SOCIETY

Tumblr’s enduring appeal reveals the potency of the web’s cultural memory

by Jeanna Sybert

27/07/2022

When tech bil­lion­aire Elon Musk made a deal to acquire Twit­ter in April 2022, many Twit­ter users threat­ened to shut down their accounts and migrate else­where online.

Tum­blr – a microblog­ging plat­form launched in 2007 long known as a lab­o­ra­to­ry for social jus­tice caus­es and bur­geon­ing fan cul­tures – became one contender.

How­ev­er, many Twit­ter users propos­ing a migra­tion to Tum­blr seemed to be those who had aban­doned the site only a few years pri­or.

In 2018, Tum­blr con­tent deemed sex­u­al­ly explic­it – or NSFW – was banned. The con­tro­ver­sial pol­i­cy led to a mass exo­dus from the site, the so-called Tum­blr apoc­a­lypse.

Both as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion researcher and ear­ly era user of Tum­blr, I’ve con­tem­plat­ed the site’s unique place in inter­net cul­ture. And in the years fol­low­ing the NSFW ban, I’ve seen many try to make sense of Tum­blr as a plat­form on the cusp of a come­back or a ves­tige of a bygone era.

And yet, long over­shad­owed by social media plat­forms like Face­book and Snapchat, Tum­blr con­tin­ues to resist easy answers to what it is and could be.

From ‘blue hellsite’ to hell in a handbasket

Since its incep­tion, Tum­blr has served as a coun­ter­cul­tur­al hub for women, queer folks, young peo­ple and mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. At the same time, it has long dealt with issues such as recur­rent bugs and func­tion­al­i­ty prob­lems, bul­ly­inghate speech and the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of self-harm, lead­ing some users to term it the “blue hellsite.”

In spite of that, Tum­blr remains a home to art, fan­dom, memes and social cri­tique. This is part­ly due to the flex­i­bil­i­ty of the main user inter­faces. Both the indi­vid­u­al­ized blogs and real-time feeds dis­play an array of orig­i­nal and re-blogged media, rang­ing from writ­ten posts to videos. In allot­ting greater con­trol over how users pre­sent­ed them­selves online – through, for exam­ple, pseu­do­nymi­ty and relaxed con­tent mod­er­a­tion – Tum­blr stood out as a bas­tion for cre­ative expres­sion.

This approach con­tributed to its explo­sive growth, which crest­ed in 2013 and 2014 when Tum­blr claimed users spent more time on the site than Face­book and Twit­ter.

Such open­ness also facil­i­tat­ed the rise in NSFW con­tent that became a core part of Tumblr’s iden­ti­ty. For the user base, access to queer, fem­i­nist and alter­na­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions of sex and sex­u­al­i­ty was mean­ing­ful, lead­ing to self-explo­ration and com­mu­ni­ty build­ing for vul­ner­a­ble groups such as LGBTQ+ youth. And for those who pro­duced their own NSFW con­tent, Tumblr’s lenien­cy meant income.

The embrace of NSFW con­tent – a rar­i­ty for social media plat­forms  – was even endorsed by its founder David Karp, who once char­ac­ter­ized Tum­blr as “an excel­lent plat­form for porn.”

In 2013, after Yahoo acquired Tum­blr, there was con­cern that the plat­form would tight­en its con­tent poli­cies. How­ev­er, Yahoo CEO Maris­sa May­er promised Tum­blr users that lit­tle would change.

Events that fol­lowed, how­ev­er, would trans­form Tumblr.

First, in 2017, Ver­i­zon Com­mu­ni­ca­tions bought Yahoo. Lat­er that year, Karp left the com­pa­ny. Then, in ear­ly 2018, a fed­er­al law called FOSTA-SESTA passed, which made web­site oper­a­tors like Ver­i­zon liable for sex traf­fick­ing or sex work car­ried out on their plat­forms. That Novem­ber, Apple Store removed the Tum­blr app after child sex­u­al abuse mate­r­i­al was found on the site. Weeks lat­er, Tum­blr announced a ban on NSFW con­tent that went into effect on Dec. 17, 2018.

But that same month, Vox report­ed that the NSFW ban was under­way well before the Apple Store con­tro­ver­sy. The objec­tive: to sell more ads.

Tumblr’s var­i­ous par­ent com­pa­nies have long tried to mon­e­tize a plat­form his­tor­i­cal­ly resis­tant to tra­di­tion­al adver­tis­ing. The ban became a way to attract com­pa­nies hes­i­tant to adver­tise along­side pornography.

This move was trans­par­ent to many Tum­blr users, who claimed that Ver­i­zon was repack­ag­ing its prof­it motive as a cru­sade to pro­tect children.

I’ve researched how, in response to the NSFW ban, pock­ets of resis­tance emerged, rang­ing from boy­cotts and peti­tions to scathing cri­tiques and memes. The pol­i­cy, at its core, was a bat­tle­ground for a deep­er pow­er strug­gle between plat­form own­ers and users.

The dis­con­nect between how the two sides envi­sioned the plat­form end­ed up being mutu­al­ly destruc­tive. While Tumblr’s user cul­ture was irrepara­bly dam­aged, its cor­po­rate side also suf­fered, expe­ri­enc­ing mas­sive drops in site traf­fic. In 2019, Ver­i­zon sold Tum­blr to Word­Press’ own­er, Auto­mat­ic, for US$3 mil­lion – a frac­tion of the $1.1 bil­lion Yahoo had paid for it.

The end or a new beginning?

While clash­es over site pol­i­cy per­sist to this day, I’ve start­ed to see talk about Tumblr’s pos­si­ble resurgence.

Even before Musk’s Twit­ter announce­ment, the plat­form seemed to be mak­ing strides in regain­ing pub­lic inter­est and relevancy.

There’s been the hype around the Drac­u­la Dai­ly newslet­ter, which per­co­lat­ed on Tum­blr in May 2022. Fan cul­tures for new­er shows like “Eupho­ria” and “Suc­ces­sion” have also flour­ished on the site. And in meme cul­ture, “Tum­blr humor” – typ­i­fied by a dry, absur­dist and self-dep­re­ca­to­ry wit – con­tin­ues to cir­cu­late wide­ly online.

But Tumblr’s “res­ur­rec­tion” seems to rely pri­mar­i­ly on a youth cul­ture in the grips of nos­tal­gia for the ear­ly 2010s. What has been termed Tum­blr­core – a 2010s sub­cul­ture with a par­tic­u­lar media taste, inter­net expe­ri­ence and soft grunge style – is a recent addi­tion to the trend. Its renewed pop­u­lar­i­ty was affirmed ear­li­er this year with Vogue’s cov­er­age of the “2014 Tum­blr Girl aesthetic.”

Tum­blr, then, like the defunct video shar­ing plat­form Vine, has become a touch­point for young peo­ple  who grew up on the inter­net and have emo­tion­al ties to its cul­tur­al his­to­ry. As com­pa­nies like Face­book strug­gle with the Gen Z demo­graph­ic, Tum­blr has, for some of them, emerged as an attrac­tive “vin­tage” alter­na­tive – com­pa­ra­ble to the return of dis­pos­able cam­eras among young people.

The TikTok roadblock

But along­side these glim­mers of regen­er­a­tion, Tum­blr faces two key obstacles.

The first is the ascent of Tik­Tok. Though also pro­hibit­ing NSFW con­tent, Tik­Tok has import­ed many of Tumblr’s cul­tur­al fea­tures – from dis­cours­es around sex­u­al­i­ty and social jus­tice to the pro­mo­tion of pro-anorex­ia con­tent and bul­ly­ing. With Tik­Tok as the beat­ing heart of online youth cul­ture, Tum­blr is pushed fur­ther to its edges.

The sec­ond is Tum­blr itself. While fight­ing to increase site traf­fic and earn ad rev­enue with­out dri­ving users away, the NSFW ban, like a venge­ful spir­it, con­tin­ues to haunt Tum­blr. One need only look at respons­es to Tumblr’s tweets in the wake of Musk’s acqui­si­tion announce­ment. Rep­re­sent­ing the loss of once-prized com­mu­ni­ty val­ues, the ban, for many, became an emblem of the bro­ken social con­tract between users and ownership.

And so con­tra­dic­to­ry forces shape Tumblr’s stand­ing. On the one hand, the mem­o­ry of Tum­blr keeps it alive in pop­u­lar cul­ture. At the same time, the under­bel­ly of this mem­o­ry – the part con­sumed by unre­solved wrongs and resent­ments – seems to stop short any growth that could lead to a true renaissance.

Beyond platform ‘life’ and ‘death’

The pecu­liar case of Tum­blr shows how clas­si­fy­ing plat­forms as dead, dying or alive can be lim­it­ing. Such a frame often oper­ates accord­ing to a cap­i­tal­ist log­ic in which “growth” means life and “stag­na­tion” sig­nals death.

Dwelling some­where in between surge and sta­sis, Tum­blr serves as a reminder that plat­forms are not just prof­it-dri­ven busi­ness­es but gath­er­ing places with rhythms and cycles of their own. They are also cul­tur­al arti­facts that, in mov­ing through the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion, take on dif­fer­ent shapes and functions.

Atten­tion to the in-between reveals a more com­plex rela­tion­ship between users, plat­forms and own­ers. It is here the savvi­ness of social media users is on dis­play. Though plat­form own­ers wield uni­lat­er­al pow­er and con­trol, users are increas­ing­ly equipped with an arse­nal of resis­tance tac­tics, includ­ing exo­dus or migra­tion. The rise of this unteth­ered user – one who takes a nomadic approach to dig­i­tal life – may pose an unex­pect­ed threat to dig­i­tal intermediaries.

Tum­blr is a case in point. And yet, in its new phase of exis­tence, it remains a vibrant space for com­mu­ni­ca­tion, cul­ture and laughs. Its home at the mar­gins should instead push us to imag­ine an inter­net free from the belief that big­ger is always better.


COVER PHOTO BY IVAN ARENA.

Jeanna Sybert, Ph.D. Candidate in Communication, University of Pennsylvania
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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