The Rise And Fall Of Tumblr

For better or for worse, Tumblr played an integral part in shaping millennial and Gen Z internet culture. Hipsters and rabid fans converged on one highly-inclusive, identity-driven micro-blogging platform. In recent years, however, Tumblr has been suffering through a long, painful flop era.

By Andrea Mew7 min read
Pexels/Vlada Karpovich

Like many others in the millennial-to-Gen-Z category, certain online communities helped shape my adolescent identity. Some pre-teens racked up hours on Poptropica, adopted scene girl personas on MySpace, or got an early start on Instagram, but I was a bonafide “Tumblrina.” 

While many users loved the microblogging website for simply collecting aesthetically-pleasing images, I was part of the cohort that clung to communities known as fandoms for both mainstream and niche shows, books, games, and music. The culture on Tumblr was largely painted by the latter. 

Whereas 4chan felt more like a space for right-of-center men, Tumblr was a safe haven for liberal, feminist women. Both communities seethed at the thought of one another. Both have fundamentally altered the course of modern politics. But only one is unquestionably to blame for the bewildering normalization of Marxist ideology that’s ravaging all mainstream institutions. Here’s how Tumblr rose to notoriety, reprogrammed the minds of many, and then took us all with it in its downfall.

Tumblr Redefined “Creative Expression”

Microblogging website Tumblr was founded in 2007 by David Karp. A software consultant, Karp took the concept of long-form blogging that had been popularized on websites like WordPress or Blogger and gave internet users a platform with a bit more brevity. Tumblr offered a multimedia experience – users could simply post a photo or video with or without description, post entire paragraphs worth of text, answer questions from their followers, and “reblog” content that piqued their interest while scrolling through their dashboard.

It was highly customizable and, therefore, easily adopted into the lifestyles of any alternative internet community you could think of. Your own blog had customizable HTML themes which users tailored to suit any aesthetic possible. Pop onto someone’s Tumblr blog, and if they had a pastel theme with dainty text, they likely could have been in any number of anime fandoms. Was their blog covered in Benedict Cumberbatch GIFS? They likely could have been part of the infamous SuperWhoLock fandom.

By 2013, Tumblr had drawn in millions of users. Its popularity caught the attention of Yahoo, who then acquired the platform for over $1 billion. Then-CEO Marissa Meyer called the microblogging website “the internet’s fastest-growing media frenzy” during this acquisition, and in the press release on Yahoo’s purchase, they promised they wouldn’t “screw it up.”

But, as time would tell, Yahoo didn’t maintain the website’s unique (and subversive) character. Some believe that Yahoo’s investment in Tumblr was the platform’s first nail in its proverbial coffin. The uber-progressive crusader culture which Tumblr birthed and allowed to fester like an untreated wound may also have contributed to its eventual downfall.

Feverish Fandom Culture Kept Tumblr Afloat

I was a Tumblr girl who actively participated in many different fandoms, from Sherlock to Homestuck to anime to K-Pop and more. It seemed like an entirely innocent act at the time. I liked a piece of media, someone else liked a piece of media, we could gush over the same 2D crushes and incessantly share inside jokes. Fiction was a form of easily-accessible escapism for angsty teenagers, and it came in many flavors. Sherlock, Supernatural, Glee, Harry Potter, One Direction, Homestuck, Welcome to Night Vale, Undertale, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Attack on Titan, Dangan Ronpa, My Little Pony, and Steven Universe were some of the top fandoms for shows, series, and cinema.

Little did I know, Tumblr fandoms would become so prevalent that they have even been the subject of real, scholarly research. Researchers from Canada’s Simon Fraser University described how the typical fandom user’s experience was “‘always-on’ where they participate at nearly any point in the day,” adopting “a unique set of jargon,” and creating a community where users could “strongly unite over something.”

Indeed, Tumblr fan culture standardized some jargon that in hindsight is quite cringe, like calling elevated emotions “feels” or keyboard smashing if your “one true pairing” or “OTP” appeared in a scene together on screen. 

Tumblr also cultivated a sense of community for people to share their love for YouTubers like Pewdiepie or Markiplier, video games like Kingdom Hearts or the Legend of Zelda, or musicians and bands like One Direction, My Chemical Romance, or any number of K-Pop artists.

Reblogging content served as a quick way to spread memes within fandoms, but, from my own observation as a former user in its heyday, fandoms were also very clique-like and exclusive. Despite the platform not being as self-marketable as TikTok or Instagram, users were still always clamoring for clout and eating one another alive. 

In a 2020 book reflecting on fandoms titled A Tumblr Book: Platform and Cultures, one contributor pointed out how subfandoms had a bad habit of dehumanizing behavior. Users would either label critics as the enemy or place people they did like “on shaky pedestals where the threat of being knocked off is ever-present.”

Fan art, fan fiction, and headcanon speculation (meaning imaginative scenarios or relationships for characters) allowed people to fully immerse themselves in fiction. Nowadays, race-swapped or gender-swapped Disney character castings fire up conservative news outlets, but on the early 2010s Tumblr, “racebending” and “genderbending” was commonplace. 

I’d be remiss not to mention how practically every character was re-imagined by Tumblr users to be not heterosexual in some way, shape, or form. Ultimately, creatives wanted to feel a deeper sense of relatability toward their favorite characters, so they took matters into their own hands. Some, like the “social justice warriors,” or “SJWs,” took this immersion to the nth degree. Given many on the platform espoused liberal values, it shouldn’t come as a shock that “LGBT” voices began to flourish and new labels sprung up seemingly out of nowhere.

DashCon 2014

Inevitably, Tumblr fandom culture got so big that it transcended the digital sphere. In 2014, a teenage girl had a vision to create a fan convention competitor to VidCon or Anima Expo DashCon. DashCon 2014 was intended to be the first (unofficial) convention for Tumblr users and mostly catered to Supernatural, Sherlock, and Welcome to Night Vale fans.

DashCon, however, was doomed from its inception and soon became a viral meme. It was the brainchild of a teenager and so unprofessionally planned that many featured panelists and vendors didn’t even show up. It relied on crowdfunding and nearly got shut down by the hotel staff due to missed payments. Con attendees were urged to donate more money to the organizers right then and there to cover the fumbled costs.

All that truly remains from DashCon 2014 are the woefully comical images of its ball pit – a small, blue kiddie pool serving several colorful plastic balls and very few enthusiastic cosplayers. This failed convention served as a testament to how large Tumblr had become while foreshadowing problematic behavior and instability within its community.

Tumblr Became a Perfect Petri Dish for Uber Progressivism

I can still recall a few seminal moments when I first saw concepts emerge that are now commonly clowned-upon by video aggregate accounts like Libs of TikTok. Having grown up left-leaning, I was familiar enough with the idea of “L” and “G” in the infamous acronym, but “T,” “Q,” and everything that came after was uncharted territory for a young, highly impressionable teenage girl like myself.

It came as no surprise to me to see people in the Sherlock fandom “headcannoning” that Sherlock and Dr. Watson were gay lovers. I didn’t even bat an eye at people shipping YouTubers like best friend and roommate duo Danisnotonfire with AmazingPhil – both of whom came out as gay later on. But within anime fandoms, trends emerged where young girls just had so many “feels” for their favorite (and usually feminine or youthfully boyish) male characters that, well, they wanted to be just like them.

Adolescent girls – already self-conscious about their changing bodies – hid their insecurity through short haircuts and “came out” as either “transgender” or “non-binary” online while usually keeping this identity a secret in real life. Now part and parcel of mainstream discourse, teenage boys and girls started using neopronouns like “xe/xim/xir/xirs/xirself” or “fawn/fawns/fawnself.”

Similar or same-age mutuals I had become friends with all placed pronouns in their blog descriptions. They adopted new names and self-diagnosed a variety of mental illnesses, such as having Aspergers or even being a sociopath. One user I knew identified as several arguably psychotic anime characters like Nagito Komaeda from Dangan Ronpa, claimed to have borderline personality disorder (BPD), insisted they were intersex, and obsessed over subversive sexual fetishes like the “vore” kink. 

Concepts that hadn’t quite seen the light of day beyond Marxist academic discourse spread like social contagion because, as author of Nonbinary Gender Identities Charlie McNabb explained it, places like Tumblr gave “queer communities” a “major boost in the ability to organize, socialize, and create.”

In a 2017 sociological article titled “There’s something queer about Tumblr,” authors Paul Byron and Brady Robards discussed a research project about how “queer and questioning youth” use social media. They discovered that 64% of surveyed “young LGBTIQA+ people” used Tumblr more than other platforms and that many respondents reported Tumblr being crucial to nurturing and even learning about their self-proclaimed identities. The direct quotes from survey participants are revealing.

“I actually learned about agender and all the other genders from Tumblr,” said one 20-year-old who identified as agender and bisexual.

“I would’ve never realized my real gender or sexual orientation without tumblr,” said one 25-year-old who identified as transmasculine and asexual. 

Now, some scholars have even asserted that Tumblr was a “trans technology” in the sense that the microblogging platform “supported trans experiences by enabling users to change over time within a network of similar others, separate from their network of existing connections, and to embody (in a digital space) identities that would eventually become material.”

But then, in 2018, Tumblr banned pornography and other “adult” content. Not only were your simple, stereotypical “2014 Tumblr girls” put off by the change, but the transgender communities could no longer discuss their medically-invasive “transitions,” explore their sexuality, or reblog exceptionally erotic, NSFW fan art or fan fiction.

Young women and girls who posted self-harm photos or were on the Pro-Ana side of the website couldn’t show their physical scars. People who had built communities with other transgender-identified individuals were suddenly homeless. Sure, not all “trans” bloggers showed off surgical procedures, and few who adopted a “trans” persona actually went any further than mere social transition. But Tumblr’s porn ban fueled the mass exodus of these Marxist ideologies. They had seeped from academia into niche communities like Tumblr and then out to broader social media platforms. Now they’re taught in the classrooms of young children nationwide.

Not Even a “Return to Tradition” Can Fix This Flop Era

Tumblr, still owned by Yahoo, banned adult content in 2018 after Apple’s App Store removed its app because of a child pornography incident. Within three months of Tumblr’s porn ban, traffic to the microblogging platform dropped 30%, and from December 2018 to February 2019, its user count shrunk from 521 million to 370 million.

Yahoo was purchased by telecommunications giant Verizon in 2017, but following its decision to broadly ban the exact type of content that drew addicted users onto the platform, another sale was on the horizon. Tumblr was then sold in 2019 to Automattic (owner of WordPress) for a reported $3 million. For comparison, Yahoo ponied up $1.1 billion to buy Tumblr back in 2013.

For several years, Tumblr chugged along through increasing obscurity. But when Elon Musk purchased Twitter in 2022, Tumblr attempted to capitalize on liberal outrage and encourage former users to come back and microblog once more.

“Welcome back :)” read one very simple ad that Tumblr posted on Twitter. Whereas Twitter would now include several “pay to play” features, the microblogging website tried to emphasize how it was fully free for people to use. Furthermore, Tumblr lifted portions of its porn ban from its Community Guidelines.

Whether or not Tumblr has made a genuine comeback is still disputed. Automattic’s Matt Mullenweg tweeted that, following the news that Musk bought Twitter, iOS and Android downloads for Tumblr were up 57% within just seven days. In October 2021, 23.2 million users visited Tumblr via web or app, but in October 2022 that number dropped to 18.4 million. What’s more, according to Tumblr’s CEO, they’re losing $30 million each year.

Tumblr Took Us All Down with It

“Special snowflake” syndrome may feel like a bit of a dated term, but it’s a phrase that should certainly come to mind when you think of the broader impact Tumblr had on the West’s sociopolitical landscape. Don’t get me wrong, youth have long been coddled and given proverbial participation trophies for immutable identity traits. The generation of school teachers and even parents who grew up during the slow-burning rise of cultural Marxism instilled a sense of special snowflake syndrome in millennials and Gen Z. 

Tumblr took that culture and went all gas, no brakes. Everyone wanted to be unique, so people began crafting boutique identities for themselves centered around their mental health status, their disability status, their gender identity, their sexual orientation, and even material objects or characters they felt a “kinship” toward. Disrespecting or questioning these labels elicited outrage.

Does this all sound familiar? I know that I’m speaking about it in the past tense, but these generations that were raised on Tumblr became primed to act like this in real life. Furthermore, they set the example for the next generation and put pressure on older generations to toe the line and cave to their special snowflake requests.

Take a look around the internet, but also within educational institutions or perhaps your own workplace. People act more emotionally fragile. Identity comes before merit. Words are violence. “Cancel culture” can’t even be a separate type of culture because we’ve become fully enmeshed in cult-like accountability to diversity, equity, and inclusion mandates.

Today, medical professionals affirm children identifying as neo-genders like “gender prius,” meaning half-boy and half-girl, or “gender minotaur,” meaning one gender on the top and one gender on the bottom. If medical professionals or educators don’t use the unequivocal affirmation model, they risk losing their licenses or jobs. If parents don’t affirm their children’s gender identity, they risk losing custody in some cases.

Before “wokeness” became fully mainstream, mental health issues among left-leaning girls started to increase. Though correlation doesn’t equal causation, I think this deep dive into Tumblr’s history can at least provide one or two points of explanation as to how this could be.

Social media has the capability to rapidly spread divisive ideology or potentially harmful trends more quickly now than ever before. Sure, it has been building up within institutions for quite some time, but now teenagers on TikTok can see videos of other teens getting double mastectomies or pledging allegiance to BLM flags. While faith in God is declining, identity is swiftly replacing it as the new religion. This is the world that Tumblr helped create, and we’re just living in it.

Closing Thoughts

At its peak, Tumblr was a culture substrate (or perhaps cesspool) that cultivated creativity and gave birth to the age of the SJW. Whether you were a keyboard warrior on the political side of the website, a weeaboo reblogging NSFW digital art, a Lana Del Rey fan sharing song lyrics, or just an average user scrolling through soft, aesthetically-pleasing photos for hours, it’s safe to say that this website left a lasting impact on many lives.

It’s true, the website isn’t defunct, and many users still frequent it on the daily, but Tumblr is well past its prime. After the porn ban, Tumblr has struggled to revive its old, devoted audience who participated in the mass exodus onto other platforms. Wherever they ended up, toxicity and identity politics have followed. It seemed so innocent at the time, but somehow, this micro-blogging platform shifted the Overton Window on politics and discourse far in the favor of Marxists. Only time will tell if we can correct it.

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