A prominent Tumblr user has become the subject of an online petition to get him fired by the blogging service—from an honorary, unpaid position which normally doesn’t last more than a month anyway.
And it seems like it may have worked. The key word being “seemed.”
On Thursday, Alexander Ryking dropped off the list of Tumblr’s “Top Editors” for politics, a designation he has held since July 19. And today he is no longer listed as an editor at all. But it’s not clear the petition had anything to do with it. Update: Late on Friday, Tumblr said his disappearance was part of a "planned rotation." (See below for the company's statement.)
About a week ago, a group of Tumblr users, led by Raven, a mononymous Chicago-based progressive activist, began to tweet taunts, insults, and other expressions of outrage at Ryking, whose selections of political material on the service earned him the status of “tag editor” on the blogging service.
Raven claimed that the “trolling,” as she described it, was in retaliation for comments Ryking made on Tumblr in support of TJ “The Amazing Atheist” Kincaid.
Kincaid, a popular YouTuber, mocked a rape survivor’s pain on Reddit and admitted to trying to trigger the user’s post-traumatic stress with his threats.
It would have all stayed in the zone of petty Twitter fights, if earlier this week, Stevie McFly hadn’t started a Change.org petition to have Ryking “removed” from his volunteer position. So far the petition has collected 4,239 digital signatures as of noon Friday, just shy of its 5,000-signature goal.
For his part, Ryking said that he never made the comments which Raven, McFly, and others claim he did. He said he called Kincaid’s cyberbullying wrong and only expressed his support for Kincaid only after he apologized for his actions.
The argument spilled over into Tumblr where thousands of users have weighed in on the controversy. Most people have sided with Raven, who wrote a lengthy post questioning whether Ryking should remain a top editor on the Tumblr politics tag.
Tumblr uses a system it cutely calls “TumblrBot” to designate users as editors on particular tags, and the designation normally rotates every one to four weeks, according to Tumblr’s FAQ.
Ryking had been a tag editor since July 19, which is out of the ordinary but possible in some cases, according to Tumblr’s FAQ. His designation of tag editor was determined algorithmically through fellow users’ ratings of his politics-related picks. As editor, he chose 10 stories a day to be highlighted on the politics tag page.
But that distinction was lost on most of Ryking’s critics, who viewed the designation as a stamp of approval from Tumblr headquarters and a position of authority.
“Tumblr is viewed as a safe haven to so many people that it is horrific to not only see such a hateful person harassing those people on tumblr, but to see a person like that in a position of some power is a blatant slap in the face to all women who use Tumblr,” wrote Alyzabeth Hicks on the petitions page.
In a statement he sent to the Daily Dot, Ryking called the petition “libelous” and said:
“This is the latest in a series of increasingly unhinged and dishonest attacks by a small but vocal group that wishes to punish me for rejecting their radical perversion of feminism and for standing against their frequent efforts to cyberbully other men on Tumblr. … As someone who is gay, an atheist, and a liberal, I'm accustomed to people trying to physically and emotionally bully me; I've been attacked many times for who I am and for what I believe. That said, the most cruel, vicious, remorseless, hypocritical, irrational, and dishonest attacks I have ever been subjected to have come from Tumblr's so-called feminist progressives. Their campaign against me has reached a new low with this petition.”
Ryking says he has not been contacted by Tumblr over the petition or controversy. But Tumblr media evangelist Mark Coatney posted on Tumblr about the position of tag editors—the closest Tumblr headquarters has come to making a statement about the controversy—and reiterated the automated nature of the designation:
The ‘Top Editor’ designation, by the way, is simply the editor whose picks at have had the most ‘notes on them—the thinking being that this is a measure of how useful the community finds the editor’s selections.”
The online outcry may have had an effect, however. As Tumblr user politicalprof argued in a post Coatney cited, Ryking won his tag editor position through “outrageousness and savagery.”
If enough Tumblr users stopped reblogging or commenting on his posts—the actions that led to his designation in the first place—then TumblrBot would automatically fire him. And unless Tumblr secretly acted to manually remove him, that appears to be what happened.
(Note: Ryking responded to our story after publication to clarify that his designation as a "top editor" came from the popularity of his daily editor picks, not the popularity of his posts. He's correct that the top editor designation is distinct from tthe position of tag editor. But that doesn't change Tumblr's stated policy about why Tumblr users are designated as tag editors in the first place, or how they normally rotate.)
Coatney referred us to Tumblr’s communications manager after we asked him for a comment on Ryking’s disappearance from the politics Top Editors list.
Update: We heard back from Katherine Barna, Tumblr's communications manager, who provide the following statement:
"We saw the petition and appreciate the input from our community. As it happens, we were already planning to rotate out some of our tag editors this week."
That suggests, but does not make clear, that Tumblr has been manually managing its tag editor designations. That contradicts the language in Tumblr's FAQ. We've asked Barna to clarify that point and provide more information about Tumblr's tag editors, and we'll do a followup story after we hear back.
Friday afternoon, McFly, the petition organizer, wrote that he had received "a note from the Tumblr staff alerting me to the fact that the petition had worked and Ryking had been removed from his position." We're asking Barna to clarify that, too.
Photo via Alexander Ryking