Tumblr has been squandered ever since it was bought for $1.1 billion in 2013 by Yahoo, now part of Verizon Media Group. Without proper strategy or talent, the blogging tool and early meme-sharing network fell into decline while Medium and Instagram soared. Yahoo wrote down Tumblr’s value by $230 million in 2016. Then last year, Verizon evicted Tumblr’s huge and loyal base of porn bloggers, leaving no viable platform for independent adult content creators and curators.
Now The Wall Street Journal reports that TechCrunch parent company Verizon is considering selling Tumblr.
Many immediately hoped it’d change hands to an owner who’d embrace pornography, such as social media darling Pornhub. BuzzFeed quickly reported that Pornhub VP Corey Price told it, “We’re extremely interested in acquiring the platform and are very much looking forward to one day restoring it to its former glory with NSFW content.”
But given Pornhub parent company MindGeek’s record of exploitation of adult performers, that could be a disastrous proceeding for the world of kink.
Outside of Pornhub, MindGeek owns many of the top porn streaming sites, like YouPorn, RedTube and GayTube. Widespread piracy of porn films by those sites has made it tough for performers to earn a living. Many smaller studios or performers don’t have the legal or financial resources to file constant copyright infringement takedown notices, and MindGeek’s sites have been accused of allowing re-uploads of videos days after taking them down.
The truly insidious part is that MindGeek has also bought up a bunch of the top porn production studios, including Brazzers, Babes.com and Digital Playground. MindGeek has been accused of allowing those studios’ films to be pirated by its own streaming sites. That lets MindGeek earn and keep streaming ad revenue without giving performers a proper cut.
The result has been a massive decline in the wages of porn performers and the number of films being made. This is turn pushes performers into more rough and extreme porn genres they’re not comfortable with, or into other sex work like prostitution that can be dangerous. We reached out to Verizon Media Group, which told us “we don’t comment on rumors.” [Update: MindGeek tells TechCrunch it works with Vobile to identify unauthorized content and puts nearly $2 million towards anti-piracy efforts, though that would amount to less than half a percent of the company’s 2015 revenues which have likely grown since then.]
“Because there is so much free porn readily available, fewer consumers are willing to purchase any” adult performer Charlotte Sartre tells TechCrunch. “This means less money to the studios and as a direct result, less money to the performers that are hired by those studios . . . Most of us produce our own content, almost everyone has an OnlyFans and/or a Snapchat for fans to subscribe to, and most women in the industry escort, all because paid porn shoots alone are not consistent or lucrative enough to financially sustain performers anymore. It all changed with tube sites and piracy thanks to MindGeek.”
If Pornhub and MindGeek succeed in acquiring Tumblr to strengthen their near monopoly, they could end up exploiting porn bloggers and the performers they post about. You could imagine the photos and GIFs in diverse porn genres that populated Tumblr getting scraped and shared across MindGeek’s network of sites beyond the bloggers’ or performers’ control. Or Tumblr’s porn blogs could be used to funnel traffic toward MindGeek’s crooked streaming sites, exacerbating the piracy problem. A more optimistic view would be that Pornhub’s newer features that let performers set up their own paywalls and other monetization channels could help Tumblr curators earn money for themselves… and MindGeek. If Pornhub managed to turn Tumblr around, it would deal a stern lesson to platforms that were quick to ban adult content.
Since many of the puritanical U.S. government’s elected officials likely see porn performers as godless heathens undeserving of protection, they’re unlikely to try to safeguard the profession with anti-trust or fair payout regulation. The SESTA-FOSTA law that went into effect last year intending to stop sex trafficking ended up pushing sites like Tumblr, Facebook and Patreon toward tougher crackdowns on porn, nudity or even innocent discussions about sex within support communities for LGTBQ people and other underprivileged minorities.
Unfortunately, MindGeek’s massive footprint means it might be willing to bid the highest price for Tumblr. If Verizon does sell Tumblr, it should seek a buyer with an upstanding record for how it treats creators. But Verizon could also modernize Tumblr to emphasize what’s differentiated about it in today’s tech landscape versus when it was founded in 2007. Obviously, it could reopen to porn. But there are also family friendly opportunities.
Tumblr was one of the first big meme-sharing communities, even spawning its own format of screenshots of progressively crazier replies to a short text post. Yet in 2019, the top meme networks like Instagram, Reddit and Imgur aren’t actually built for distributing massive “dumps” of memes. They don’t understand which you’ve already seen to prevent showing re-runs, or how remixes of an original meme all relate and should be linked. Tumblr could build meme-specific features that give users more curational power than Reddit and Imgur, but more freedom of expression under less pressure than Instagram.
Tumblr could also be repurposed into a “your internet homepage” platform. Most social networks are so desperate to keep users on their apps that they restrict or de-emphasize the ability to promote your other web presences. They also often focus on a narrow set of content types like photos and videos on Instagram. This leaves users who don’t have their own dedicated websites without a central hub where they can freely express their identity and link to profiles elsewhere. This is a huge opportunity for Tumblr, which has already established itself an open-ended self-expression platform open to a variety of content formats.
AOL, which was combined with Yahoo to form the Verizon Media Group, previously owned a web profile platform called About.me, but sold it back to its creator Tony Conrad in 2013. Tumblr could assume much of About.me’s functionality as a directory of someone’s presence on other apps, and add that to its blogging platform. Instead of being locked into Instagram and Pinterest’s grids and standardized designs, Tumblr could let people create a homepage collage representing their prismatic identities.
Tumblr’s already been waning in popularity for years, so Verizon might not have a lot to lose by giving Tumblr a year to execute on this strategy before selling it for surely much less than it bought it for in 2013. Tumblr’s remaining users deserve better than the platform fading into nothing or being sold to the unscrupulous.
If any pornography industry professionals want to weigh in, please contact this article’s author Josh Constine via phone/text or Signal encrypted messenger at (585)750-5674 or joshc ‘at’ techcrunch dot com.