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.
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.