenities like a steamboat cruise and carriage rides. It is often humid at this city at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

As for NetRoots Nation 16, it seems lower key than in past years based on anecdotes I hear. As I noted last year Bernie Sanders attended. I don’t expect to see him this year, not surprisingly as his campaign is over. So far the only politician of note spotted was Rep. Alan Grayson, annoying for a liberal, who is running for Marco Rubio’s Florida senate seat. Perhaps more notable politicians will show up in time.

Speaking of confluences, NetRoots Nation is a confluence of passionate people embracing so many causes it’s hard for them to concentrate on any of them. There are plenty of well attended seminars where issues and strategies are hashed out. (For two seminars, I volunteered to monitor the stream in case there were video or audio issues.) There are training sessions in how to do non-violent protests or wage a campaign for political office. So stuff does happen here, it’s just seems amorphous at times.

I am pondering what to make of this first attempt to attend a political convention. It turns out that making change is really hard. I’ve attended a number of seminars on the Black Lives Matters movement. It’s hard for a white guy like me to feel up to speed on all their issues. As speakers detailed the staggering challenges they face, it’s hard not to feel how Herculean an endeavor this is or how I can contribute in a meaningful way. Yesterday a speaker pointed out that sixty years ago the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had approval rates of just 10%. A majority of Americans polled thought that blacks were being too aggressive in their push for civil rights and needed to be nicer and stop trying so hard. Sixty years later while there has been progress there are still staggering amounts of institutional roadblocks that contribute toward the oppression of black people. These include gentrification, those “right to work” laws Missouri is trying to enact, crime, continuous harassment by police (the riots in Ferguson occurred here), under-funded schools, poor air and water quality in their neighborhoods and general poverty. It’s a game of multi-dimensional chess that has to be played simultaneously on many levels. It’s a hard game for blacks to play because they are bearing the weight of oppression so it needs white people like me to fight with them. That is hard to do too when you have not spent your lives unfairly defined by the hue of your skin. And this is just one of the issues that are of great concern to progressives. It’s hard not to feel despair.

Unsurprisingly a lot of the attention here is on the November election and here at least there is a lot of hope. With political power comes the chance to wield it, although there are so many obstacles in trying to wield power (as President Obama can attest) that it’s not hard to feel maudlin even if Democrats win both the White House and Congress. The chances for meaningful change are chancy at best. Realistically, meaningful success is much like those of a tightrope walker without a pole, in the wind with the rope vibrating. It takes a brave progressive to take on these causes anyhow, and a lot of them are here.

The hoopla largely dies down tomorrow night. I fly home on Sunday.