The other blue hellsite

Ten years a Tumblr-er.

I starting using Tumblr in earnest right around the time I graduated middle school. It was spring 2010, and I loved Darren Criss (BEFORE he was on Glee) and, newly, Doctor Who. Thanks to Tumblr, and the people I befriended immediately when I started reblogging (my username was tardis-girl), I was soon introduced to the whole smorgasbord: Misfits, Sherlock, Supernatural, The Mighty Boosh. I learned how to make gifs, how to edit graphics, how to put together a slammin’ fanmix. I hit the Megavideo 72-minute limit, I read fanfiction by people who are now bestselling authors, and I was introduced to concepts of gender and sexuality that now dominate the mainstream cultural conversation. I would come home from my freshman year of high school, feeling newly isolated and ugly and weird, and log on to spend hours with the people who got it.

Back in February of this year, at the tail-end of the Before Times, I wrote an article for Fansplaining about Tumblr that I’m still really proud of. I touched on a lot of stuff I still really stand by, regarding Tumblr's unacknowledged but ongoing vital role in the content ecosystem of the internet; the unique affordances of Tumblr that makes it still the best place for artists, creatives, and people who disdain the profit- and number-obsessed aspects of other platforms; and the potential for Tumblr to remain a living and active community in amidst the chaos of the 2020s internet. 

The article really resonated, which was gratifying. People massively responded to one of the article's excerpts that Fansplaining posted on their own Tumblr: it's racked up over 65,000 notes since it was posted.

"But [Tumblr’s] value, of course, is more than just what it isn’t, and what it points away from. Despite all the drama and discourse lurking in its corners, it’s easy to make your own Tumblr life as simple and as happy as you want it to be. There are no algorithmic threats lurking around every corner, no onslaught of promoted posts from politicians or influencers. More than anything else, Tumblr in 2020 is a self-sustaining ecosystem. It’s a semi-sealed and increasingly fertile terrarium, a nigh-impossible perpetual-motion machine of a platform going productively psychotic in its isolation.

Clearly since that article was published, a LOT has happened! Tumblr felt the effects right away: people who were already active users began leaning more heavily on the site during the troubling times of quarantine. And there was a steady trickle of returning users, though it was still a bit of a hard sell. 

But in my corner of the site (mostly fandom-focused, porn-indifferent queer twentysomethings), the real upheaval came not with the beginning of the pandemic, or even the long hot middle, but with the Supernatural finale insanity, beginning with the first Destiel canonization on November 5 and continuing between then and the finale, and now beyond it. College graduates who thought their fandom days were behind them are, as a collective, rediscovering the joy of earnest, sincere shitposting (and combining it with unironic academic analysis). The speed at which this relatively new niche community identity has coalesced is astonishing, leading to posts like:

i keep catching myself thinking about all the big brains here dedicating hours to the critical analysis of a text never meant for that, and I wonder perhaps what could be made better if we put our thought towards something else, more meaningful, more important, more productive - but i dont know. theres something important about this, too, that its not productive. its for fun. Its engaging, it fosters discussion and analysis and connections that have real meaning, and theres a reason passionate people are drawn to it. its a perfectly acceptable intellectually stimulating hobby built on a passion for creation and understanding and im willing to defend it as that honestly 

It's been interesting to see all the communal self-reflection going on throughout this year, in which long-time users are growing more and more grateful for the changes to Tumblr's userbase and the simultaneous comparative stability of the platform itself. 

Currently over on TikTok, the #Tumblr2014 hashtag is blowing up, with thousands of videos romanticizing the mid-decade Tumblr culture that was the petri dish of my current adult personality. Young Zoomers are wishing they could have been a part of it, and cuspers/young millennials are reminiscing and saying they might go back to the site.

I've seen a lot of responses to this over on Tumblr itself, my favorite being a remark that "seeing this made me feel like i just got a letter informing me of my own death". Another common joke/theory is that all those people who are like "we should go back to Tumblr!" are the ones who, by leaving, made Tumblr the only good place left on the internet, and that absolutely nobody wants them back. 

There has also been a lot of discussion about how far ahead Tumblr has been of every other social network, such as this post which posits that: 

it is so interesting to me the “gen z humour” is obviously sooo influenced by tumblr despite most of gen z probably being too young to have spent much time on tumblr at its peak. like it’s known that 2020 twitter is literally 2015 tumblr but like 2020 tiktok is also 2015 tumblr the world is literally just stuck at 2015 tumblr

Similar observations about the persistence of Tumblr-originating digital behavior patterns are being made on other platforms, such as this classic tweet from over the summer:

you can tell who on twitter used to spend most their times on tumblr because they reply to half their tweets with an afterthought as if they were talking in the tags 

(I was amused that clearly the belief that everybody "used to" spend time on Tumblr is dominant over the fact that many people spent 2020 double-fisting both Tumblr and Twitter, to cope™) 

One of my favorite Substacks is Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day. A few weeks ago he discussed the decay of Twitter, and set out a set of criteria that indicated the decay of a social network, positing that Twitter has existed in a state of atrophy since 2013.

I observed happily that Tumblr pretty much fulfills none of those criteria. To date, it's fairly democratic and not dominated by power users—with a few exceptions, who are pretty easy to ignore. There's an INCREDIBLY strong internal cultural memory—going back a full decade at this point, for the most long term users like me. It even has its own chroniclers, like the hard-working heritageposts. But far from being wholly “a meta discussion of itself,” as Broderick put it, Tumblr users have generally continued their streak of being incredibly creative in every direction, spawning new memes and driving new fandom and innovative aesthetic trends. 

This recent post, with 73k notes, puts forth a pretty succinct thesis that mirrors (probably independently) a lot of the conclusions I circled around in my article: 

THESIS: the real reason that people stay on this hellsite is not “chronological order” or “the drama” or whatever (per se), but is instead linked to how tumblr, unlike most social media, is not optimised to give content as short of a half-life as possible, but instead is optimised to let content continue to cycle for months, years, even decades. this has in turn led to a more consistent centralised site “culture” in which there is more coherent linkage among different areas of the site, thus also explaining why its content permeates so thoroughly throughout the internet.

And it’s true. Being a part of Tumblr in 2020 is the opposite of obligatory. You’re not on there because all your IRL friends are and you want to fit in, like you might have been during “peak Tumblr” in the halcyon days romanticized by the TikTokkers; you’re not on there because it’s a flash point of culture filled with celebrities and journalists and tastemakers who you need to keep up with. You’re probably not even there because you’ve just discovered fandom: these days the kids are going straight to Twitter, Instagram, and Discord for their shipping and kinning and vidding.

No, you’re there simply because you want to be, because you trust it, because it is good. Which is pretty much the most unexpected, unbelievable thing a social network can be in 2020!

I'm about to start my MA in Experimental Humanities at NYU and have vague plans to do my dissertation on the social history of Tumblr, due to the fact that I care A Lot about this stuff, and feel that Tumblr really hasn't gotten its due in tech-industry/digital culture narratives of the last decade. For example, I really enjoyed Joanne McNeil's Lurking, but the fact that Tumblr only got like a page or two worth of coverage rubbed me the wrong way. I am going to try to be the change, in the way that only an idealistic grad student with a niche passion can be.

I’m also going to be relaunching my podcast, which I ran seven episodes of back in spring 2019! The relaunch will take it from a Tumblr-nostalgia-specific podcast to a more general podcast on internet nostalgia/phenomenology through a humorous semi-demi-hemi-academic lens, co-hosted with someone I met on Tumblr when I was 14 blogging about Doctor Who and is now getting her PhD, aka my friend Sam.

So look out for that in the new year, and in the mean time, happy 2021, and happy Tumblring.