Aug 2, 2011 - Business, Copyright, Publishing    4 Comments

The Trouble With Tumblr

Back in the summer of 2000 when I was working at Bazillion (now defunct) we began tossing around the idea of offering our customers “video email”.  The company had positioned itself as a “communications” service company, selling DSL  and giving away free nation-wide long-distance via our nascent Voice over IP (“VoIP”) network.  Marketing was always on the hunt for additional services to offer, as free calling anywhere in the country didn’t seem all that sexy at the time.

So the idea was floated that we should offer web-based video calls.  We had the basic infrastructure in place.  Billing by the byte could be handled with a code patch.  We didn’t yet have a name for the service  — but the basic idea was that two people, each with a webcam, could chat face-to-face with each other.  More important than the video calls, however, the CEO saw the ability to send “video voice mails” to anyone in the country, regardless of whether or not they had the Bazillion service, as a way to draw more customers in.  With a user interface that was easy to  use, simple to understand, and viral by it’s very nature, everyone at the time thought the idea was brilliant.  It was sure to generate a “bazillion” bucks for the company.

All I could think of was that we were about to become the nation’s premier porn server.

The CEO scoffed at my concerns when I raised them.  And the company folded before the market could decide whether I or the CEO was right.   In hindsight, it really doesn’t matter.  YouTube would still have eaten our lunch in the video arena (we didn’t think in terms of broadcast — only in terms of one-on-one communication).   And Vonage, without the baggage of our bundled DSL service, would have undercut us in price every step of the way.  But I believe that the rapid growth of microblogging site Tumblr this past year illustrates my point.

Ease of Use = Increase in Pornography Postings

It’s extremely difficult to find out what percentage of Tumblr sites are pornographic in nature.  No one seems at all interested in answering the question.  Getting an accurate count of porn sites on the internet in general is not much easier, though a few sites have attempted to try.  The most recent stats I’ve found estimate that 12% of all websites have “some” pornographic content.  For the sake of argument, let’s say the number of pornographic images (vs. those images that are simply raunchy, salacious, or titillating) is only a tenth of that — or 1.2%.  And let’s assume that Tumblr’s 10 million + users (each with one or more blogs) roughly follows the internet percentages as a whole.  Conservatively speaking, that would put the number of Tumblr powered porn sites in the neighborhood of 120,000.  That’s not the number of images online, mind you.  Just the number of blogs serving images.

Honestly, I could care less whether or not Tumblr is serving porn.  And I only stumbled upon this phenomena because we were cleaning up some inactive HeyPublisher accounts and noted a number of adult themed publishers in our system — all of them hosted on Tumblr.

The people already in the industry are probably more concerned.  There doesn’t yet seem to be a way to monetize Tumblr content in a meaningful way.   Which means most of the adult content on Tumblr is being poached from other sites.  Given how easy it is to “repost” images across Tumblr blogs, a significant amount of this content will likely go into heavy rotation once it’s introduced to the platform.

This Does Not Bode Well for Copyright Holders

The thing that’s really bugging me about this is not the porn being served on Tumblr.  Really, I could care less.  What’s bugging me is the adult industry’s utter lack of response in addressing the copyright issues at play here.

The porn industry has (up until very recently) led the charge in most things internet related.   They helped work out many of the kinks in early online payment processing and were the first to prove that video streaming could scale.   But their repeated silence when it comes to copyright holders’ rights is ominous and downright disheartening.  Despite the RIAA‘s jack-booted tactics, no one can deny that they are a vigilant and tenacious guard of their members’ copyrights.  At the slightest whiff of malintent, they swoop in.  Where is the adult industry’s RIAA?  Why aren’t they serving cease and desist orders to pimple-faced 16 year-olds with terabytes of tits and ass curated on Tumblr’s servers?

We’ve seen that Tumblr is not doing anything to curb copyright violation.  Their own tools make it very easy for the malintentioned and the ignorant to post whatever they want from whatever source they want.  It’s a brilliant UX from this perspective.  But why the adult industry as a whole (or even parts of it) are not raining a shitstorm of C&D’s down on this portion of Tumblr’s user base is beyond me.







  • Expense? (To answer your last question about serving c&d on tumblr’s users.)

  • Possibly. 

    To be sure, the adult industry does not have the enforcement arm that, for example, the music industry has.  If we were talking about using Tumblr for posting songs, the RIAA would have long-ago stepped in.

  • Perhaps the adult content industry has realized that copyright is not a valid avenue for enforcing anyone’s rights in a digital arena.  Much of the professionally produced porn on Tumblr comes embedded with a brand.  From hat perspective Tumblr become the perfect platform for peer-to-peer advertising on the web.  If the proliferation of their product on Tumblr is increasing the size of the industry pie, why would they want to quash that?

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