Tumblr then, Substack now

It's an old post I'm using to test the Substack waters

Had you heard Tumblr is shutting down?

OK, not tumblr, but the XX percent of it that’s “adult content.” Or porn, as some lazy headline writers have put it. Or, in the words of its official announcement, “female-presenting nipples.”

You can’t make this shit up.

What’s porn again? SCOTUS Justice Potter Stewart once said, “Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself.” That’s relevant. He also wrote, “The dichotomy between personal liberties and property rights is a false one. Property does not have rights. People have rights.” That’s not necessarily relevant here, but it’s thrown in as a cushioning courtesy to a dead justice who is most famous for a quote about the definition of hard-core pornography. I didn’t want to lead with it, but here we go.

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

It’s been paraphrased as, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” It was also memorialized in a Playboy cartoon of two old white guys in black robes walking along a hallway, with one saying to the other, “I can’t define pornography, but I know what I like.”

Now tumblr, owned by Yahoo, owned by Oath, owned by Verizon, and bought for reasons that beggar the imagination for $1.1B, wants to intelligibly define “adult content” and delete it from the site.

Good luck to them. There are stories on tech sites about how difficult that is to put in an algorithm, and how many non-presenting sites have already been affected. Down the rabbit hole of those stories you can find speculation about the algorithm, and lists of tags that might be targeted. The list of tags reminds me of Springsteen’s SXSW keynote some years back, in which he listed several dozen genres of rock and concluded, “Just add neo– and post– to everything I said, and mention them all again.” Or place any letter of the alphabet in front of “ilf.”

Verizon/Oath/Yahoo/tumblr is going to clean all that up. Of course they are. Because, presumably, Rule 34 (you could look it up) doesn’t apply to them.

It seems like a fool’s errand to attempt, but it’s their site. It’s not a public trust, it’s not a commons, and its users have no First Amendment protection against it. But it seems they could do more good by not shutting it down.

Let’s assume for a moment that the lonely, white, single males who kill dozens of their neighbors on occasion also browse female-presenting sites on the internet.

Let us also consider those who maintain that mass murder is a mental health issue, and not an issue of rampant weaponry. I’ve always wondered what mental health test those folks are willing to undergo when they go to the store to buy a box of shells.

Perhaps one exists. Think of it as the underwear model. No, not that one. The model that our jeans and khakis present how we want to look to the world, but our underwear, for those of us old enough that it doesn’t show, reflects our true personal preferences. Along those same lines, compare someone’s likes on Facebook with their likes and follows on tumblr, if they’re public, and you may see a different person.

On tumblr, I follow classic rock era album covers, mid-century paperback book covers, Silver Age comic books, and old black and white photography. And every time I log on, tumblr suggests new micro-blogs I should follow. The more I follow, the more accurate the suggestions become. They know what I like, and I know it when I see it.

So let’s suppose that Whitey McSingle, who just shot up the shopping center, goes to gun sites, and female-presenting sites, and grand theft murder gaming sites, and neo-post-medieval-metal rock music sites on tumblr. Second Amendment absolutist scolds somewhere will suggest the problem is not guns, but the sites the shooter visits. Let’s ban those sites. The First Amendment, the scolds will say, was not written with those sites in mind, never mind that the Second was not written with assault rifles in mind.

If you study the internet profile of Whitey the shooter and everyone else who’s like him, perhaps you could employ the same algorithm used to suggest new sites to suggest that maybe he fits the profile of a nut-case. Ghastly, you say? The government can’t scan people’s web-browsing to find out who’ll commit a crime. No, but Verizon can. So can Oath, Yahoo, and tumblr. A priest or a lawyer is not supposed to use their privilege to remain silent about an impending crime. Nor should a blog site.

There’s an algorithm on Facebook that uses cookies and pretty pictures to try and sell me camera gear. The internet already knows where Deb and I are going on vacation next year, and is suggesting what we should do there. The same algorithms could find the next shooter and tell somebody. I doubt the framers of the First Amendment could tell me why identifying a potential mass murderer is worse than knowing I want an 85mm f1.2 lens. With a Z mount, not an F.

Verizon should reconsider its so-called “porn ban.” The amount of money it’s losing on the site could be secondary to the amount of data it’s collecting. Brits have somehow learned to live with CCTV cameras on every corner. Maybe we could learn to live with Big Brother running a personality algorithm telling us whose guns we should take away. If they can get me to buy that lens, can’t they stop Whitey McSingle from buying another box of ammo?