Tumblr Post+ Isn’t Your Friend
Tumblr is beta-testing its proposed content-monetisation scheme “Tumblr Post+” and people are not happy. For good reason. Let’s talk about some of the problems:
Financial Security Measures
Getting this one out of the way early: Tumblr having our banking and credit card details does not fill me with confidence.
As this post pointed out, this is a website that has seen ray ban sales bot hacks, hacks that have taken over and locked people out of their accounts, a rampant - and still ongoing - porn-bot epidemic and all kinds of other basic security problems.
The probability that your card details would be, or stay, adequately financially protected by Tumblr is laughably small. Even if payments and financial data are managed through a third party, the blogs associated with that information are notoriously not secure. And given how poorly Tumblr support has historically responded to users affected by account problems, the likelihood of people being properly assisted with or compensated for lost or compromised financial data would have to be somewhere close to zero.
But even if Tumblr somehow managed to pull out a perfectly secure, ironclad financial security system, there are much bigger problems in how Post+ is being pitched.
Post+ vs How Tumblr Functions
Post+ seemingly fails to understand or be compatible with the way Tumblr functions. Unlike Instagram, Facebook, Youtube and TikTok - which are mostly driven by following specific users/ channels - Tumblr is driven by the reblog and the function of post-sharing. Most content on the site isn’t directly reblogged from the original poster but instead gains traction by being shared by other users with large enough follower counts to propagate it outwards. And those users may only reblog a few posts from any given creator.
What happens, then, if the followers of those larger content-aggregating blogs aren’t (or can’t afford to be) subscribed to every Post+ user on the site? Likely that the Post+ posts are left dead in the water, the lack of visibility leading them to not be shared beyond the blogs of subscribers.
It is baffling that the Post+ designers missed this.
Transformative Works and Monetisation: The Tightrope
Tumblr has been increasingly marketing itself with the byname “the Home of Fandom”, and the majority of its userbase consists of fan communities based around copyrighted intellectual properties. This puts Post+ in a dangerous position because fanworks, by nature, have to operate in a very small grey area that explicitly excludes direct monetisation.
Though the inability to be paid has drawn the ire of some fan-creators, the truth is works that are transformative of an existing product gain a huge advantage in terms of audience and investment. A fancreator doesn’t need to invest the massive amount of resources and time needed to promote and build an audience that would be required for brand new works; the community comes pre-formed around the original property. And - while it has been horrifically exploited by megacorporations - this is the good-faith reason why copyright law exists: to protect original creators from having their time, money and effort stolen by larger, further-reaching parties without adequate compensation.
In general Fair Use gives protection to paid critique/ analysis, some journalism and parody. Transformative fanworks - fanfiction, fanart, fananimation, cosplay, unlicensed memorabilia etc - are historically far less likely to be afforded that protection, and a number of creators and large companies (Anne Rice, Disney, Nintendo etc.) are known to be very litigious. This is why the Organisation for Transformative Works (OTW, the people behind AO3) maintains a team of lawyers and disallows direct linking to payment platforms like Ko-Fi, Patreon etc. in the archive Terms of Service - to give DMCA takedown notices and lawsuits as little legitimate ground as possible.
Charitably, you might think that perhaps Post+ is intended purely as a way for users to monetise their original content… but let’s take a gander at the wording of that post again:
Post+ is being directly, explicitly, promoted as a way to monetise fan content. This is an embarrassing lack of understanding of the basic legality of fandom on Tumblr’s part.
Ideally this would indicate that Tumblr has a strategy in place to support or protect users who encounter legal challenges for using Post+ on fanworks - similar to OTW’s legal team. But given how Tumblr has historically been about supporting users and fixing issues, what we’re more likely to see is something akin to what happened with Youtube and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act; the platform shifting most of the burden of compliance to individual users in order to profit while mitigating the risk to themselves, leaving users out in the cold. (Update: as of 21 July Tumblr’s Terms of Service have been changed to pass all associated responsibility and risks to Post+ users.)
At worst, this could see OTW add Tumblr to the list of banned weblinks if Post+ becomes widespread enough that they can no longer argue that it isn’t a fanwork monetisation service - something which would significantly damage the interconnectivity of fandom. Tumblr is one of the most publicly available and least insular of the long-form mixed-multimedia sites - the freedom of widespread reblogging and multi-fandom blogs allowing a level of inter-community crosspollination that isn’t as prevalent on private blogging sites, subreddits or discord servers. Imagine the loss of community engagement and traffic in both directions if AO3 was legally forced to disallow mentions or links to Tumblr on the archive; noting that its main competitor and other major fanwriting repository - Fanfiction.net - already doesn’t allow external links (and is showing symptoms of a Zombie site on the verge of going down) and that posts containing links to FFN frequently fail to show up in Tumblr’s search and tag functions.
Even if Tumblr were to implement a flagging system to prevent Post+ from being used for copyrighted material, the NSFW ban has already shown us how poor and inaccurate Tumbr’s automated flagging is, and we’ve seen how easily community-driven flagging can be abused by trolls and large corporations to harass other users and silence unfavourable discussions on sites like Youtube.
Creators vs Platform vs Audience
The relationship between for-profit platforms and creators is inherently hostile in all models where the creator isn’t paying a platform fee or otherwise making purchases from the platform. As they say: if you’re not paying, you’re the product.
That means there are two different sets of incentives at play. For creators, incentives pull towards community building and personal profitability. For platform owners they pull towards platform-wide profitability and advertising - something that gives individual users increasingly less power.
In a situation like this, Post+ has the potential to majorly shift the dynamic of community interactions should it become widely adopted.
If Post+ becomes the most effective way for Tumblr to make money, then incentives would likely pull Tumblr’s strategy towards making Post+ as widespread as possible in order to maximise profit. This could see the design of the site shift in ways that make it more passively hostile to non-paid, non-paying users. For example, the potential for implementation of something like verified users, or algorithms that prioritise free content produced by Post+ using bloggers or that link to Post+ paywalled posts. Should something like this occur it could change the power dynamic on the site; arbitrarily favouring and elevating certain voices while making it harder for free bloggers and new users to find traction and communities without buying in.
Not only that but it has the potential to further drive wedges between content creators and other community members. Already, fanwriters and fandom olds are lamenting the shift from more collaborative, conversation-driven community structures to the ‘like and keep scrolling’ consumerist social media culture encouraged by Instagram, Facebook and other platforms. Creators have already expressed strain and discomfort at audience members who act entitled to free content while not sharing or otherwise meaningfully interacting with that content. By delineating the “producers” from the “customers”, Post+ could shift relationships in a more transactional, impersonal direction, further eroding the sense of mutual community.
And Post+ doesn’t give refunds if a user intentionally misleads you about the content you’re paying to unlock.
On top of that, the Tumblr community in general is very anti-monetisation and at times openly hostile to even small and reasonable attempts to monetise purely original content. Not only is this, again, a fundamental misunderstanding of the userbase and community on Tumblr’s part, it also risks making good-faith early adopters of Post+ vulnerable to targeting.
In fact, Tumblr already threw one of its initial Post+ users under the bus:
It shouldn’t be a contentious statement to say that Tumblr has a massive and widespread problem with bullying and harassing behaviours, dog-piling and hate campaigns. In other parts of the internet “the blue hellsite” is all but synonymous with bad-faith bad-takes and witch-hunts.
In light of that, this discovery is particularly worrying:
When you consider the amount of time, energy and resources some people on this site already invest in making a hobby of systematically harassing other users - writing callout posts, falsifying evidence, sock-puppet-ing multiple accounts to get around blocks, stalking them across platforms, locating their real home addresses and contact details in order to dox them, file false police reports or send misinformation to their families/friends/employers - the idea that a few toxic users would willingly pay the equivalent of a Netflix subscription in order to become an inescapable presence in their target’s life is not at all unreasonable.
The idea that content creators could have no ability to directly moderate their Post+ follower communities is ridiculous to the point of farce. This would be ripe for abuse by antis and other cyberstalkers. You can already picture the ease with which someone might maintain one or more alt-accounts for the purpose of taking out Post+ subscriptions in order to become an unstoppable harasser after being blocked, leaving the user no choice but to deal with their toxicity until the support team got around to responding (if they did at all).
But unless Tumblr is going to change this, or implement a priority-response system to ensure harassment by Post+ subscribers is handled rapidly, what will be the solution for targeted users - other than dropping out of Post+ entirely to regain blocking privileges and protect themselves?
And considering that harassment campaigns disproportionately target People of Colour, Women, LGBTQIA+, Neurodivergent and other already marginalised groups... Suffice to say it doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm.
What’s Going to Happen with the Hate Speech?
Much as we may not like to admit it, there are a not-insubstantial number of actively racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic and other violently hateful exclusionist users and communities on the site. Despite the bans and purges, they’re still here.
So this is more a question for the Tumblr team: Are you going to let these groups use Post+ too? Will users be able to monetise posts spreading Hate Speech, Propaganda and Active Misinformation? And in those cases, are you still going to take a cut?
If Tumblr does, and they allow these people to finance their communities through the site, and they take a cut of that revenue, how legally liable could Tumblr be held for any harms caused?
And if they don’t, then how are they going to implement a content flagging/reporting system that won’t either catch in its net a large number of undeserving posts, or be easily abused by trolls and antis?
Models for Monetisation
As anti-monetisation as the community at large is, we should recognise the financial reality of running a platform. Servers cost money, domain names cost money, paying staff to maintain basic site functionality costs money. That money has to come from somewhere, and as a company Tumblr also has to make a certain amount of profit on top of covering operating costs.
Personally, I would be okay with Tumblr reaching out to a few more lucrative advertisers and running a small number of extra ads if that was what was needed. However this also represents a problem of Tumblr’s own making; through their own failure to moderate and prevent harassment, toxicity, hate-speech and inappropriate content they have ended up with a platform that many advertisers would be understandably reluctant to have associated with their brand.
So let’s say they have to turn to users. And before we do that, let’s talk about the weird contradiction in Tumblr’s actions and statements over the last few years.
The NSFW purge of a few years ago was outwardly stated as being at least partially aimed at making Tumblr more accommodating for younger users. But younger users don’t typically have access to bank cards - assuming they have independent bank accounts at all.
So then… who’s the target for Post+ in terms of the paying audience? The adults, who supposedly aren’t the primary userbase of Tumblr? Or the kids, who generally aren’t as able to pay?
And that’s not even considering that a lot of the most active, content-generating, content-consuming fandom users are high school students, college students and entry-level workers; people who generally don’t have a lot of disposable income to regularly splash around.
Tumblr really doesn’t seem to understand who its userbase is or what monetisation models would actually suit them.
For the sake of being productive instead of just complaining, here are some suggestions for other user-based monetisation models:
A coin and award system similar to Reddit, where users could purchase Tumblr-specific fun-bucks towards trophies that could be gifted to posts and reblogs that they found particularly good/ bad / funny/ stupid/ creative/ what-have-you.
Tradeable cosmetic decorations (e.g. stickers, stamps, creatures) that could be collected and displayed on user’s blogs. This could be run similar to a Trading Card Booster Pack - purchasing a selection of randomised collectibles that could then be gifted or traded to assemble sets or acquire rarer ones.
A Premium post-editor subscription that gave users more comprehensive text, layout and presentation options to create nicer-looking content.
A Premium Dashboard Subscription that allowed more control over font, font size, layout, palette etc.
A Subscription to premium engagement tools that could let users do things like track different reblog chains coming off their posts, sort activity history by user, post or post-type, actually mass-edit tags on multiple posts at once etc.
If Tumblr was really wedded to allowing creators to monetise, a blog-wide tip-jar system would prevent the reblog-blocking of paywalled posts and may give more plausible deniability and legal protection to fan-bloggers who mix in some fair use and original content.
The problem with most of these, of course, is that Tumblr would have to invest time, effort and resource into creating features that the community would actually want to pay for. And, historically, they’re not into that.
Ill-considered and Underprepared
Quick credit to the Folding Ideas videos on Vidme or Why Platforms Aren’t Your Friend, React World and Gaming the Youtube Algorithm, which informed a lot of the next two parts.
Even at a glance, Post+ seems wildly unprepared, ill-considered and poorly researched. Beyond just the failure to consider the legal hurdles of monetising a mostly fandom-focussed site and how Tumblr’s content-sharing model works, the Post+ survey’s questions about post types and schedules are incredibly vague, and seemingly don’t consider some major categories of content.
There’s no mention of studyblr, educational blogs, mental health blogs, character ask blogs, analytical/meta content, or many other common post types - except if you put it in as free-text under “other”. “Writing” is incredibly vague and could cover everything from writing advice to fanfic to fan-meta to original fiction, let along different genres within that. The same with “Textile art” or “makeup” or “videogames” or “comics”. It doesn’t actually say anything meaningful about the content.
This one’s also weird because, as far as I know, Tumblr users generally don’t go looking for creators - they look for content and then find creators through reblogs, mutuals or tags. As mentioned before, Tumblr is driven by shares, not follows. (Noting also that Tumblr’s search functions are notoriously poor).
Not only does this show a really poor understanding of the site’s content, it also raises a question. A major monetisation feature like this should be backed by market research and development. If Tumblr has done proper market research, then why are these questions so nonspecific? And if they haven’t, then why are they trying to crowdsource it from the community instead of doing so?
The truth is, Tumblr users have regularly voiced requests for (or complaints about) features - of which direct monetisation is not a major one. And monetisation options already exist, in the form of Patreon, Ko-Fi, Venmo and other services. All of which, by virtue of specifically being payment services, have better set out the relationship, responsibilities and protections between the users and the service than Post+ does.
What Tumblr users actually want are things like the ability to send asks from sideblogs, live-record audio and video posts, mute notifications from specific posts, disallow reblogs on their own posts and have more control over post visibility. For a long time, users have been calling for feature improvements such as a more effective blocking system, better moderation of harassment, and actually functional key-word and tag searches that let you find posts instead of having to google your own blog.
Users have been especially been calling for a proper crackdown on the egregious epidemic of spam bots and particularly the porn bots which have continued to operate despite the NSFW purge - the latest wave of which being so blatant that users clicking over to check whether a new follower is legitimate are being confronted by autoplaying GIFs of up-close, real-life penetrative sex acts.
(As a sidenote: placing users in a position where they are regularly non-consensually exposed to explicit pornographic content without being given tools to effectively avoid or prevent it falls under some legal definitions of sexual harassment. And given that Tumblr is knowingly refusing to either give individuals adequate tools to protect themselves or to implement an effective systemic solution to the problem despite widespread reporting and public complaints, it could be considered vicariously liable for the sexual harassment of its userbase.)
Given all of this, why is the paid feature Tumblr chose to propose a subscription-based monetisation tool?
What Post+ Suggests About Tumblr’s Intentions
Overall, the implementation and seeming design of Tumblr Post+ does not suggest good things about Tumblr’s intent with this “feature”.
The truth is, Tumblr and Reddit are two of the major open generators of fair use and uncopyrighted original content on the English-speaking internet. Screencaps and reposts of content from Tumblr make a lot of ad revenue for third-party websites (wimp.com, didyouknowfacts.com, boredpanda etc) and other social media platforms. And, although monetisation options already exist for Tumblr users, they’re also third party, with Tumblr seeing none of the revenue. But Tumblr doesn’t produce any of that value-generating content itself. It’s just the host platform for the creators who do.
This attempt to become “Diet Patreon” via Post+ suggests that the intent is less about “empowering your favourite fanauthors and fanartists” and far more about Tumblr wanting to get its fingers in the money pie.
Think about is this way. A Post+ making $3-5 dollars per view or at most a Netflix subscription per subscriber isn’t a lot of money for the post owners. It’s pocket change, a small side-hustle at best. And for individual users, the 10% cut taken by Tumblr (or 30% for App store subscribers) will likely be barely noticeable.
But from Tumblr’s side, multiply that 10% cut by a hundred, a few hundred, a thousand, a few thousand users… suddenly it’s not pocket change anymore.
“Find a million tiny sources of revenue and skim a miniscule amount off the top of each: it all adds up.”
- Folding Ideas
Then consider the design of Post+ being proposed; the lack of support, the potential for abuse and harassment, the changes Tumblr has already made in its Terms of Service to shift the burden of legal risk onto Post+ users while encouraging them to monetise the kind of content that will incur that risk… the picture it paints is Not Good.
This is probably part of the same reason why the bot problem hasn’t gone away, and why the only time a solution was even attempted was when it got bad enough to effect the profitability of the App. It doesn’t matter how annoying and uncomfortable it is for genuine users; so long as stakeholders and advertisers are unaware of how many engagement metrics and ad impressions are coming from bots programmatically trawling the site for Search Engine Optimisation, the sale value of the platform and ad spaces will remain higher than its actual value. It’s all about the money.
And when you consider all the options Tumblr could have taken to fix or add features, crack down on bots and harassment, improve moderation and otherwise increase the genuine value and reputation of its content and userbase. Well…
The most generous interpretation of Post+ is that it’s a genuinely well-intentioned but horrifically ill-considered attempt to support creators; failing to understand the basic legality of fandom, how fan communities function or what its userbase wants.
And at worst, it’s rent-seeking. It’s an attempt to lure in users that it can grift off as revenue-generators by dangling promises of getting paid. To recoup value lost from the platform by its history of abominably poor management, poor moderation and slapdash band-aid solutions that have historically created or worsened far more problems than they fixed.
This change isn’t users paying Tumblr to become stronger stakeholders in how the site/app is run, or to benefit from a desired feature that makes the experience better. It’s Tumblr setting itself up to skim revenue from people paying other creators, while still treating both as products.
It’s a Bad Look.
[datestamped: 24 July 2021]
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