What Happened to ‘Self-Harm Blogs’ After Tumblr Banned Them?

Censoring had no impact on the number of eating disorder inspired blogs, but it did change the makeup of those blogs

Last year, the blogging sites Tumblr and Pinterest banned “self-harm blogs” including blogs that promoted anorexia. Tumblr wrote:

Don’t post content that actively promotes or glorifies self-harm. This includes content that urges or encourages readers to cut or injure themselves; embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or commit suicide rather than, e.g., seeking counseling or treatment, or joining together in supportive conversation with those suffering or recovering from depression or other conditions. Dialogue about these behaviors is incredibly important and online communities can be extraordinarily helpful to people struggling with these difficult conditions. We aim to sustain Tumblr as a place that facilitates awareness, support and recovery, and to remove only those blogs that cross the line into active promotion or glorification of self-harm.

Putting aside the debate over whether supporting these “pro-ana” sites helps or harms users, one study recently tried to look at the impact of the Tumblr ban on the number of pro-ana blogs that were out there. In other words, did the ban work at all?

The study, published in Perspectives in Public Health, found that in 2010, before the ban, there were 559 with pro-eating disorder content. In 2012, after the ban, there were 593. So when it comes to net numbers of blogs, things haven’t changed much. But the researchers wanted to look a little closer. Are these the same blogs simply surviving the ban, or are they new? The authors write:

A closer look at the data reveals a turnover of about 50%, with only 296 blogs surviving from 2010 to 2012. The resilience of the community is due to the surviving capacity of these long-lasting blogs and the continuous renewal of the ephemeral ones around them.

When they looked at these surviving blogs, the researchers found that the 50 percent who stayed became far more powerful. At the blog Science of Eating Disorders, a blogger named Tetyana explains:

While the number of blogs stayed the same, the connections between the blogs changed in such a way as that surviving blogs “have higher brokerage capacity, often acting as ‘gatekeepers’ able to allow, but also to prevent or restrict, information bridge them. In terms of information circulation, that favours redundancy: subgroups of ana-mia bloggers will exchange messages, links and images among themselves and exclude other information sources.”

In a post that turned into Perspectives in Public Health paper, Antonio Casilli, one of the authors of the study, explained it another way on his blog Body Space Society:

This is a clear illustration of the toothpaste tube effect: it seems that legal pressure has « squeezed » the network in its middle, like one would do with a toothpaste tube. As a consequence, blogs are extruded to the margins (top and bottom) of the graph. All censorship does is reshaping the graph. But not always the right way.

By forcing blogs to converge into one of the bigger clusters, censorship encourages the formation of densely-knitted, almost impenetrable ana-mia cliques.

What happens, Casilli’s data seems to say, is that censoring the blogs creates a thicker, taller wall between people affected by eating disorders and the health professionals trying to reach them.

More from Smithsonian.com:

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