Tumblr Porn Offers an Inside Look at Early Internet Culture

Like Ana Valens, author of Tumblr Porn, I cajoled my parents into wiring the family up to the then-novel Internet in the late ’90s. We started with AOL, and before long I had a computer in my bedroom and a 56k dial-up internet connection. One of the first things I did, between playing Pokémon online and doing a new-fangled thing called “blogging,” was slowly, deliberately download porn.

My first porn memory is of downloading computer-generated, polygonal images of Lara Croft, main character of the “Tomb Raider” Playstation games, nude. And because each individual image took multiple minutes to download, I would print them out and hide them under my mattress.

Unlike Valens, that’s as far as it went for me. I never got into chat rooms or forums, and around age 12, I decided to join the church — and pornography was sinful. I still looked at it, just less frequently and with much more guilt, but I wasn’t seeking it out or exploring my interests. If I had, I might have learned a lot more about myself at a much younger age. I might have discovered the NSFW side of Tumblr.

In Tumblr Porn, Valens charts this early Internet history, especially the impact sex workers had and the early spaces LGBTQ+ people carved out online. “Sex workers and adult content creators have always been the driving force behind new media technology,” Valens argues. She quotes Sofia Barrett-Ibarria: “[S]ex workers populated early chat rooms, fueled the rise of ecommerce…adopted cryptocurrencies…[they] pioneered the early internet and made it profitable, until eventually, it screwed them over.”

Barrett-Ibarria’s point is, in a way, the thesis of this little book: Sex workers and LGBTQ+ communities made the Internet what it was — until it became profitable enough that, in pursuit of mainstream dollars, we were kicked out. This book was published before the recent OnlyFans fiasco, but it provides a neat example of exactly that process.

The second major point Valens makes, though, is a more powerful, nuanced and difficult one: never has there been an online space for LGBTQ+ communities without a sizable amount of unintended consequences, drama, conflict, predatory behavior and infighting (kind of like, in my opinion, IRL queer spaces). The early chat room days were a powerful, necessary oasis to connect and build community, but they were largely unregulated, meaning adults and children frequently interacted without supervision or moderation. Streaming video porn transformed the industry, but also created the expectation that porn should be free — and nearly destroyed the livelihoods of many sex workers. Online fan art sites allowed many to explore marginal interests like kinks and fetishes, but sexual art of underage characters proliferated.

Valens primarily focuses on Tumblr, however, which pioneered a style of content curation and delivery that is now a social media standard — with all the accompanying beauty and consternation.Tumblr Porn is part of “a series of pocket-size books about recent internet history” by Instar Press called Remember the Internet. “Each one tells the story of a hyper-specific online subculture from the point of view of a writer who was personally invested at the time,” explains The Atlantic.

Tumblr, because of its emphasis on sharing (via “reblogging”), allowed marginalized perspectives to reach new audiences. LGBTQ+ people could build community and share their experiences directly with the world like never before. Tumblr drove the modern usage of hashtags, as well; its “opt-out” format meant one could nearly infinitely explore snapshots of certain interests, including taboo ones. But it was these innovations that created both the beauty and strife of the site, argues Valens.

Tumblr’s emphasis on curation and sharing rather than strictly blogging made the spread of marginalized voices simpler than ever before, but it also led to brigading. Long before “cancel culture” was a thing, more-popular Tumblr users could send their followers to attack less-popular users. Once a narrative was created, it was difficult to dismantle. And unlike on a forum, threads of conversations couldn’t easily be followed, meaning users under attack couldn’t effectively share their side of the story under the mountains of reblogs. TERFs, SWERFs and “antis” found community and power on the site in seemingly equal numbers to the queer and trans users they consistently harrassed.

Tumblr’s downfall has been well-documented. According to Valens, it had already begun before the site announced it would be banning porn, but that was the straw on the proverbial camel’s back. With the porn gone, most users left the site and moved to Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and elsewhere.

This little book traces Tumblr’s history succinctly and powerfully, but not always effectively. In my opinion, this is primarily because Valens is too close to the subject. She does an inconsistent job of explaining terminology, for example: “I searched through Gelbooru and Danbooru’s imageboards, 4chan’s fetishism board /d/, Rule 34 Paheal…” If you’re not already familiar with imageboards, this sentence is difficult to parse. She references subreddits without giving any context; if you’re not a Reddit user it could be confusing.

She includes fan art in between chapters, but doesn’t always explain why it’s there or how it relates to the text. She also uses acronyms in the captions that aren’t universally understood: one illustration is described as a “your-character-here (YCH) commission,” but if you’re unfamiliar with fan art, it’s not clear what that means. In another caption, an illustrated character is classified as “OC” without explanation (it means “original character,” to distinguish it from fan art of an already-established character from a particular piece of media’s universe). Overall, however, these minor lapses in explanation are not especially distracting from the book’s main points.

If you ever wanted to know more about what it was like during Tumblr’s heyday — the good and the bad — this is an excellent little primer from a very-invested insider. It doesn’t cover any particularly new ground to anyone who was on Tumblr back then, but it does give a great sense of the emotional weight of the whole scene in a way that outsiders just couldn’t. You can sense Valens’ reverence for the community built on Tumblr and the heartbreak at both the strife that existed on the site and at its eventual downfall.

Tumblr still exists, and communities (and some porn!) remain on its platform – though monthly pageviews appear to be at around 300 million in June 2021 from around 13 billion at its height. Queer and trans people built community on and offline before it and we have continued to do so since its NSFW ban.

But for those of us who witnessed and/or participated in during its rise, it was a special place – and it’s heartwarming that it has such a special little love letter in the form of this book.

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Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color artist, educator, writer, and designer living in the Bay Area, CA.

Abeni has written 69 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. Okay sounds cool, but why are you talking like tumblr is dead?
    Like it’s still alive, the queer and trans people are still on it and the porn’s still there (just hidden away now). But you’re suggesting and this book seems to suggest it’s dead like those old chatrooms that proliferated in the 90’s.

  2. Early internet culture?! I am old 😭 and Tumblr was the third incarnation of fandom from my perspective, after LiveJournal and after Geocities/Angelfire/etc sites and webrings. I really enjoyed reading this review and I’m delighted to learn this book series exists! Thank you.

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