Why “Go Nuts, Show Nuts” Doesn’t Work in 2022

For those who don’t know or remember, Tumblr used to have a policy around porn that was literally “Go nuts, show nuts. Whatever.” That was memorable and hilarious, and for many people, Tumblr both hosted and helped with the discovery of a unique type of adult content.

In 2018, when Tumblr was owned by Verizon, they swung in the other direction and instituted an adult content ban that took out not only porn but also a ton of art and artists – including a ban on what must have been fun for a lawyer to write, female presenting nipples. This policy is currently still in place, though the Tumblr and Automattic teams are working to make it more open and common-sense, and the community labels launch is a first step toward that.

That said, no modern internet service in 2022 can have the rules that Tumblr did in 2007. I am personally extremely libertarian in terms of what consenting adults should be able to share, and I agree with “go nuts, show nuts” in principle, but the casually porn-friendly era of the early internet is currently impossible. Here’s why:

  1. Credit card companies are anti-porn. You’ve probably heard how Pornhub can’t accept credit cards anymore. Or seen the new rules from Mastercard. Whatever crypto-utopia might come in the coming decades, today if you are blocked from banks, credit card processing, and financial services, you’re blocked from the modern economy. The vast majority of Automattic’s revenue comes from people buying our services and auto-renewing on credit cards, including the ads-free browsing upgrade that Tumblr recently launched. If we lost the ability to process credit cards, it wouldn’t just threaten Tumblr, but also the 2,000+ people in 97 countries that work at Automattic across all our products.
  2. App stores, particularly Apple’s, are anti-porn. Tumblr started in 2007, the same year the iPhone was released. Originally, the iPhone didn’t have an App Store, and the speed of connectivity and quality of the screen meant that people didn’t use their smartphone very much and mostly interacted with Tumblr on the web, using desktop and laptop computers (really). Today 40% of our signups and 85% of our page views come from people on mobile apps, not on the web. Apple has its own rules for what’s allowed in their App Store, and the interpretation of those rules can vary depending on who is reviewing your app on any given day. Previous decisions on what’s allowed can be reversed any time you submit an app update, which we do several times a month. If Apple permanently banned Tumblr from the App Store, we’d probably have to shut the service down. If you want apps to allow more adult content, please lobby Apple. No one in the App Store has any effective power, even multi-hundred-billion companies like Facebook/Meta can be devastated when Apple changes its policies. Aside: Why do Twitter and Reddit get away with tons of super hardcore content? Ask Apple, because I don’t know. My guess is that Twitter and Reddit are too big for Apple to block so they decided to make an example out of Tumblr, which has “only” 102 million monthly visitors. Maybe Twitter gets blocked by Apple sometimes too but can’t talk about it because they’re a public company and it would scare investors.
  3. There are lots of new rules around verifying consent and age in adult content. The rise of smartphones also means that everyone has a camera that can capture pictures and video at any time. Non-consensual sharing has grown exponentially and has been a huge problem on dedicated porn sites like Pornhub – and governments have rightly been expanding laws and regulations to make sure everyone being shown in online adult content is of legal age and has consented to the material being shared. Tumblr has no way to go back and identify the featured persons or the legality of every piece of adult content that was shared on the platform and taken down in 2018, nor does it have the resources or expertise to do that for new uploads.
  4. Porn requires different service providers up and down the stack. In addition to a company primarily serving adult content not having access to normal financial services and being blocked by app stores, they also need specialized service providers – for example, for their bandwidth and network connections. Most traditional investors won’t fund primarily adult businesses, and may not even be allowed to by their LP agreements. (When Starbucks started selling alcohol at select stores, some investors were forced to sell their stock.)

If you wanted to start an adult social network in 2022, you’d need to be web-only on iOS and side load on Android, take payment in crypto, have a way to convert crypto to fiat for business operations without being blocked, do a ton of work in age and identity verification and compliance so you don’t go to jail, protect all of that identity information so you don’t dox your users, and make a ton of money. I estimate you’d need at least $7 million a year for every 1 million daily active users to support server storage and bandwidth (the GIFs and videos shared on Tumblr use a ton of both) in addition to hosting, moderation, compliance, and developer costs. 

I do hope that a dedicated service or company is started that will replace what people used to get from porn on Tumblr. It may already exist and I don’t know about it. They’ll have an uphill battle under current regimes, and if you think that’s a bad thing please try to change the regimes. Don’t attack companies following legal and business realities as they exist.