Gen Z’s hunger for 2010s nostalgia breathes new life into Tumblr

When tech billionaire Elon Musk struck 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 and long known as a laboratory for social justice causes and burgeoning fan cultures — emerged as one of the contenders.

However, many Twitter users proposing to migrate to Tumblr seemed to be the ones who had abandoned the site a few years earlier.

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Let the Memories Begin →

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 communications researcher and an early adopter of Tumblr, I reflected on the site’s unique place in internet culture. And in the years since NSFW was banned, I’ve seen many trying to make sense of Tumblr as a platform on the cusp of a comeback or a remnant of an era gone.

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 hell site” to hell in a hand basket

Since its inception, Tumblr has served as a countercultural hub for women, gay people, youth, and marginalized communities. At the same time, it has long dealt with issues such as recurring bugs and functionality issues, bullying, hate speech and the glorification of self-harm, leading some users to call it the ” blue hell site”.

Despite this, Tumblr remains a hotbed of art, fandom, memes, and social criticism. This is partly due to the flexibility of the main user interfaces. Individualized blogs and real-time feeds display an array of original and reblogged media, ranging from written articles to videos. By granting greater control over how users present themselves online — through, for example, pseudonymization and relaxed content moderation — Tumblr has established itself as a bastion of creative expression.

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

Such openness has also facilitated the rise of NSFW content which has become a central 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 adoption of NSFW content – a rarity for social media platforms – has even been endorsed by its founder David Karp, who once called Tumblr “a great platform for porn.”

In 2013, after Yahoo acquired Tumblr, there were fears that the platform would tighten its content policies. However, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer promised Tumblr users that not much would change.

The events that followed, however, transformed 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 was passed that made website operators like Verizon liable for sex trafficking or sex work performed on their platforms. In November, the Apple Store removed the Tumblr app after child sexual abuse material was discovered on the site. A few weeks later, Tumblr announced a ban on NSFW content that went into effect on December 17, 2018.

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

Tumblr’s various parent companies have long attempted to monetize a platform historically resistant to traditional advertising. The ban has become a way to attract companies that are reluctant to advertise alongside pornography.

The move was transparent to many Tumblr users, who claimed Verizon was turning its profit motive into a crusade to protect children.

I have studied how, in response to the NSFW ban, pockets of resistance have emerged, ranging from boycotts and petitions to scathing reviews and memes. Politics, at its core, was a battleground for a deeper power struggle between platform owners and users.

The disconnect between how both parties envisioned the platform ended up being mutually destructive. While Tumblr’s user culture has been damaged beyond repair, its business side has also suffered, seeing massive drops in site traffic. In 2019, Verizon sold Tumblr to WordPress owner Automatic for $3 million, a fraction of the $1.1 billion Yahoo paid.

The end or a new beginning?

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

Even before Musk’s announcement on Twitter, the platform appeared to be making progress in regaining public interest and relevance.

There was the hype surrounding the Dracula Daily newsletter, which percolated onto Tumblr in May 2022. Fan cultures for new shows like “Euphoria” and “Succession” have also flourished on the site. And in meme culture, “Tumblr humor” – characterized by a dry, absurd and self-deprecating wit – continues to circulate. widely on line.

But Tumblr’s “resurrection” appears to be driven primarily by a youth culture plagued by early 2010s nostalgia. Internet and a soft grunge style – is a recent addition to the trend. Her renewed popularity solidified earlier this year with Vogue’s cover of “2014’s Tumblr Girl aesthetic.”

Tumblr, then, like the defunct video-sharing platform Vine, has become a touchpoint for young people who have grown up on the internet and have emotional connections to its cultural history. As companies like Facebook battle against Generation Z, Tumblr has established itself, for some of them, 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 major hurdles.

The first is the rise of TikTok. While also banning NSFW content, TikTok has imported many cultural features from Tumblr – from talk about sexuality and social justice to promoting pro-anorexia content and bullying. With TikTok as the beating heart of online youth culture, Tumblr is taken a step further.

The second is Tumblr itself. While struggling to increase site traffic and earn ad revenue without scaring away users, the NSFW ban, like a vengeful spirit, continues to haunt Tumblr. Just look at the responses to tumblr tweet following the announcement of the Musk acquisition. Representing the loss of once prized community values, the ban, for many, has come to symbolize the breaking of the social contract between users and property.

And such contradictory forces shape Tumblr’s reputation. For one thing, Tumblr’s memory keeps it alive in popular culture. At the same time, the belly of that memory—the part consumed by unresolved wrongs and resentments—seems to stop in its tracks any growth that might lead to true rebirth.

Beyond the “life” and “death” platform

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

Between rise and stasis, Tumblr reminds us that platforms are not just for-profit enterprises, but places of gathering with rhythms and cycles of their own. They are also cultural artefacts which, moving in the collective imagination, take on different forms and functions.

Attention to the in-between reveals a more complex relationship between users, platforms and owners. This is where the savvy of social media users comes into focus. Although 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 good example. And yet, in its new phase of existence, it remains a dynamic space of communication, culture and laughter. Its home on the fringes should instead inspire us to imagine an Internet free from the belief that bigger is always better.

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

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