Think before you tumble

When serious issues get discussed on Tumblr, jokes, snappy put-downs and slogans are the order of the day, writes Ben Conroy

There’s an image post on Tumblr, a microblogging platform and social networking website which, at the moment, has nearly 400,000 notes (meaning shares and likes combined). It shows an amusing advertising duel between Blood Doners  [sic]Australia (BDA) and Sperm Donors Australia (SDA), each promoting its own service in comparison to the other.

“Sperm donation: more fun than giving blood!” reads SDA’s ad, next to a picture of a grinning man giving the thumbs-up. BDA’s website features a similar picture, but with the slogan “Give blood: don’t be a w*****”.

“Australian adverts are slowly becoming my favourite”, reads one comment. Most just reblog the image or add a cursory #lol (laugh out loud).

Here’s the funny thing: Blood Doners Australia doesn’t exist. The logo and image are photoshopped versions of SDA’s website which some enterprising Tumblrista rigged up.

Here’s the funnier thing: Sperm Donors Australia’s ad is absolutely real.

I thought about the image after attending a press conference by Dr Joanna Rose last week, when she mentioned that no less a person than the head of Britain’s human fertilisation and embryology authority, had said that sperm and egg donation should become “as obvious as blood donation”.


Dr Rose was conceived through anonymous sperm donation, and has spent years trying to make contact with her genetic father, to no avail. She has reason to believe that she may have as many as 400 half-siblings, though she doesn’t know who any of them are.

She wrote a letter to a friend in her 20s that she never sent, writing that she thought the only way people would pay attention to the loss and alienation felt by donor-conceived children was if she got a PhD or killed herself.

She got the PhD.

One of Dr Rose’s friends, another donor-conceived woman named Narelle, died of bowel cancer, partially due to not knowing her medical history on the paternal side.

She wanted to find her genetic father before she died, and succeeded.

In contrast to Dr Rose’s case, the two reconciled before Narelle died

Just like blood donation, eh?

The Irish Government has a piece of legislation coming up that promises to ban anonymous sperm donation through attaching information to a child’s birth cert, but in practice many donor-conceived children will never think to access their own birth certificate because they don’t know they’re donor conceived.

And even if anonymous donation is banned, we’re still creating a whole class of people who are being deliberately separated from their biological parents in order to satisfy the desire of adults to have children.

As Dr Rose said, while adoption is designed for child protection, gamete donation is designed for child production.


This is a travesty, something very like the forced adoption that blighted the life of Philomena Lee. And Tumblr responds with a jokey post that reinforces the very narrative that the industry behind this travesty wants to push.

This is just like blood donation. This is something normal or even heroic. This is something that you can make silly jokes about.

In fairness to Tumblr, the other side of the story is present – it’s just mostly ignored.

The post pointing out that the US and Canada have no limits on the number of children that can be born from one donor’s sperm has 46 notes.

Posts from actual donor-conceived people, often talking about their own struggles, have 17, 25, 31. That’s not quite 400,000 is it?

And that’s the pattern. When serious issues get discussed on Tumblr, jokes, snappy put-downs and slogans are the order of the day. Actual arguments? Not much.

It’s not just Tumblr, either. So many of the social media spheres that young people inhabit are actively thought-allergic. “Join the good guys” is the siren call. Check your privilege, avoid media that is “problematic” (whatever that means) and join in the occasional denunciation of those awful conservatives who oppose things like sperm donation, and you too can be on the side of ‘right’.

I used to think the main problem with “social justice” on Tumblr was that it was largely ineffectual. What could such a website ever do to change anything? But I may have underestimated it.

In reblogging a funny or catchy post that skates right past an important issue without ever stopping to understand it, in making the internet (and thus the culture generally) that bit less friendly to questioning and dissent, Tumblristas can end up contributing to the injustice they say they’re trying to fight.