Tumblr has been transformative in the way that it has changed how users interact with each other, and how they form communities on the basis of intersections of identity, as well as on the basis of politics and often niche interests. The heyday of Tumblr fostered all of these sentiments, and affected internet culture as a whole, but this sense of community has been somewhat dampened throughout the years as the merry-go-round of corporate owners of Tumblr have changed, each enacting its own take on what the website should be, often ignoring or failing to demonstrate an adequate understanding of what the users desire. This piece will take a deeper look into Tumblr’s transformative impact on social, political and cultural spheres by means of its influence online, and analyse how its changing owners have impacted Tumblr’s business models and thus altered how users interact on the site.
What is Tumblr?
Tumblr is a blogging and social networking website, founded in 2007 by web developer David Karp in 2007. The site allows users to post multimedia and text content to their own micro-blogs by means of uploading original content, or ‘reblogging’ (reposting) others’ content. It also allows users to design the ‘theme’ of their blog by entering their own HTML coding. Unlike other popular social media sites, Tumblr doesn’t require users to provide any personal details about themselves on their profile, or link it to their real-life identities at all.
The site gained immense popularity around 2012, becoming known for being home to ‘fandoms’ – this was due, in part, to the 2008 corporate acquisition of popular platform ‘LiveJournal’, which was a blogging site that had mainly been home to fandoms, with a focus on its hosting of fan-fiction. The changes to the terms of service that were implemented to LiveJournal led to many fan blogs being deleted under the false basis of them being host to child pornography. This, combined with the attempts by a company called FanLib to corporatize the distribution of fan-fiction online led to what Lori Morimoto and Louisa Ellen Stein describe as “an attack on fan fiction writers’ autonomy, […] leaving a void that Tumblr managed to fill. Together with the rise of new fandoms and a younger generation of fans who engaged comfortably with social media, Tumblr eventually supplanted LiveJournal as the key hub of multimedia online fandom activity” (Morimoto & Stein, 2018).
A rise in Tumblr’s users can also be largely attributed to the fact that most users on the site were able to maintain anonymity, and could choose to be characterized as they please, making the site more accessible to queer communities, people of color, sex workers, kink communities, etc.
The Tumblr Effect
Tumblr is known for being home to the so-called weirdos of the internet, with its offbeat humour setting the tone for internet culture for a strong couple of years during its prime, with its viral text posts and fan-made fig content going consistently viral across most large social media platforms. Despite this, Tumblr itself remained a popular underdog rather than in the mainstream of social media platforms. It’s no secret that Tumblr’s success is owed to its avid subsets of communities; on Tumblr, there is a space for everyone to connect with like-minded individuals on the bases of sometimes the most outlandish interests. From blogs about taxidermy, to blogs about BDSM, kink and role-play, to blogs about Johnlock (the fictional romantical relationship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson), Tumblr promises to be host to a community of people with the nichest of interests.
Stemming from this understanding, of Tumblr as fundamentally serving as a platform to bring together people based on their nichest interests, it is evident that the site is not just for memes and gifs. The anonymity affords individuals the ability to rebrand and reinvent themselves as they please, and this curation of self on Tumblr adds a new layer to the way that individuals are able to express themselves and relate to one another’s lived experiences of pain and suffering, and are able to articulate and share their own narratives, exactly as they please. This is especially true of those on the intersections of society – queer, trans, ethnic, disabled and generally diaspori
c communities have always traditionally utilized forms of cultural productions that are on the periphery of society in order to break their isolation and establish their own communities, and Tumblr served that function extremely well. As academics Marty Fink and Quinn Miller put it, Tumblr was “at the intersection of postmodern art practice, sexual politics, and queer subjectivities” (Fink & Miller, 2014).
Focusing specifically on LGBTQI+ communities on Tumblr, when you begin to analyse the spaces that have been created by these individuals, it becomes clear that the digital forum that is created on the platform is one that transcends any kinetic or spatial boundaries and creates a layer of information and cultural understanding on top of the regular, offline world, specifically for queer individuals – a sense of togetherness, understanding and shared pain and knowledge that is unable to be executed organically in the ‘real world’. The often-fragmented self-expression, the reappropriation by queer individuals of popular meme formats and other cultural artefacts to express themselves and the stories unique to them in a subversive, self-referential and provocative manner; these are all common practices on Tumblr that have revolutionised the way that politics, and culture are views and discussed in relation to queer individuals (Seko & Lewis, 2018). Tumblr, at its peak, had endless queer world-making potential.
Acquisitions and Re-Acquisitions
Tumblr has had a somewhat tumultuous history with its continual change in ownership, and the different changes that the owners have enacted under their acquisition of the platform.
As its popularity steadily grew, Tumblr’s value seemed to be recognized, and the site was bought by Yahoo in 2013 for $1.1 billion, as part of an endeavour by then-CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer to increase Yahoo’s audience, by means of introducing advertising on Tumblr. While little changed under Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr, with Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp remaining at the head of the company, the users of Tumblr had a largely suspicious reaction to the news.
In 2017, Yahoo was acquired by Verizon, leading to its absorption of ownership of Tumblr. In late 2018, Verizon’s executives made the controversial decision to ban all visual NSFW content on the platform as a response to claims of the platform being used for predatory behaviour, facing huge backlash from the users of the site who argued that Tumblr’s allowing of pornographic images and nudity made for a more sex-positive space that was inclusive of all body types and of queer and trans individuals alike, in a way mainstream pornographic websites never could be. By March 2019, Tumblr’s web traffic had dropped by almost 30%, with many users citing that they had previously largely only used the platform to browse NSFW content. In discussing the Tumblr porn ban, it’s important to understand that not all NSFW content is created equal; as – Katrin Tiidenberg explains, selfies or any projections of expression of self, including nude or sexual ones, serve as enactments of self and are “therapeutic, self-revelatory, and indicators of belonging or status” (Tiidenberg, 2016). The banning of NSFW content is not so much what users took offense to, but it’s the censoring of the intimate ways in which intersectional identities were able to be expressed through such content on Tumblr; it played a hugely important part in shaping political discourse around bodies, especially queer, trans, plus-sized, disabled and diasporic bodies.
Most recently, in late 2019, Verizon sold Tumblr to Automattic, a company best known for running popular blogging site WordPress, for estimates of under $3 million, quite the fall from 2013’s $1.1 billion. Automattic’s chief executive, Matt Mullenweg, has confirmed that he has no plans to reverse Verizon’s previously imposed Tumblr porn ban, much to the dismay of many users.
And so it goes…
Tumblr, at its best, was a haven for political discussion, niche interests and quirky humour, and at the core of those things were the identities of the individuals spearheading communities on the platform and paving the way for the future of the site. Tumblr has been largely transformative in the way that communities on the cusps of intersetcions and on the basis of intersts were able to create spaces for themselves, and create and actively engage in subcultures out of pure enthusiasm. It’s difficult to see pure, raw intention motivating the online behaviours of users on any other social media sites that rival those held by Tumblr users.
However, it’s clear to see that Tumblr’s continual passing off between corporate overlords who lack understanding of the platform and who are simply looking to profit from what presents as a ‘young and trendy’ space has led to Tumblr’s model continuing to stray further from the very ideals that its users value the platform for – its openness and accessibility to users who are otherwise marginalised on the internet. Without a fundamental understanding and connection to these ideals, the unique energy of Tumblr and its users cannot truly ever be harnessed.
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