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Tumblr’s Success has
a Secret -
and it’s NSFW

Tumblr User Demographics Display Affinity for Adult Content

Tumblr has always been the ultimate microblogging site.

Combining written content with images, videos and GIFs, it filled the sweet spot between Twitter’s 140 character tweets and lengthier blog posting sites such as Myspace and Blogspot.

Launched in 2007, Tumblr obtained 75,000 users in its first fortnight and continued to see sizable and sustained growth throughout the decade. Its success was so immense, at one point doubling the number of users every fortnight, that some people became curious as to the reason behind Tumblr’s popularity.

So what was Tumblr’s secret?

At one point, Tumblr had the same number of blogs as Instagram had users (50 million, to be exact). But the key to Tumblr’s success, it turns out, was that while Instagram users were posting sunsets and snaps of their dinner, many of Tumblr’s bloggers were sharing content that was a little more sordid.

Let’s take a look at what exactly was driving the site’s huge popularity...

Tumblr Adult Content

Tumblr founder David Karp was once quoted as referring to his blogging platform as “sexy as hell”. But as it turns out, whether Karp was aware of it or not, Tumblr’s sexiness went way beyond its stylish, cool design.

After a Quantcast report from 2009, it became pretty clear what most of Tumblr’s top sites were posting about, the first clue being the adults-only titles of the subdomains. As the report revealed, 16 of the top 20 blogs (80%) were seemingly all about adult content.

Top Tumblr Subdomains in 2009 Top Tumblr Subdomains in 2009

Furthermore, in May 2013, TechCrunch published an analysis which revealed that almost one quarter of Tumblr’s total traffic was pronographic and around 17% of Tumblr’s blogs were solely dedicated to adult content.

So with many of Tumblr’s most popular blogs being for adult eyes only, how did such graphic content get past the website’s quality control?

NSFW Tumblr Content

The key, it turns out, was something called NSFW: internet shorthand for “Not Safe For Work”. This is a terminology that helps users to avoid accessing content that they wouldn’t want to be caught looking at while at work.

Back in the day on Tumblr, tagging your adult content (and some of the stuff was very, very adult) with the hashtag #NSFW was kind of a free pass to upload whatever you like.

That means that Tumblr became very NSFW indeed, showing much more adult content than any of the other social media sites which were popular at the time.

Who was Using Tumblr?

This poses the question of why so many users were using Tumblr to post their NSFW and adult content?

Well, the answer lies in some more Quantcast data, this time a report on the users of the site. Another report showed that the primary demographic was young adult males and revealed that the other top sites visited by these users often tended towards NSFW content.

The report also showed that the “Likes” of Tumblr’s main users included topics such as humor, politics, science, men, fashion, and teens.

Likes By Main Tumbler Users in 2009 Likes By Main Tumbler Users in 2009

But what do the Tumblr Terms of Service Say?

The Quantcast data highlighted a number of issues, namely that the majority of Tumblr’s users were using the site to post and access graphic adult content.

But how did they manage to get away with it?

The fact of the matter is that Tumblr’s Terms of Service were a lot looser back then. Tumblr was kind of a lone wolf compared to the other social media giants of Twitter and Facebook and it didn’t have as much surveillance from large-scale investors.

As well as the get-out-of-jail-free card that was the NSFW hashtag, Tumblr’s Terms of Service confusingly stated that although the uploading of sexually explicit videos was not permitted, they could still be embedded, which allowed many users to share adult-only videos on the site without a problem.

While personal blogging websites such as Ning had to remove all of their adult content after receiving bad press for being in violation of Google AdSense’s Terms of Service (which explicitly states that no adult content is allowed), Tumblr didn’t serve ads via Google at the time, which meant that these rules didn’t apply.

Instead Tumblr’s ads came from the owners of the blogs themselves and were as such often in line with the adult content displayed on many of the blogs, over which Tumblr didn’t really have a say.

What’s more, although Tumblr’s own Terms of Service stated that:

“Subscriber represents, warrants and agrees that it will not contribute any Subscriber Content that”… “(d) is libelous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, abusive, indecent, threatening, harassing, hateful, offensive or otherwise violates any law or right of any third party”

it didn’t specify what it meant by pornographic, indecent or offensive. All in all, we’re looking at a pretty big grey area.

The Tumblr Adult Content Ban

In the first half a decade following its release, Tumblr was one of the most exciting social media platforms in the world. At its peak, around 2012-2013, the site had 20bn monthly page views with celebrity users including Lady Gaga and Barack Obama and in 2013 it was bought by Yahoo for $1.1bn.

After this expensive acquisition, Tumblr’s adult content became more and more restricted and the site began filtering out NSFW content for users who didn’t hold an account.

In December 2018, Tumblr’s then-owner Verizon (who had bought Yahoo) banned adult content completely, fundamentally signing the death warrant for the site. Indeed, in the months after the ban, the site’s traffic dropped by almost 30%.

In 2019 it was bought by Automattic for $3m, a fraction of the original sale price to Yahoo. Basically, without the NSFW content, Tumblr was no longer appealing for advertisers, making it much less valuable.

As of July 2020, Tumblr’s Terms of Service state that:

“images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples —this includes content that is so photorealistic that it could be mistaken for featuring real-life humans” is banned as well as “any content, including images, videos, GIFs, or illustrations, that depicts sex acts.”

Adult Websites and Online Gambling: Advertising Below the Belt

When it comes to advertising, it’s not just blogging sites like Tumblr that make the most of the popularity of adult content. Adult websites are among the most popular on the Internet and ads on NSFW sites can create huge revenue.

In fact, one category of sites which makes use of this tactic is that of the UK online casino. Many online gambling sites use adult websites as spaces in which to advertise, since the users tend to be of a similar type: (male, mid 30s-early 50s, into sports, gaming, humour etc). What’s more, both adult sites and gambling sites are used at the same time of day (between 11pm and 5am) and for similar reasons.

Was it Tumblr that started the trend of using adult content to get traffic for more mainstream sites? Who knows, but one thing’s for sure: it works!