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What Tumblr Is Like, From Someone Who Never Left

Something something shoelaces.

Poor Hayao Miyazaki. He's had enough.

If you’re online these days, you’re probably more than aware (maybe more aware than you’d like to be) of Elon Musk’s rampant incompetence as Twitter’s new head honcho. Stinky musk boy is stinking up the joint with his weird initiatives that don’t seem to be serving anyone, not even himself. And therefore, it’s understandable that some of the billions of users that call Twitter home might be looking for a new migrational nest.

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A lot of these people are, understandably, looking to Tumblr. Maybe they left after their teenybopper blogging years, or maybe they left after the porn ban. Maybe they’ve seen pukicho’s unhinged posts reposted on various corners of the internet but never thought to get an account of their own, until now. Either way, Tumblr’s format isn’t all that different from Twitter’s, albeit on a more private and heavily-personalized scale.

It’s this element of privateness that drew me to Tumblr in the first place—and, consequently, kept me there. Tumblr was busy enough that I got good feedback on world news, and lax enough that I had a large degree of control over what I got to see. It’s never been an especially well-run website, not because its staff are as incompetent as Musk, but because they’ve historically been too incompetent to sell the website out to major buyers. Although part of that is due to Tumblr’s own “culture,” wherein it’s very difficult to get most Tumblr users to ride your dick like some Twitter users will ride Elon’s.

If anything, people on Tumblr will do anything within their power to undermine any sort of authority the site tries to instill, and at this point, I think the staff have taken the hint and run. Take, for instance, the “John Green incident.” This actually predated me, but essentially, the guy got bullied off the website due to a function at the time that allowed users to edit other users’ posts. An attempt to dissuade some pretty foul rumors got edited to make it sound like he … ahem … well, you can read about it here. Call it cruel, call it funny, call it calculated–either way, people on the site still bring it up any time there seems to be an infiltration of mainstream social media trends, like bringing in celebrities for PR stunts or trying to apply new, disagreeable website functions.

And that’s Tumblr for ya. But despite how vicious that may sound, it actually runs pretty smoothly if you know how to navigate it. If every social media app was like a boat, then Tumblr would be the rickety dinghy that’ll get you there quick, doesn’t cost a dime, and is full of rum. It’s reliable, it’s fun, yet it can get dicey if you run into uncharted waters.

Still with me? Let’s do a play-by-play and break down what this site is all about.

Fandom Culture

Turning Red/Kingdom Hearts

You might know Tumblr for its origins in fandom, and all the different ways one can engage in fandom through it. I’ve never been deep in any fandom scene, I mostly just peeped around to look at fanart and read hot takes when I was bored, but in any case, I always knew that Tumblr was the place to be for that.

Everyone I know had a Tumblr for fandom shit at some point. From the most obvious Steven Universe fans to the buttoned-up poli-sci grad students, they all had a Tumblr for something. Even I, with my niche music fixations in high school, had Tumblr avenues through which to enjoy them. (You would not believe the amount of Brazilian teenagers who kept Britpop alive through gifs and old press pics during the mid-2010s. )

But that’s the past, and a lot has changed since then. If you’re wondering, Damn, is Tumblr still cringey and annoying about fandom? Is SuperWhoLock still a thing? Will I see Onceler fanart again??? The answer is yes, and no, with more emphasis on No than Yes.

Back in the day, fandom was pervasive to the umpteenth degree. You couldn’t swing a virtual cat without hitting Supernatural discourse. And the level of discourse was vapid at best, and utterly vicious at worst. But these days, you can easily avoid it if that’s not your thing.

I mostly follow blogs that share insightful takes about modern life and fun, home-brewed memes about this or that. Since Tumblr is, again, a somewhat private platform, I won’t share too many names, although I think a good place to start would be Ena Da’s blog, @mens-rights-activia. Ena has a really fun social media presence all across the board and is always shouting out her Tumblr anyways. But even the art blogs I follow for fanart are pretty mellow and sweet, and if they start to annoy me, I can just unfollow and never hear about any of it again.

The kicker, though, is that some fan spaces are mellower than others. I remember making a harmless post about the Life is Strange franchise that blew up, with people making all kinds of misinformed takes about my intentions and what sort of person I was. The take, for reference, was, I like this character and think they deserve more attention. This was in 2018, and I have since learned that I’m way more comfortable staying in my lane than engaging the fandom public.

And even then, I think I got off easy. Some fandoms get incredibly nasty with how they engage with one another. Tumblr is, by and large, a place for left-leaning people to share their ideas, and this can manifest in odd ways. For instance, the Dragon Age fandom is something I’ve always been leery of, despite loving the franchise to death, because the Tumblr fans are really intense. Dragon Age has always been a series with heavy political undertones, and I think people took things to heart in ways that are both interesting and enlightening, and at times toxic. (Ugh, I know, I hate that word too, but I think it’s warranted when people start getting death threats about having “wrong takes” on elven culture.)

So if you’re big on fandom and want to explore that via Tumblr, I think a bit of caution is merited. If you’re like me and you just like to lurk, then you don’t have much to worry about, just know it’s totally okay to block and unfollow if things get weird. But if you like to actively engage with others … I’d probably take a day or two to really get to know who you’re dealing with before diving in completely.

The “Tumblr Girl” Phenomenon—Is she still here?

VEVO image for Tumblr Girls music video

If you don’t recognize this image, it’s from G-Eazy’s music video for his song “Tumblr Girls,” where he basically describes the sort of Ramona Flowers-type girl who smokes and has a tiny waist and is, you know, an art ho. The sorts of girls he claims are just like any other, but will leave you high and dry. I’ve never listened to this song and I just looked at the lyrics, so, you know, no harm no foul here.

It’s so funny to look at this 2014 song and remember that, yeah, Tumblr Girls were a thing. I was in my early-mid-teens when I started using Tumblr, and I was pretty geeky back then, so I mostly used it for fan stuff and for learning about gender, sexuality, and political leanings that better suited me. It blew my mind when me and a classmate exchanged Tumblrs, and all of a sudden, my feed was a bunch of poems, quotes, images of girls smoking cigarettes, odes to s*lf-harm, Lana Del Rey lyrics, and on and on and on. It wasn’t exactly healthy, presenting this romanticized image of girls who glamorized misery in all its forms.

When talking about it with our Books Editor, Alyssa Shotwell, it came to my attention that things are coming full circle: Now the TikTok Teens are romanticizing the Tumblr Girl. And I hate to sound like a stuffy old coot at the ripe age of 24, but I’m already concerned enough for the youth as it is. They don’t need to now be inundated with reasons why eating disorders are cool actually, and why it’s actually really dope to show off your scars. See below:

Some part of my brain must have blocked out how prevalent this mentality was “back in my day,” because watching this video reminded me that it was pretty normal, due to the Tumblr Girl mentality, to romanticize harmful lifestyles and decisions. And sure, it wasn’t limited to Tumblr itself, but it was easy to trace a lot of this kind of thinking to usage on Tumblr. It was weird. Your problems didn’t exist if you didn’t wear heavy makeup, had a tiny waist, or smoked cigarettes. It’s like your problems couldn’t be valid if they weren’t somehow performative. Whack.

Ultimately, though, in my experience, Miss Tumblr Girl hasn’t come back—to Tumblr, at least. I mostly see commentary on how this movement was harmful, more than anyone trying to bring it back. But then again, I interact exclusively with people in their twenties and older. Also, I’m not on TikTok. So if you’re reading this and concerned, but in my age demographic, I wouldn’t worry.

But if you’re still a teenager, then I’d exercise caution with how you engage with this type of media. It might still be out there on Teen Tumblr. To be very, very clear: Harming yourself is neither cool nor the only way to vocalize your unhappiness. There are better ways to relieve your pain, and you have nothing to prove to anyone.

“bUT WhAt AboUt tHe sjWs?!?!”

schitts creek crying

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Yeah Tumblr is a majority left-leaning site, as I mentioned. If you’re still a reddity anti-SJW dork, then I dunno what to tell you.

I’d give the site a more definitive label, but there’s actually a wide array of discussion going on all across the board. Depending on who you find yourself surrounded by, you can get some really insightful and well-rounded takes. I really enjoyed this post, for instance:

That said, I might have just lucked out over the years, because things can sometimes get pretty heated. During the 2020 election, for instance, there was a lot of discourse regarding whether or not it’s ethical to vote. You know that old adage, that nobody hates leftists more than other leftists? This was a peak example of that. You had people really going after each other, everyone coming out of the woodwork, eco-anarchists versus social-democrats, commies versus liberals, commies versus commies—you name it, there was a fight to be had. And while that was on a macro-scale, sometimes the leftie infighting can really get vile on Tumblr, although for the most part things are fairly calm. At least compared to Twitter.

Of course, there is a small pocket of those who fall either centrist or right-of-center, but you have to seek them out, and, you know, being a writer at TMS, I don’t recommend it. You can just stay on Twitter if that’s what you’re into. As it is, those types of people end up being into really weird sex things when you click on their blogs. It’s almost funny: you’ll read the most vile take you’ve read in the past month, then when you go to see who the hell this freak thinks they are, your eyes are assaulted with anime porn. It’s a comedy that writes itself.

What’s not so funny is when Tumblr gets weird about gender. On the one hand, you have the TERFS. There’s quite a lot of them, and they sneak up on ya. You’ll think you’re reading a well-articulated take on the modern woman’s relationship to gender performance, and then you’ll go to their page and realize they’re as terfy as it gets. It’s unfortunate that there’s so many of them still on the site, and it’s my hope that staff starts taking more serious action against this sort of hate-speech.

On the other hand, you have this kind of bullshit:

So, yeah. Again, you’ll have to really dig to find some of the weirder sides of the site, but they are out there. And boy, are they out there.

The Infamous Porn Ban

(image: Illumination Entertainment)

I think a good place to end the more discussion-heavy parts of this article is in regard to the porn. Because yeah, Tumblr used to be pretty active with its porn. Ultimately what caused the ban was the fact that the Tumblr app got removed from various app stores due to its adult content, and so, to preserve the site, the staff couldn’t think of a better way forward than to just ban all porn altogether.

The results were … not entirely successful. Yes, some of the bigger names in adult content on the site disappeared, although bot accounts that just spammed porn ran rampant (and still do, albeit to a lesser degree). Meanwhile, creators of NSFW art had to find new places to post their art, because even a 2D booby is still a booby, I guess.

What was really frustrating for creators was the fact that the AI who banned art and creators would sometimes really miss the mark. I happen to love the ocean, so I followed some ocean-oriented blogs, and one of my favorite pieces of art from that “scene” was a poster of different whale species.

That poster got flagged, too. Like, uh. I guess whales look like penises, from a certain angle? I guess? I dunno, they just lifted the nudity ban so we’ll see what happens.

Our own Ana Valens, who is a prolific writer on topics regarding sex-positivity, had this to say about the changes that followed the ban:

I was pleasantly surprised to find Tumblr had not died despite the NSFW ban. The site found a way forward, and I officially started posting again last week. Overall, my experience with Tumblr right now is that it’s certainly not the same platform as it was in 2018 prior to the porn ban. The site has adapted to the new rules and found a way to move on. It still has a sizable audience for a lot of niches—especially fandom, queer art and identities, and the occult, just to name a few—but it’s not the dominant cultural force that it once was circa 2012 – 2016. There is still kinky and adult-oriented content, it’s just less sexually explicit, less obvious in its horny intentions. Overall: It’s a quieter place while still being busy

And I find this to be a perfect summary of the current state of the site. In a way, the porn ban really did incite a catalyst of change within Tumblr’s overall culture. It’s less a heavily-charged platform, like Twitter is, and more of a place where people just kinda … exist. Ana also wrote a book on the subject, titled Tumblr Porn (Remember The Internet, Vol. 1), if you’re interested in further reading.

Our Overall Opinions

Fellow TMS writer Desiré Medlen put it best: This is our hellsite, and unlike other social media sites where you feel pressured to present an untrue image of oneself, Tumblr really allows you to be whoever you are. It’s pretty much designed for that kind of engagement.

And that’s why we still use it, more than a decade after initially joining. Sure, it may take some time to get the hang of, but compared to the other hyper-monitored and curated apps out there, I’d rather take my dinghy out to sea than anything else. And if that sounds good to you, too, there’s no harm in at least giving it a shot.

I’ll end this article on some posts that I liked recently, just to give you a taste on what your feed could look like.

(Featured Image: NHK World)

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Madeline Carpou
Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).

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