Tumblr’s Porn Bloggers Eye Pillowfort and Dreamwidth
Julia Baritz is having quite a week. The Austin, Texas based developer is the founder and lead architect of Pillowfort.io , a community-oriented social media blogging platform that's quietly amassed around 20,000 users in its first two and a half years. Since Monday, however, Baritz has been inundated with more than 8,000 requests from people clamoring to join her site. Traffic to Pillowfort’s homepage has been 10 times higher than average, she says.
Baritz has porn to thank for this interest. On Monday, Tumblr announced a ban onall “adult content”, and creators have been frantically searching for a new place to migrate their NSFW art and porn blogs ever since. Pillowfort emerged as a potential safe harbor via word of mouth on social media. The site allows NSFW content to be posted with few restrictions, as long as it doesn't break any laws.
“It’s funny that adult and sexual content has become the linchpin and turning point of our popularity in a way, but I’m not surprised,” says Baritz.
Sexual content has always been a part of fandom communities online , from LiveJournal to Tumblr. And communities have a history of abandoning platforms that don’t support the free expression of adult material. It was LiveJournal’s crackdown on NSFW material back in 2007 that broke community trust in the site and initiated the mass migration to Tumblr , along with the creation of fandom sites like An Archive of Our Own . Now Tumblr’s facing its own porn-related exodus, because NSFW content appears to be at odds with its business goals.
For Baritz, the experience has been head-spinning. Pillowfort is still in beta, and this kind of spotlight is a huge test for the site.
If anyone understands what Baritz has been going through, it’s Denise Paolucci. As the co-founder of Dreamwidth, a web 1.0-style blogging platform that shares Pillowfort's user-first philosophy, she has seen a similar spike on her site this week. Dreamwidth is more established—it has existed since 2008 and has 53,595 active users (and 3,453,932 total accounts)—but traffic to the site has also surged to 10 times its typical amount, she says. Many Tumblr users are tweeting about their plans to migrate to both Dreamwidth and Pillowfort.
Both sites adhere to an anti-advertising, anti-VC funding, anti-corporate model that centers user privacy, control, and freedom. That's what makes them such appealing options to many disaffected Tumblr bloggers, but that the challenges they face underscore why the dream of an independent web is so hard to achieve, even when there's demand.
Microblogging Like It's 2009
Dreamwidth began as a side project after Paolucci and her co-founder Mark Smith felt that LiveJournal, their former employer, had lost its way. Paolucci worked there as a community manager, Smith as a developer. They built Dreamwidth on LiveJournal’s open source code, which was already 10 years old at the time. A decade later, they still co-run the site. “The other day I realized I’ve been working on this code base for about 20 years and I had to go lie down for a minute,” Paolucci says.
The benefit of code that old is it’s incredibly stable, has been fully patched and security-audited, and it’s efficient. This week it has handled 10 times its normal traffic smoothly. “We have designed Dreamwidth to be very expandable,” she says. “We did have a big increase in traffic when Tumblr made its announcement and no one noticed because we set up the site so it can scale in an instant.”
But what it gains in stability, it lacks in new features. Dreamwidth can barely handle images, as some Tumblr exiles have noted on Twitter , and currently has no option to upload video. GIFs should work, Paolucci says, but users get only 500 megabytes of image hosting on their accounts, at least for right now.
“Unlimited image hosting is one of those features that people have gotten used to that are VC-subsidized on most websites,” she says. “We can’t afford to offer that same kind of unlimited, endless image hosting.”
Instead, Dreamwidth is a text-based community, full of everything from fanfic to erotica to you name it. Tumblr's new ban, however, focuses on visuals, like NSFW photos, video, and GIFs; the company says written content like erotica is still allowed.
Paolucci understands that Dreamwidth may not be right for all Tumblr exiles. “We are definitely thinking of this as an opportunity for users who are fleeing Tumblr to discover our philosophy and business ethics,” she says, “but there is also a certain level of people who are used to Tumblr and Tumblr's features [and Dreamwidth] may not be what they are looking for.”
Dreamwidth has been “a good lifeboat service for a lot of people,” Paolucci says—a landing place for people who have had to leave other platforms for some reason. When beloved services are shut down or change their terms, people can lose their communities and work. “Even those who have their primary hangout elsewhere use us as a permanent redirect to wherever they're socializing most," she says, "because after ten years, people are beginning to trust that we mean it when we say we're planning to be around for the long haul.”
Not Ready for Primetime
Pillowfort, on the other hand, looks a lot like Tumblr, but it can’t yet handle the traffic that comes along with popularity.
Baritz created Pillowfort in 2016 to be exactly what disaffected Tumblr bloggers are now in search of: an open-minded site that can host images and videos; allows reblogging, commenting, and community building; encourages a strong artistic bent; and doesn’t censor NSFW content. It improves on Tumblr, in some bloggers’ opinion , by offering nimble privacy features—like allowing you to make certain posts private to certain followers, while leaving other posts public—and focusing on customization. Pillowfort's terms of service also currently prohibit posts that target or harass other users, which some bloggers may crave in a new community.
It is meant to look like Tumblr but harken back to the original LiveJournal era, a simpler time on the web, when people could create small, cohesive, and specific communities without worrying too much about arbitrary censorship or ads. Baritz says she fell in love with LiveJournal when she was in middle school, and longed for a way to combine its creative, independent ethos with more modern features.
When Tumblr bloggers looking for a new home came to Pillowfort on Monday, though, they found a site that had been offline for ten days for security maintenance after a Tumblr user posted that they had found a bug in the site’s code. Baritz and her two developers got the site up and running by the afternoon, but then the surge in traffic overloaded the servers. The site is still unstable, and Pillowfort doesn’t have the money in the coffers to just add server capacity overnight. For some Tumblr users, the experience has been frustrating .
Baritz is facing a very tricky challenge: make the most of this opportunity without bankrupting her company or betraying her conscience in the process.
“If our server costs increase by 10 times the way our overall site traffic has, then we won’t be immediately bankrupted, certainly, but it’s more expenditure than I planned for,” Baritz says.
Her plan is to approve new requests to the site in batches so that she doesn’t overload server capacity, and so that she has time to take in the money from each new user in order to pay for the server capacity to host them.
Money, Money, Money?
Both Pillowfort and Dreamwidth embrace a business model that charges users directly and aims for relatively small profits—a radical idea in a web dominated by ad revenue and data sales.
Like LiveJournal did when it first launched, Dreamwidth makes money by charging users for premium accounts, at annual rates of $35 or $50. With the paid subscriptions, you get more Dreamwidth tokens, which can be used to access perks like user icons or the ability to rename blogs.
“We’re not making a whole ton of money but we're not losing money and we have enough people who really value what we are trying to do from a business ethics standpoint that they will support us,” says Paolucci. Aside from her and Smith, the site is run by volunteers.
Premium accounts is the same business model Baritz is planning for Pillowfort. She and the team are about six months away, she estimates, from launching that pay functionality. She’s currently crowdsourcing suggestions from users about what features they want and are willing to pay for.
Until then, Pillowfort keeps the lights on by charging new users a one-time $5 sign-up fee. Baritz has also turned to crowdfunding campaigns. She raised a little more than $5,000 on Indiegogo to launch the site in 2016. This year, she quit her job as a developer at a software company to focus on Pillowfort full time, and raised around $60,000 from a successful Kickstarter in August. That money is earmarked to pay her two contractors, and to hire another full-time developer to work on scaling the company up.
“What’s central to how Pillowfort’s being planned is we’re going to be getting our money from our users. We won’t be beholden to anyone but our users, so we won’t have to worry about third parties or outside forces,” Baritz says.
Those are laudable future goals. But they don’t help right now, when suddenly 8,000 people are “knocking down my door,” as Baritz put it, and Baritz doesn’t have the money to go out and buy extra server hosting immediately.
“We have to make some sacrifices, like keeping the site relatively small right now. If we did go a corporate route then I would be nervous then we’d be under a lot more pressure to turn a profit and inevitably it would influence the way we build the site, and I don’t want to compromise on user privacy and user control,” she says.
Even without taking VC money, however, sites and platforms can still be vulnerable to outside forces, including the services they rely on to function. A number of internet infrastructure companies have taken action against users this year, from PayPal, Stripe, Joyent, and GoDaddy allkicking off Gab toPayPal cracking down on the ASMR community. Dreamwidth has had trouble with PayPal , too, when the payment processor wanted it to censor some NSFW material in 2010 . And Pillowfort tweeted earlier this week that it plans to change domain names, after learning that .io domains don't support NSFW content.
And even if Baritz were willing to go the VC route, it's not a sure recipe for success. Small social media companies have raised millions from Silicon Valley in the past, only to crash and burn. Take IMZY, a site founded by ex-Redditors who wanted to create a nicer, gentler, safer version of Reddit. In 2015 IMZY raised $11 million dollars from VC firms, but after generating lots of excitement and getting thousands of users, it shuttered after less than a year . The reason the founders gave was that they couldn’t find a place in the market, but with the money they had raised they were under pressure to not just find a small niche, but to actually compete on profit with bigger companies.
She admires what Baritz is doing with Pillowfort, and hopes that the site can handle the sudden surge of interest. “I think that the web needs a lot more of the kind of sites and communities that are created with motives other than profit in mind,” says Paolucci.
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