The internet has long been a hub of creativity and a place for niche communities to exist and thrive. From the earliest incarnations of online forums to the recent explosion in creative content across platforms like YouTube and Instagram, everybody from activists to burgeoning creatives and their fans have been given a space in which to communicate, create and share. But as the information age rages on, continuing to permeate everyday life, and its once self-contained flaws become globally impactful issues, many platforms are clamping down on the kind of content upon which their foundations and success were built; the kind of boundary-pushing content which once found sanctuary and credence within their digital walls is now under threat.

Last year’s changes to image sharing and blogging site Tumblr’s community guidelines are an emphatic example of this. The site was once a breeding ground for both amateur and professional visual creatives, offering a place to share, discuss and promote work spanning everything from mental health-related comics to sex and queer-positive photography. Marginalised work like the latter, due to the site’s former content guidelines – or lack thereof – particularly found a home and voice on Tumblr, with thousands of accounts belonging to sex workers, LGBTQI+ activists, and advocates of other radical
ideas, ideologies and movements amassing huge followings and publishing truly groundbreaking and thought-provoking content.

But, as of 17 December last year, all of that changed. Announced via a flat and dismissive blog post, Tumblr’s new guidelines enforced a ban on all content deemed inappropriate, or ‘NSFW’ (Not Safe For Work), specifically targeting nudity, sexual imagery and bewilderingly, though perhaps not shockingly in today’s climate of digital misogyny, ‘female-presenting nipples’. In one fell swoop, thousands of activists and artists across the globe lost one of the most established and accommodating online spaces available to them, their interests, and their causes. Many wars are now fought in the digital arena and the cultural war is no different.

Tumblr, unfortunately, isn’t alone in its oppressive policies. In fact, the platform’s changes to its guidelines are just the latest in a long line of clampdowns across the social media landscape. Facebook-owned Instagram is another platform renowned for its overzealous policing of strict guidelines, with artists from around the globe often finding their content under attack from a corporation deeming their work to be ‘unsafe’ for its audiences to consume and enjoy. Photographer, director, and artist Marcus Branch was one recent victim of the algorithm’s iron fist, finding his picture of a man’s nude back removed by the site’s content reviewers. According to an accompanying message warning him to adhere to the app’s safety guidelines, the representation of an unclothed back was seen as a breach of the app’s rules on displaying overtly sexual imagery.

It’s the very notion of ‘safe’ that arguably lends this issue its most bitter irony. In formulating and changing their community guidelines, those heading popular social media platforms claim to be working to forge and protect environments in which each of their broad church of users feels welcomed, respected and represented. But is stifling creativity and content that represents the radical and progressive really achieving that? Or is it doing just the opposite, excluding radical communities who are already snubbed by, and excluded from, mainstream media and, often, society itself?

Further, it isn’t only ostensibly radical and marginalised communities that suffer and creatives of all disciplines are falling victim to digital suppression. The parameters of what constitutes NSFW are constantly shifting and often shrouded in a mystery that only serves to expose its bias and prejudice. Calling out the changes to Tumblr’s guidelines on Instagram after a post of his was removed from the site, legendary New York street photographer Daniel Arnold exposed the platform’s failure to distinguish truly ‘unsafe’ content from that which contains nothing of the sort. The content depicted in his photograph deemed too extreme for the internet’s eyes? The exposed shoulder of one of his subjects. Unlike Branch’s work, which often addresses issues of masculinity through a critical and recentering lens, Arnold’s does little to rock the SS Status Quo and, even when visceral in its imagery, does not represent anything particularly radical or politicised. Yet it still suffers the same fate.

Social media and the internet in general play host to a number of undoubtedly nefarious spaces and conversations. In the era of far-right manifestos, ‘fake news’, Fyre Festival and phoney Forex trading groups, an interrogation of what and how we consume online is both inevitable and necessary. Indeed, the context of Tumblr is no exception to this need, after all, it was the presence of child pornography on the site that led to the decision to remove
sexually explicit content altogether. Yet this approach seems both lazy and ignorant to the kind of site Tumblr had become, as well as the people and communities that it housed. It goes without saying that no one can legitimise or condone the existence of child pornography, nor those who used Tumblr to distribute and share it. But a blunt and heavy-handed approach to the policing of content; one that results in the extinguishing of legitimate, legal and progressive sexual and creative expression, should never be the answer.

As Tumblr destroys the communities it once housed and allowed to flourish, Instagram erases the female body with Puritanical determination, and Facebook devastates political discourse, it’s clear that the answers to the contemporary problems of digital communication are not found in the sensibilities of Silicon Valley CEOs alone, if at all. Increasingly, our lives and identities manifest and play out online, and creative expression and practice, as well as the progressive politics they are often wedded to, have the right to the space to thrive in this digital world. When corporate-born ‘community’ guidelines serve to diminish rather than protect this right, a new avenue must be found.