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.

Your blog deserves a great Content Delivery Network

The Thinker by Rodin

While I do a lot of blogging, I suck at marketing my blog. Oh, I do look at who’s viewing my blog and check my statistics daily, and often more than once a day. Google Analytics provides a wealth of data on my web hits, and StatCounter is useful to see what was recently read. Aside from dressing up my blog’s sidebars with marketing stuff and making sure my content is easily accessible as a newsfeed, I can’t seem to be bothered to do much else.

Part of the problem is that my blog serves principally to keep me amused and to stave off boredom. If readers find an occasional post worthy of a Facebook Like or a Share, that’s nice, but I don’t lose sleep when they don’t. You would think that as a software engineer and someone who spent ten years directing the management of the largest web site in the U.S. Department of the Interior, I might find this web marketing business pretty easy. But one thing I learned early on is if you have great content, the marketing kind of takes care of itself.

In that job I simply worked to make the content more readily accessible and to make sure that the data was easily consumed. I spent much of my ten years there leading an effort to make the site’s data accessible as a set of web services. In this sense I do know marketing. When I left these new web services constituted the third most accessed site for my agency, in spite of not having existed just a few years earlier.

On this blog though my traffic is pretty anemic, particularly during the summer. There are things I could do to get more hits: shorter posts, more topical posts, turn it into more of a stream of consciousness blog and link ruthlessly to posts in other blogs, which seems to be the way blog aggregators like Tumblr work. Doing this though would ruin blogging for me. It might be successful, but I wouldn’t care. I’d be bored with my own blog.

During one of the recent Net Neutrality debates I mentioned that the Internet was already not net neutral. If you can afford little, you may (shudder) use an Earthlink dial-up account and watch web pages slowly draw themselves like they did in 1995. If you can afford $100 a month or more for Internet, or live in a place like Kansas City where you can get Google Fiber, you can cruise the Internet at 100MB per second or more. Some people have 1GB/sec connections.

If you have your own web site you also have some factors that limit the speed of your website. That’s the case with this blog. I host the site on hostgator.com, which is a really good shared web host. What’s not optimal about Hostgator is that while it can reliably serve most content at $5 or so a month, getting the data between its servers and your computer can be like going through every traffic light in town to get home from work as opposed to taking the expressway. It typically took eight or more “hops” to get my blog posts to my computer. A “hop” in this case means a router, which is effectively a traffic light as it routes parts of web pages from one place to another. According to Google Analytics that it took about ten seconds to load one of my web pages. Most of that was due to all those routers that had to be traversed.

So it finally dawned on me that this was probably a significant reason my traffic is declining. Google is looking at the hassle factor at getting content from my site, and is probably lowering my search rankings because of it. Aware of the problem for several years I have used CloudFlare to try to speed up the serving of my content. CloudFlare is a content delivery network or CDN. It specializes in reducing the number of traffic lights and making sure that my content goes through crazily fast connections, usually one physically close to where you are. Hostgator (and a lot of web hosts) offer CloudFlare for free to its customers. CloudFlare like every CDN sells a more expansive service for those with deeper pockets.

I had outsourced my CDN to CloudFlare, but I never really went back to look to see if it was doing a good job. There are probably things I could do to cache more of my content on CloudFlare’s servers (probably for money) but mostly I stuck with its defaults and ignored it. However, when I looked at Google Analytics, my average page load time was still stuck at around ten seconds.

Ten seconds is a long time to wait for content these days. So I figured I was probably losing a lot of readers because they lose patience and go elsewhere, particularly mobile users. We want every web page to load like a Google web page: fully dress itself for our eyes in a couple of seconds or less.

But not my blog. It was like a horse-drawn milk wagon compared with a racing car. Actually, this describes a lot of sites on the web, particularly Mom and Pop affairs where the owners know little or nothing about web architecture.

I decided to put on my software engineering hat, and started researching CDNs some more. There’s a lot of competition in the market, mostly aimed at well moneyed corporations. I’m just a little blog, however. And this blog runs on WordPress. What options do I have for a swift CDN that won’t cost me an arm and a leg? CloudFlare was free but it clearly wasn’t doing the job.

After some research I settled on MaxCND.com. For about $9 a month it will serve my pages quick. Of course if traffic increases a whole lot it could get a lot more expensive. But if I am content to use principally their servers in Europe and the USA (which is most of my readers) and I expect a terabyte or less of bandwidth a month then $9 a month should be fine. I can afford that. My pages seem to load in about 3 seconds now. A lot of the sidebar stuff comes from elsewhere, so that slows things down a bit. But the main content, if it is cached, takes about a second to load. That’s pretty impressive for $9 a month. And this fast speed might draw in new readers.

So far it’s looking good. Today’s traffic is roughly double what it was two days ago. Over time Google may take notice and rank my posts higher in their search engine. Here’s hoping.

Does your blog or website need a CDN too? It can’t hurt if you can afford it, and it can’t hurt to do your research and see which CDN is best optimized for your kind of content. MaxCDN has a plug in that works with WordPress to facilitate sharing. It was a little tedious to get it configured but the instructions were clear enough. Some of it is kind of wonky (how many people know what minifying is anyhow?) but the more technical you are the more you can fine tune things.

Please note you don’t need a CDN if you are using a blogging platform like Tumblr, BlogSpot or WordPress.com. They are already effectively CDN platforms as well as blogging sites. But if you host your own site and you want to increase traffic, integrating your site with the right CDN may be the most cost effective way to go.

I’ll be watching my metrics and perhaps reporting success or failure in the months ahead. So far the signs look good.