My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Tumblr disappeared me…

Update: Tumblr called me, apologized, and restored my account. More details below.

People wonder why I have control issues. I refuse to use third party email services because I’m terrified of being locked out of my account (as I was when Yahoo! thought I was a part of a terrorist organization because I was working with Afghani women in 2001). I maintain a blog on my own server because I’m terrified of it all just disappearing. So I shouldn’t be surprised when it actually happens but it doesn’t stop me from being shocked, outraged, and disappointed.

I’m not the most active Tumblr user but I’ve had an account on the service for quite some time because teens are pretty active there. I even used the service to post an ongoing list of different open-access journals which was regularly visited by academics. I also had a list of interesting books and other such collections. It now seems to be gone. And the URLs are now broken (although some are still available in Google’s cache). [Update: I learned that it was all moved to a new location, again, without them telling me.]

What happened? I don’t know. I don’t know how to get in touch with anyone at Tumblr (although hopefully this blog post will help that happen). All I know is that my posts are gone. [Update: All are moved to a new URL, breaking everyone's links to content that I had on the site and giving me no choice in this process.] And a company who also uses the name zephoria is now posting at that Tumblr page (and seems to have been for the last two days). Tumblr did not notify me. And while their ToS says that they will, it also says that Tumblr “reserves the right to remove any Subscriber Content from the Site, suspend or terminate Subscriber’s right to use the Services at any time…”

My guess is that they removed it because a company out there declared they had the right because of trademark. This kills me. I’ve been using the handle “zephoria” online since around 1998 when I started signing messages with that handle while still at Brown. It’s actually a funny blurring of two things: zephyr and euphoria. Zephyr was the name of the instant messaging service at Brown and the name of the dog that I lived with in 1997, two things that I loved dearly. And talking about euphoria was a personal joke between me and a friend. I registered the domain name zephoria.org to create a private blog that would be separate from what was at danah.org. I chose .org because I liked to see myself as an organization, not a commercial entity.

A few years ago, I learned that there is a technology consulting company called Zephoria.com. And apparently, they’ve become a social media consulting company. In recent years, I’ve found that they work hard to block me from using the handle of zephoria on various social media sites. Even before the midnite land grab on Facebook, they squatted the name zephoria, probably through some payment to the company. But this is a new low… Now they’re STEALING my accounts online!?!?!? WTF?!?!?!

I’m also pissed at Tumblr. Why is it acceptable for them to just delete my content without notifying me? For them to break the web by killing off links to my posts? For them to not leave room to negotiate? Let’s assume that this is about trademark issues… The whole point of trademark is to not allow people to confuse customers. I’m not doing anything to confuse customers. I’ve been using the handle publicly longer than they have and my name is deeply connected to that handle all across the web. But I don’t have the financial resources or incentive to challenge their trademark even though I was using the handle before they trademarked it.

Battles over domain names and account names are not new, but social media makes them much messier because all sorts of people are creating accounts with handles that have meaning to them personally. People are building public reputations connected to identities without trademarking them. And social media services have the power to instantly disappear people without notifications. Of course, most business folks fully understand that these aren’t public spaces; they are commercial ones. And the commercial entities get to do as they please. And my life isn’t destroyed by this. But what really pisses me off is that it’s simply not fair or just. And I’m seriously disappointed in Tumblr. I also can’t help but wonder how many other people get screwed because individuals are never given the same social status as corporations in this digital environment. Le sigh.

Updates:

1:13PM: Apparently, I’m not alone. Gawker has an article, beautifully titled Tumblr Screws Hipster Underclass to Appease Hipster Overlords at Pitchfork.

3:07PM: John Maloney, the President of Tumblr, wrote to me, confirming that the issue was indeed one of trademark. He sent a screenshot of the customer service request, indicating that they had tried to email me but that I did not respond. They apparently emailed me on Passover and turned over the account 72 hours later. I responded that I did not believe that this protocol was appropriate. I argued that they were in the business of brokering reputation and that trademark isn’t an acceptable justification for allowing a company to overtake an individual who isn’t trying to pretend to be the company. I volunteered to help them think through their processes around these situations but I also said unequivocally that I wanted my account back.

10:39PM: I just got off the phone with John Maloney. We had a lovely conversation which began with him apologizing for what he described as a human error in customer service and saying that he looked into the issue and has reinstated my account. He explicitly stated that they are working hard to have strong customer service processes where things like this don’t happen and that he feels terrible that it did happen. He said that Tumblr has only had four issues like this in the past and that they are committed to making certain that legitimate active users do not face these issues. He did say that they work hard to not allow squatting (and he argued that the Pitchfork case was one of squatting, not active use by the individual).

We then talked about different customer service strategies that could be taken and why cases like this are actually challenging. I explained that I know that companies are struggling to deal with these issues across the board and that many customer service agents are in a pickle; they don’t understand the law and lawyers are using customer service to make threats and demands to serve their clients at the expense of people (i.e., DMCA abuses). I explained that one of the reasons that I am talking loudly about this issue is because I have in the fortunate position of being able to use my own experiences to highlight issues that others face but lack the status to vocalize.

I am going to get some sleep, give a talk at Guardian’s Activate, and then blog in more detail about what I’ve been thinking and have learned in this process tomorrow. But I’m really grateful for Tumblr’s willingness to take this seriously and restore my account as well as my respect for them as a company. And I’m deeply grateful to all of you who have sent me fantastic feedback and commentary and suggestions about what else I should read as I’m thinking about these issues. So thank you!

April 28: I have written a longer post outlining how I believe that we should think about the tensions between personal reputation and trademark as well as the actions that customer service should take when they encounter these issues.

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59 comments to Tumblr disappeared me…

  • Phil

    Dr. Boyd –

    This is outrageous. Even holders of trademark should have to abide by rules of due process and notice.

    “Do not go quietly into that good night; rage against the dying of the light.”

    If I knew to whom I should rant, I would; I don’t know how to help you, exactly, and must hope that you can accept my umbrage in support.

    Best,

    Phil

  • Hi danah,

    You can also consider Google’s Blogger (disclaimer: I’m a PM of it). We have great stability and you can keep your site handle indefinitely. You also use your existing Google account to sign in.

  • Vrimj

    Thank you for the heads up. I had an account and decided I didn’t need to keep it because of this post.

  • Wow! I work for an agency, and I do the social media marketing for them, as well as our clients, and I am outraged along with you! I am horrified what they did to you, but secretly content that Tumblr still sucks, i never liked that service. But more importantly, companies like that make me look bad! I hope you come to some sort of resolution, although I doubt they will let that happen, I am truly sorry on behalf of my profession!

  • This is terrible, but I don’t understand what you mean by “I don’t know how to get in touch with anyone at Tumblr”. In my experience, they’ve always been very quick to respond to support e-mails: http://www.tumblr.com/help

    I hope that they can fix this for you.

  • John

    Companies that own trademarks don’t own them for all potential uses of the name. Unless your use was likely to confuse their market then they have no legal right to it. Then again, your main point about control still stands; just because Zephoria the company can’t compel Tumblr to turn over the account doesn’t mean they can’t make a terrible business decision and do it anyhow (and do it in a way that violates their own TOS, no less).

    Good luck with dealing with the mess.

  • While I’ve a vague grasp on the concept of success being more execution than idea – which is why an idea not necessarily new can do well – I’ve -never- understood the appeal of tumblr. There’s not really anything to it that’s unique (besides the numerous heavily tattooed girls that frequently post to it, but that’s not really relevant to this conversation…haha). Somehow, though, it managed to blowup in a relatively short amount of time. I wonder why.

  • Dan Phiffer

    Chang — Google’s YouTube, on the other hand, has done absolutely nothing about my account getting hacked a while back. Instead of restoring my account (or even replying to support requests), there’s a permanent error message at “youtube.com/dphiffer” about how “I” violated their terms of service.

    Sorry to hear about this danah, I’m with you on the “own your data” front.

  • Dr Boyd: I am sorry to hear of your difficulty. But I am in complete agreement with your ‘paranoia’. I too keep all my email at my own service, run my website independently on my virtual server.

    Your situation is one many good example of the problems with depending on anonymous, faceless platforms.

  • Any update?? John Maloney and David Karp are pretty strongly saying that your side is not the only side (or the correct side). Let me be clear, I think Tumblr has a poor history with this, somewhat, and am on your side. But what’s the whole story?

  • This sucks. Recently found a new service called lissn, and have chatted amiably with the founder who admitted looking for my handle, seeing it was taken and opting for lissn instead. I was totally impressed by his sense of decency, honesty, and honorable intentions. It’s really not hard. So why should Tumblr choose to go the other way? It’s wrong.

  • I’m highly disappointed both in Tumblr’s decision and in Zephoria’s to force the change. It’s reasons like this that I’m still so hesitant about the service, and why I like to keep things on my own servers or ones that I can trust. Hope that you find something that you can transition to that’s reliable!

  • First, IANAL, nor do I play one on youtube, but I find IP law fascinating. A few comments.

    The statute of limitations for petitioning to cancel the zephoria trademark has long passed. The seemingly only legal recourse for cancellation would be if the zephoria trademark were to become generic. Granted, your continued use of it is a positive… and they probably dont want to get into a legal fussing game as it could get really spendy for them fast. On the other hand, actions such as what tumbler just did should not be unexpected, being they cost zephoria.com very little. On the other hand, the zephoria service trademark is exceedingly limited. I’m not totally convinced that tumbler legally had to do what they did.

    The other thing is, being zephoria.com is a internet marketing firm search rank is likely important to them. Over time as social rankings become more prominent than SEO gaming for search… sooner or later they may find they need the social realm, where in their name would be mud. More so, no company, even the seedieist scammer outfits wants to have the first page of google show up as listing them as brand hijackers. With your 40,000+ followers on twitter, it would seem significant force could be applied to get them to cease and desist well before it comes to that.

  • Sad story but written beautifully.

  • Marshall Kirkpatrick

    If one of the chapters in the Social Media Consulting 101 handbook was “piss off world-renowned social media thought leaders like danah boyd” I sure missed that one! Ooops!

  • Now that is tacky. Chang, you did notice that danah has had zephoria.blogspot.com since 2004?

  • I agree that its very lame for tumblr to do this, to avoid relying on the ‘grace’ of companies that I post content I care about, even though I run my own blog off tumblr, I use a CNAME, because I can at least control the CNAME using my domain name. You obviously have a similar paranoia to have your own domain names you use for most of your own content, its not too tough to pull data out of tumblr via their API, which is what I do regularly to ensure I have a ‘backup’.

    Should tumblr ever do something that irritates me enough, I can yank all my content, and setup static pages elsewhere for all the same URL’s, or put up my own little blog app using my own domain name. Something to consider for the future, or maybe just add a ‘tumblr.zephoria.org’ CNAME to your domain that points to your tumblr account (assuming you’re still going to both with them). Definitely helps give one a little reassurance that content you go to the effort of creating is still under a URL you control, not some other company.

  • I’ve seen a lot of issues concerning this previously about MySpace, so it doesn’t come as that big of a surprise. However, getting in touch with Tumblr is simple: support@tumblr.com so I am confused about you saying you don’t know how to contact them. I found that with just one click on the website. I’ve emailed them before and they have always had a good response time. Hope that helps.

  • Lee

    Zephoria is a social media consulting company, and they thought this was a good move?!

  • Jenny Reiswig

    Ugh, that is bad behavior from both of those parties. Zephoria the company should have contacted you and offered to buy you out of the name. That’s like some sort of bad pun on eminent domain. If you’ll excuse me, I need to run off now and set up a social media consultancy called Apophenia.

  • Danah, Tumblr’s actions in this case are outrageous. However, I do not think you should use the word “disappear” to describe what they did. Comparing yourself to a victim of political assassination could be offensive to those who lost family members to that practice during the Cold War.

  • Fred

    If I were Zephoria.com, I would be very worried about my karma right now.

  • Another Googler

    Chang’s post was super tacky– a shame to Googlers. My apologies for that, Danah. Blogger is just as bad as the rest. Own your own content FTW.

    – A Googler

  • HULK WAS CONSIDERING USING THAT SERVICE.. SINCE THEY DECIDED TO F*** WITH ONE OF HULK’S HEROES… INSTEAD THEY’RE ARE NOW GOING ON THE SMASH ON SIGHT LIST!

    PROTECTING A TRADEMARK IS FINE. BUT HARASSING PEOPLE IS JUST RIDICULOUS! HULK SMASH!

  • After tweeting about this issue, the folks at Tumblr contacted me. Apparently, they tried to contact me via email on Passover. My email shows no record of having received that email but that’s not entirely surprising given how often form mail often ends up in spamland. They told me that they normally give bloggers 72 hours to respond and then they turn over accounts. So they contacted me on April 19 and moved my account on April 22. I learned about this today.

    I responded to them about the problems with their approach and offered to help. I also asked for my account to be reinstated; I argued that reputation online is not just about trademark and that it shouldn’t be acceptable to use trademark as a justification to make people’s material online disappear. I’m waiting to hear back.

    I also learned in the process that the company is a search engine optimization company which explains why they’re going after my representation on social media sites, given the priority that Google places on such sites.

    I also read Twitter’s policy on Trademark which is starkly different in its approach, highlighting that trademark is only relevant when the person online is trying to confuse the public: http://support.twitter.com/articles/18367

  • Good luck Danah. I’ve recommended your story over at Techdirt and I’ve sent my own letter to Dan Noyes, the CEO at zephoria.com (sales@zephoria.com).

    I’d tell you to go after his trademark, but I believe a live and let live attitude is a much better way to go with these things.

  • And btw, thank y’all for your thoughtful responses… This has really made me think and when I’ve had some good sleep, I will blog in greater detail. But I think there’s something important here about the tensions around individual’s digital reputation and corporate reputation. For better or worse, many of us are deeply identified by our digital handles. Ironically, zephoria was supposed to be my “secret” handle – separate from my reputation as “danah” – but that completely blurred in mid-2003 when folks realized it was me blogging about Friendster. Oops. (It’s why my blog was never on danah.org btw… it was supposed to be separate.) This only gets more complicated when we think about how individuals and corporations collide in social media. My name on Friendster was Zephoria Ipseity. Because I didn’t want people to know it was me. All of this collided and my name and reputation as “zephoria” got linked to my name and reputation as “danah.” All of this was fine and well because I’ve been living on social media for a long time. But social media has taken on new cultural prominence since folks started realizing that it was a key to search engine optimization. And since having an identity on Twitter became important. Now, there’s a serious blurring of individual and corporate reputations. And unfortunately, corporations have the power and lawyers and time to attempt to squash individual voices. And individuals aren’t even thinking in terms of squashing companies. They just want to build and maintain their reputation.

    What’s sad to me about all of this is that I’m learning that this is happening to so many different people. And I think it’ll keep happening. And I believe that it’s an abuse of the intentions behind trademark. And it’s especially tricky in an era of networked publics where it’s not just corporations whose reputations exist in the public sphere. Individuals too. So how do we resolve these things responsibly? And not through strong-armed tactics where the Big Guy simply wins?

  • Kelly

    I think I found your old Tumblr at zephoria1.Tumblr.com
    2 pages of posts, last update in January?
    There’s no name on the blog, but this is you right?

  • Vicki Davis

    When a leader deals with something like this, I think it is important to know that for every “big name” there are thousands of “no names” who are dealing with the same thing.

    I learned this the hard way when several organizations/people tried to take the name Flat Classroom (now a registered trademark.)

    Trademarking is expensive and most don’t realize until too late that a problem has happened. Keep on pushing and make an example in this case. Personal branding is legitimate and somehow legal rights should more clearly outline what they are. Wish Lawrence Lessig would tackle this one.

  • By no means is this an original idea, but it does still work well enough to have knocked Fox News’ editorial email account out of commission for a brief period of time a few weeks ago. Why not send emails to both Tumblr and Zephoria, letting them know exactly what we think about their actions. Is it likely to lead to any changes? Probably not. But it certainly can’t hurt, right?

    sales@zephoria.com
    admin@zephoria.com
    support@zephoria.com

  • Hi Danah. I run the MeowCat messaging website (a bit like a cross between twitter and blogging) and if you create a zephoria account on it, I promise I want give it to anyone else.

  • So you are telling me I need to trademark “Silona” to prevent this from happening?

    I guess trademarks like patents need a prior art requirement for identities like ours?

  • Danah,

    I sent you on a mail just there, with a couple of observations I made from my own blogger stats page. Quite interesting to look at the traffic patterns actually, as simple and all as the tools are.

  • Sup Serb

    Follow this link for some free advice: http://law.freeadvice.com/intellectual_property/communications_law/internet_regulation_law.htm
    Also search queries that could be helpful for you are “Net neutrality law,” “intellectual property as online content”. The FCC’s net neutrality law specifically forbids this kind of favoritism. Good luck.

  • Carlos

    Maybe it’s also a good opportunity for having an update on Pitchfork’s case. The link included above mentions: “We asked Meaghan about Pitchforkgate’s factual discrepancies, and she says she’ll respond later, once she checks in with Tumblr.” As far as that page goes, Tumblr director Meaghan O’Connell has never explained the “factual discrepancies”, that have made some people call her a “liar” (following the links on the page). At least following the page linked above, it seems Tumblr used the “Chinese-Tibetan strategy”: time is on our side, soon this will be forgotten and even an evident lie will go unnoticed.

  • Danah,

    By concidence, I saw someone write this up somewhere else, and include a link to a BBC interview. It sort of ties in with some of your earlier writings about the way that social networking entrepreneurs worked.

    In a BBC interview with Dr Donald Ferguson, the lead architect of Websphere,

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-11944966

    What’s the biggest technology mistake you ever made – either at work or in your own life?

    When I was at IBM, I started a product called Websphere [which helps companies to operate and integrate business applications across multiple computing platforms].

    Because I had come from working on big mission-critical systems, I thought it needs to be scalable, reliable, have a single point of control … I tried to build something like a mainframe, a system that was capable of doing anything, that would be able to do what might be needed in five years.

    I call it the endgame fallacy. It was too complex for people to master. I overdesigned it.

    Because we were IBM, we survived it, but if we’d been a start-up, we’d have gone to the wall.

  • Tasha

    Hi Danah, sorry to hear you got shafted in your Tumblr account, I thought this particular quote from the article you linked summed up this portion of the social-networking industry vis-a-vis its consumers perfectly:

    “Hipster underclass uprising: Tumblr’s leadership is “full of shit” and “out to make a buck.” Meaghan is “arrogant and rude.” The final blow: Hipster Runoff says Tumblr is acting “like MySpace and Blogger.” In other words: Corporate.”

    Really, we saw the exodus of MySpace when it went ‘Corporate’, and even in my own research, clinical and inorganic webspheres get little support from the people, although paradoxically Facebook, which is so top-down that they can potentially (if not actually) violate people’s privacy is being taken over by the fuzzy organics who inhabit it (yes yes a pun on people being mould).

    I hope you get everything sorted out with Tumblr and your blogs and links!!

    Tasha

  • Kelly

    I’m sympathetic to your plight, I look at zephoria1.tumblr.com and the marketing company has made more posts on the blog in a week than you did in the last year.

    If they tried to reach you and didn’t hear back they probably thought you were not interested in using the URL anymore.

  • Ariock (R)

    Darn challenge question/inability to go back and have my writing still be there.
    Attempt #2:

    Hi! I got linked here by a good friend. I have a little (R) typed up there next to my name because I registered a trademark for my name. I’ve been using this name online since 1997 as a gamer (I played in a Team Fortress league back when it was on Quake).

    I own the .org of my name. Another person owns the .com (NSFW! Seriously! A LOT NSFW!). The other person attempted to get me kicked off of numerous social media sites around 2006-2007, culminating in a successful attempt, when they got Twitter to change my name from @Ariock to @Ari0ck. Twitter didn’t warn me, and completely ignored me when I tried to challenge it. Their “proof” that he owned the trademark was that he said he did. On his website.

    Angry, I decided to seek legal representation. For under $2,000 I hired a trademark attorney and told them my story. They said I was entitled to register for the trademark for a couple of reasons. 1. There was no chance of confusion between the two of us, and 2. he didn’t actually own it. In your case, it seems like you MIGHT be able to register it, but you’d probably need to talk to a lawyer.

    Of course, in the time it took me to actually GET the registration, the boneheaded cowards at Twitter allowed a third party to sign up for the name @Ariock. At this point I have a claim that I could insist that they give me the name back. But then I’d be as bad as that other guy. Also, having the name @Ari0ck reminds me of the incompetents at Twitter and how much I despise them. And really, what’s life without a little bit of seething disgust?

    I hope your situation is resolved amicably. But considering how lazy/cowardly most social media companies are, I fear they won’t be.

  • morganya

    Kelly, it shouldn’t matter how much danah used her Tumblr account; she had it first. She says in her post that she mainly had it for research purposes, since the youth the studies use the service. But claiming that zephoria.com has more of a case to the account just because they use it more is irresponsible at best.

  • danah,

    One argument about the zephoria.com people’s abuse of trademark in taking your zephoria account is that in a way, they are trying to confuse the search engines by taking your name.

    You have spent years cultivating ‘zephoria’ as a brand and handle, and it appears to me they are trying to steal your juice (google or otherwise).

    It seems to me you could make a fairly good case against them.. because you have already created a brand that is zephoria.

    What’s next? they take your AIM handle and your blog?

    Good luck.. and i do sympathize.

    mary

  • This might be a good time to register your blog with an ISSN in case the company goes after any content written by zephoria.

  • danah, I am very saddened to hear of this involuntary identity re-assignment, as up until now I had understood Tumblr to be of fairly good reputation when it came to treatment of individuals/independents.

    Good to see you posting about it on your own domain and I hope you’re able to get your Tumblr URL(s) restored. (edit: just saw that you did)

    FWIW, this and other similar incidents are one of the reasons I and many others are deliberately pursuing #indieweb projects to enable, encourage, and empower individuals to own and control their identity, content, and overall presence online.

    In just under two months we’re doing IndieWebCamp in Portland, Oregon (June 25-26) http://indiewebcamp.com/

    If you’re working on designing and building better solutions to own and control our content, our identities, please join us.

  • Glad to hear things turned out well!

  • Andrew McNicol

    I’ve been following this for the past few hours so I’m delighted to hear that it seems to have worked out for you. Fighting with corporations (read: larger budgets) can be frustrating so it’s great you avoided a confrontation altogether.

    You asked for thoughts on trademark and reputation online to help you work through a few ideas on the topic. Not sure how relevant this is but the Zephoria/Tumblr thing reminded me of a local (I’m in Australia) issue where a major supermarket is attempting to release a new range of brand-owned products using the phrase ‘Honest to Goodness’, which just happens to be the name of one of its competitors. It’s short and may be worth a read if you have a few minutes.

  • glad to hear the account restored and the efforts of tumblr to build customer relation.

  • I am glad things have seem to have been resolved, but this whole subject is really problematic. I really like Mary Hodder’s take on this with the cultivation of our own persona and experience. Where the company that took over the name is trying to use your name and experience to build their own perceived value is not an area I can weigh on, but having domains and user names that are consistent with one’s own persona built over many years is really problematic. We need better solutions.

  • saw this unfold on teh twitters. sad it happened, but happy it was sorted out.

    I can only wonder – you are a pretty well-known entity, so tumblr reaching out as soon as they did to sort this out was also in their own interest. would similar service be extended to the more lowly interwebz users?

  • I’m glad to read that you regained access to your Tumblr account, zephoria. Ideally, neither you nor any of us should ever have to deal with these kinds of situations.

    Though in your case things seem to be resolved (or getting there), this particular kind of situation needs to be addressed at a broader level. It could affect any of us. Here are my two cents, something for social-media services to chew on: “A Solomonic Response to Username Disputes”

  • Daniel Johnson

    I had to hire a Lawyer to defend against trademark. I’ve been using the same internet identity for nearly a decade now, and still I had to defend it.

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