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Building Communities: Tumblr and Freedom of Expression

What a week for controversy! As the hubbub over Facebook’s of terms of services is dying down, Tumblr just weathered its own round of controversy over its ToS. Tumblr hasn’t permeated the mainstream as much as Facebook, but it’s remarkable how much the situations mirror each other. In both cases, a sudden top-down policy decision sparked a user revolt that led to the company backpedaling and reverting to their original policies.

Last week, Tumblr suspended five accounts, known as anonyblogs, which functioned solely to reblog posts with snide and mocking commentary. On Tuesday, the Tumblr staff posted an entry on their official tumblelog explaining their decision and adding a new section to their Content Policy making harassment a la anonyblogs grounds for suspension. What followed was an outpouring of commentary especially among those decrying suppression of free speech. The New York Times Lede blog has a superb, link-rich account of the events that along with incisive commentary. Yesterday – a day after its first public acknowledgment of the issue — Tumblr reversed the changes in its content policy with an essentially “I’m sorry, we screwed up” post by its founder David Karp.

There are several interesting issues at play here. Seen in parallel with Facebook’s ToS controversy, it is a clear marker of users demanding more accountability. (If you think about it, it is pretty remarkable: here users are taking advantage of a free service and they actually are telling what the companies providing said free service to them can and cannot do.) Both companies were called on to defend their actions in public and ended up concluding the users were right. Also notable is how quickly the events transpired – the turnaround was a matter of a few days. Transparency, whether it’s with the government or private companies, seems to be much in these days.

There’s another question on my mind though, and that’s why would Tumblr seek to suspend accounts that were nasty, though not illegal. And even if its users were posting illegal content, Tumblr as a website is not liable for content generated by its users because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is also at the heart of the still-going AutoAdmit case. The crux of the matter is then, what does Tumblr want to be – a platform or a community?

Ironically, it’s the very features of community building that facilitate the existence of anonyblogs. Following someone – much like Twitter and what’s now been implemented in Blogger – allows you to see all their updates in your Dashboard. Reblogging of posts is especially interesting because it leaves an electronic trail for each post. (See photo) If someone was reblogging your content, for example, everyone who follows you sees their posts as well. So anonyblogs takes advantage of following and reblogging to be a particularly pernicious to their targets.

Because of its size, Tumblr is also small enough to foster a sense of community among its users. There was a Tumblr Secret Santa exchange last December and location-based Tumblr Meet-ups are fairly common. (In fact, there was supposed to be a Harvard tumblr meet-up last night – sadly I couldn’t make it!) Try to envision a Facebook meetup—uh, that’s just like going to class. In addition, its user base is still fairly homogenous in demographic and interests, which is also the thrust of many meta-jokes in the community. Of course, this is all likely to change as Tumblr grows, much in the way Facebook grew from Ivy League students to encompass everyone and their mom.

In the end, Tumblr decided its users should be in charge of moderating their own communities. A Block tool was rolled out – frankly, I’m surprised this wasn’t in place earlier – that allows you to ignore certain users. This is quite similar to the way Facebook rushed out user controls for News Feed after the initial outcry. Rather than enforcing communities, Tumblr is giving users control of their own.

– Sarah Zhang