A eulogy for Tumblr, the algorithm’s last frontier
Now that Tumblr has become a part of nostalgic pop-culture discussions, who will carry the weight and intimate essence it once had?
No matter how hard I try, I can’t place my first encounter with Tumblr on a specific timeline. From context, I’d say it must have been 2010 or 2011. What is significant is that I’d gravitated to it for the same reason most people did, because I was a lonely teen growing up in a small town, wanting to feel connected to a larger world. I remember reading long lists of anonymous questions, ranging from the desperate to the crude to the strangely technical, all posed to the owner of a soft-core erotica blog who had spoken about being bisexual.
While I was certainly confused – in denial, even – about my own sexuality, I didn’t particularly repress that I was attracted to women too, though I certainly didn’t share it with anyone. Seeing it discussed so nakedly made me feel fascinated and vaguely voyeuristic. After that, I visited that same blog, and several others like it, almost compulsively. Some for the mere aesthetic element, some to read long threads of oral history on music or movies I liked, and some for the generous glimpse they offered into the private life of its owner. Whether it was teenage anxieties or honest discussions of eating disorders, it was always there for me to read.
When I eventually got a Tumblr of my own, I admit I didn’t have loads of followers, and even less that I knew in real life, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to be in the center of the community to feel part of it. It was enough to know it was out there.
The rise and fall of Tumblr
David Karp launched Tumblr in 2007 from his bedroom in his mother’s house––a funny parallel to how many star Tumblrs grew their audience later on. The platform was based on the tumblelog microblogging system, a technology Karp did not invent, but successfully harvested at a time when the initial craze over longer-form text-based blogging platforms, like Blogspot and WordPress, began to fade.
At the very least, many bloggers looked to supplement their main platform with a predominantly visual form of social media. It’s not hard to see how Tumblr led to the image-based revolution that Instagram stepped seamlessly into in 2010. Not to mention, the interface shared several similarities; new posts showed up on a ‘dashboard’ or appeared curated on the bloggers’ individual page.
There was always one crucial difference: Tumblr was never algorithmic. On the dashboard, posts were chronological, and there was no search function or explore page optimized to your preferences. Bloggers weren’t prioritized based on who you engaged with the most. While there was certainly algorithmic thinking (you followed blogs you liked who followed blogs they liked), there was more opportunity to spontaneously build up taste, without readymade content reminding you of what you should be interested in.
Regardless of the gender of its users, which are more or less equally divided, it’s always seemed to me that there was something essentially feminine about Tumblr. Gender and media scholar, Akane Kanai suggests that Tumblr was instrumental in ushering in a new era she calls post-feminism, where femininity can be presented through a set of style or aesthetic choices to an intimate audience.
In a sense, Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint aligns with Kanai’s thoughts, since it focuses on how women, as an oppressed class, have had to artificially create a ‘theatrical space’ where public discourse could happen.
This seems to resonate effortlessly with Tumblr’s entire essence, in that it relates to the act of self-curation, of presenting one’s identity through carefully selected snapshots of culture. The question/answer function, as well as the thread of ideas that emerged from the reblogging format, created the kind of new discursive space that Berlant mentions, which, despite being as vast as the internet, felt intimate, personal, and feminine.
Tumblr was also sexier, and always without the ridiculous beauty standards of today. On there, nudes, fantasies and NSFW fan-fiction circulated with the ease of a chat room, except better curated. Yes, Instagram can sometimes genuinely produce productive conversations about consent and sexualities, all of which are necessary and good. However, there’s less room for desire.
The suggestion of sex was everywhere, but none of the excitement or passion. Having trespassed that, as a teenager, gave me my earliest ideas that I might find exciting something other than what the mainstream media had to offer.
Is there hope for authentic social media platforms, like Instagram?
Instagram is business-like in a way that, even despite the occasional presence of ads on blogs with a truly large following, was absent from Tumblr. I don’t think that Instagram is inherently evil, and my reasons for having one aren’t morally superior to anyone else’s: I enjoy feeling hot and interesting and in the right lighting I seem conventionally attractive. Not having one would make me feel like I might be missing out, and perhaps more specifically to being a femme, presenting my professional achievements alongside my aesthetics holds the promise of legitimacy, approval, and success.
The supposed big divide between Millennials and Gen Z is a digital nativity, the absence of familiarity with a time before the internet. To an extent, this is true: my age group or arguably, a certain class of my age group is the last one who will remember not having access to a computer, even if faintly. But I think what actually sets the new generation apart is an inherent business acumen, acquired as a necessity of having been born into a sense of impending doom.
While the older millennials were left disoriented by the recession and the younger ones are just now braving the resultant gig economy and increasingly inhumane working conditions, today’s teens never knew a world that wasn’t at least a little bit awful. They bring to social media an energy for survival and a greater good and turning pain into something productive or at least, lucrative that, I’ll be the first to admit, did not come naturally to Tumblr.
I don’t know that Tumblr was a better place to grow up on. Although it encouraged communication, there was also plenty of ire and anonymous hate. Still, it was more honest and more curated, without the burden of having to seem spontaneously clever or attractive from all angles. A feat that seems impossible to recreate, though perhaps, the internet will surprise us yet.