Tumblr On Its Self-Harm Blog Ban: Support Is OK, Glorification Is Not

Tumblr is clarifying its sticky position regarding the new policy to ban certain blogs from its network. You may remember last week, when the company took the bold stance that blogs promoting self-harm, including anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation and suicide, would no longer be allowed on its network.

Today, the company is following up on the policy change to explain that it’s not banning blogs that are engaged in “discussion, support, encouragement, and documenting the experiences of those dealing with difficult conditions,” only those that are meant to trigger self-harm. But how will Tumblr know which is which?

Tumblr’s response: the policy is being applied on a blog-by-blog basis. In other words, there’s a manual review process. Explains the post:

There won’t be any wholesale suspension based on tags or text. We’re not under the illusion that it will be easy to draw the line between blogs that are intended to trigger self-harm and those that support sufferers and build community, but, thanks to the tireless efforts of our amazing Support team, we will do our best.

To that end, the company has updated the wording of the new policy, to better reflect its intentions. (You can read the full text of that change here). In addition, the company notes that it received some suggestions from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) to improve the language Tumblr plans to begin showing alongside searches for tags associated with the promotion of self-harm, like “pro-ana”, “pro-mia”, “thinspiration” and “thinspo”.

Apparently, Tumblr had written its own PSA previously.

The old version (Tumblr’s suggestion):

Eating disorders can cause serious health problems, and at their most severe can even be life-threatening. Please contact the [resource organization] at [helpline number] or [website].

The new version (via the NEDA):

Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that when left untreated, can cause serious health problems, and at their most severe can even be life-threatening. For treatment referrals, information and support, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association’s Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

Tumblr says it’s also working with other health organizations to help it create similar language around pro-cutting and pro-suicide search terms.

While the gut reaction here is “good for Tumblr,” the move has not been without its controversy. Yes, surprisingly, there are people out there who disagree with censorship, even when you’re saving lives. The question, of course, is are they really saving lives?, or is the content just going to be relocated elsewhere? It’s doubtful that the content is going away for good – it’s been online for years. What Tumblr’s policy shift means is that the bloggers and blog readers will have to retreat further underground – back to forums, message boards, and other web services with less restrictive policies. Back to places where it’s less likely a friend or family member will stumble upon their activity, and urge them to seek help.

And then there’s the question of censorship. Tumblr, of course, has the right to choose what content it hosts or not. It’s a private company providing a free service. But if it’s going to take a stance against self-harm, then what about taking a stance against harm in general? Rape? Violence against women? Hate crimes? Drugs? Alcohol? Pornography? (That link is seriously NSFW, by the way. I’m not even sure that all those photos are of legal adults, to be honest).

Censorship is a slippery slope. And while it’s hard to hold Tumblr at fault for wanting to clean up its network, it’s somewhat debatable if an outright ban was the best way to help the people who are suffering from these diseases.

Instead of banning these blogs, what if PSAs were interspersed with the posts themselves? Or were tucked in between the search results? Or if search results for “pro-ana” (etc.) were interspersed with posts from those on Tumblr blogging about recovery? Or what if Tumblr included PSAs with calls to action, like “click here if you think you’re suffering from X” which could then trigger a support organization to have hotline staff contact you?

Of course, all of that sounds like a lot more work than this far easier, “not-in-my-backyard” policy of banning blogs.

People who are fighting these illnesses are already very isolated, and often very young. The communities Tumblr provided them gave them support, but it was the wrong kind of support. I wish there was a better way to reach them and support them than taking down their blogs and showing them PSAs. Because if the blogs are gone, eventually, these sufferers will all just leave Tumblr, too. And then those PSAs won’t do anyone any good.

P.S. It appears to be #selfharmawarenessday on Twitter.

Image not via Tumblr, but some gossip site and credited to “everyjoe”