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How Tumblr Taught Social Justice to a Generation of Teenagers

Tumblr's unique culture normalized queerness and social justice. Without it, where will Gen Z turn?
More than anything else, Tumblr was always queer.

More than anything else, Tumblr was always queer.

Tumblr was always a mixed bag. It was full of extremely specific communities, all full of their own in-jokes and drama, but when users found their niche, they made it their online home. Even now, in its decline, the platform evokes nostalgia and warm feelings among the users who grew up with it.

Back in 2012, Tumblr, the well-known microblogging platform, could confuse first-time visitors. But once you cracked its interface, an amalgamation of sprawling journal entries and pithy pop culture memes, and the scattershot comments inscribed upon those artifacts by other users, was at your fingertips. You could also find your interests via tags and follow tags of interest.

And those interests could be niche—extremely. As a haven for nerdom, Tumblr has, since its inception, thrived on fan communities. A typical user's Tumblr blog might include anything from a GIF of Tina Fey as Liz Lemon trying to get out of jury duty, a meme about Voldemort in the last Harry Potter movie, Doctor Who fan art, a video of corgis playing tetherball, and toned GIFs of pivotal moments in television or movies. But for many teenagers at the beginning of the decade, no matter their specific interests, their pages included posts about feminism, anti-racism, and social justice. Those posts made a difference: For some, Tumblr was a virtual classroom that put users in contact with ideas and opinions they might not normally encounter—or they might not normally agree with.

"Prior to Tumblr, I was a Republican asshole," says Trace Pfaff, a 21-year-old white, gay man from Tennessee, in a text exchange. When he joined in middle school, those posts, sandwiched between jokes, became instrumental to his political development as a teenager: "So I join Tumblr primarily because of the memes, but I notice that all the meme accounts would also frequently reblog"—Tumblr-speak for simultaneously reposting content to your own blog and sharing it with your followers, sometimes adding a comment—"some very new liberal ideas that I had never considered before," he writes.

Through the early 2010s, Tumblr was known as a haven for teenage girls, alternately mocked and curiously profiled. Back in 2013, 46 percent of its 34 million monthly visitors were between 16 and 24. Its lax moderation was part of the appeal: there was no censorship of pornography, erotica, or nudity in general, though this also allowed darker subcultures, like self-harm and pro-anorexia circles, to flourish. But, more than anything, Tumblr was known as the home of "social justice warriors" and a bastion of online liberalism. Even the New York Times profiled "Tumblr activism" back in 2014.

A post about marriage equality didn't feel out of place in a blog populated by cat pictures or GIFs of Benedict Cumberbatch—it was part of the package. In fact, GIFs and fan art of Cumberbatch in the BBC's Sherlock were used to make the point.

But it's been a while since Tumblr was at its height. Yahoo bought the surging service in 2013 for $1.1 billion—the same amount Facebook gave up for Instagram just one year prior—in what has subsequently been deemed a failed investment. When Yahoo was folded into Verizon's Oath, Tumblr went along with it; founder and chief executive officer David Karp, who'd run Tumblr since starting it in 2007, left the company. Outside of Tumblr's inability to successfully monetize its user base, things weren't going well on the site itself. Russian agents waged a highly successful propaganda war on the platform before the 2016 election, and it's been mentioned in Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, though its executives haven't yet been singled out like Twitter chief Jack Dorsey and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have (yet another sign of its fall from prominence). It was overrun with bot accounts that posted pornography, including child porn; the problem grew so bad that Apple removed the Tumblr app from its online store in late November of 2018. Users alleged that the company then purged blogs featuring porn from the site, including some generally safe-for-work ones. Finally, just weeks after the App Store incident, Tumblr chief Jeff D'Onofrio announced that "adult content," including sexual images, depictions of genitalia, and "female-presenting nipples" (a phrase widely mocked by the site's users) would be banned beginning December 17th.

As a result, the Internet is, however prematurely, preparing for the death of Tumblr—or, at least, Tumblr as we know it. #RIPTumblr was popular on Twitter after the announcement, users are migrating to other platforms, and reporters are left bemoaning the untimely end of the Internet's last true haven for the weird. The Stranger called it the site's "death certificate." The Verge compared the choice to the nail in LiveJournal's coffin. If Tumblr goes down, so will the community that brought awareness of social justice issues to an online landscape that so often seems to disincentivize empathy and understanding.

I don't really Want to leave Tumblr

"I mean, it sounds like such a joke to say 'Tumblr radicalized me,' but it's become less of a joke as the years go on," says Emma DuFort, 24. (DuFort and I met online; she's the one who convinced me to create a Tumblr in early 2011. Now we're Facebook friends, and, earlier this year, we met in person for the first time.)

DuFort grew up in Michigan, in what she describes as a "highly privileged, sheltered environment." "As a teenager, I really had no reason to consider people with experiences other than my own," she says, "which I think goes for most teenagers, but it's an especially 'out of sight, out of mind' thing when you're somewhere where 99 percent of people have the same racial and economic background." Tumblr changed that for her, and she's not the only one. Tumblr was the first place many white people who spoke with Pacific Standard first encountered ideas about race and privilege.

That includes Pfaff. "It all kind of started with race and understanding objectively what it means to be white," he says. (Pfaff and I grew up in the same area and met when we were in high school, but were avid Tumblr users, which meant we bonded over a language our peers didn't necessarily share.)

But political transformation wasn't instantaneous for either of them. "At first it upset me," Pfaff writes. "I saw posts that would talk a certain way about the behavior of white people and how privilege works and all that. And I was like?? No??? Because the concept of privilege is so hard to understand when you experience that privilege yourself."

Instead of accepting Tumblr orthodoxy, he pushed back, making "LENGTHY posts about how reverse racism is real." DuFort remembers doing the same, "initially pushing back against a lot of the things I saw, literally arguing with people about how 'feminists are CREATING problems by complaining about how bad they have it!' and 'but THIS is the dictionary definition of racism.'" She followed this message up with a "yikes."

Slowly, their views started to change. "I think after getting minor backlash for those posts—I had a very small reach, thank god—I made the decision to try to understand what people were talking about," Pfaff says. "Opening my mind up to this new perspective enabled me to be more open to learning, and [to] accept the dissonance that occurs as I heard what other people had to say about their own experiences. It became more about hearing them out and less about trying to prove their experiences as wrong."

In its structure, it sounds almost like so-called "redpilling"—the slow but forceful radicalization technique online fascists and white supremacists use to convert bystanders on the Internet. This conversion often starts with finding common ground, like a mutual dislike of "social justice warriors" or a celebration of "Western values," maybe in YouTube comments or on Reddit. Trolls are especially good at using memes for this purpose: if you can get a "normie" to chuckle at a racist meme, that's an opening. And on Tumblr, the blogs people subscribed to for their photography, fan art, or perfectly looped GIFs would also post liberal content.

The alt-right's organized strategy for converting normies has been well-documented, and outreach to susceptible communities is a major part of its goal. But Tumblr's teenagers weren't as sophisticated about spreading their beliefs. Some bloggers outright refused to do the uncompensated work of explaining racism or sexism, declaring that it wasn't their job to educate anonymous followers about the histories of these movements. In all corners of the site, bullying was widely reported, and many communities were rocked by disputes and callout posts for "problematic" users. Its discussions were often derailed by the emotions of users who were influential in their communities. Many of its feminist heroes turned out to be sexual predators. Still, overall, many users were just teens doing their best to be better people.

"Tumblr had something that no other social media platform has really been able to replicate, which is the ability to get to know people in an environment that's sincere and earnest," DuFort says. "As you know very well, people fucking bared their souls on Tumblr, lol." This wasn't a well-oiled propaganda machine; it was a space full of teenagers and young adults clumsily, honestly sharing and sorting through their feelings. They were incredibly—sometimes painfully—open about their personal lives. They posted about how sexism or transphobia impacted their offline lives, or about how good it felt to see characters who looked, sounded, or acted like them as heroes in their favorite media.

"I think we now look back at Tumblr and laugh about how misguided it was at times—I remember when somebody started encouraging people not to say "stupid" because it was ableist—but the reality is that it actually exposed a lot of people to, like, some core tenets of social justice. Mostly people that wouldn't have encountered them in their daily lives," DuFort says. "I maybe could've gotten there in college, but I think it would have been a much slower, painful process."

Screen Shot 2018-12-06 at 3.51.19 PM

Even though Tumblr's social justice community wasn't a savvy propaganda machine, it exposed people to new ideas about essential fairness. Lilian Nguyen, a 22-year-old from Texas, was "raised in a strict Vietnamese Catholic household"; before Tumblr, her attitudes were homophobic, sexist, and prejudiced. "I was not aware of anything outside of what I was taught," she says.

But as she realized she was a lesbian and joined Tumblr in middle school, she found a community that broadened her perspectives. "I saw other people on Tumblr who were like me, and I really felt accepted for who I was. I used to think that the LGBT population was very small, but after being on Tumblr, it's like, how is anyone straight?" she jokes.

Kenny Lu, a 22-year-old from Long Island, also says Tumblr opened up his world. "There was also a lot of visibility on mental health; it was very active in removing stigma. In my Asian household, mental health was completely disregarded. It was definitely an educational platform." Most importantly, it taught him that he "wasn't an anomaly in society."

Lu is glad to have encountered these concepts before college. At the University of California–Berkeley, where he's a senior, some of his peers experienced "culture shock" as freshmen when they had to learn about societal inequities all at once. Tumblr was a place for Lu and his peers to interact with people across the world and learn from their perspectives. "We wanted to educate ourselves; we saw it as a platform to be more woke. I don't see being woke as a bad thing," he says. "I'm OK if you call me a snowflake—these things are necessary to make society a better place."

Contrary to what some critics said, Tumblr's education campaign wasn't just teenagers talking to one another. They used and shared the work of respected scholars and theorists to educate one another. For example, an image based on Peggy McIntosh's classic text about white privilege, "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," has over 1,000 notes (the unit of interaction on Tumblr, a total tally of "likes" and "reblogs" on the post).

Brittana on Tumblr

But more than anything else, Tumblr was always queer. The platform's lack of a public comment feature was certainly one reason for this: Instead of posting content where other users could place an attached, sometimes cruel, reply, Tumblr's reblogging system meant that if you wanted to comment something nasty on a post, only your followers might see it—not the rest of the people interacting with the posts in their own reblog chains.

Another reason was its permissiveness. Since Tumblr announced its decision to ban adult content, all corners of the Internet have joined to mourn its place as a home for unconventional sexuality: John Paul Brammer celebrated the site's gleefully unmoderated gay content in the Washington Post. A HuffPost article described how "Tumblr allowed women and non-binary people to be the architects of their own sexuality online, instead of objects." A former Google exec eulogized Tumblr porn in the New York Times.

And that's because Tumblr's lax rules extended to frank discussions of sexuality, erotic art and writing, nude images of all kinds of bodies, and, of course, porn. Many people who spoke to Pacific Standard cited Tumblr as a rare space where sexual imagery—especially gay sexual imagery—was presented not as scandalous or lecherous, but as a example of passion and love. "I remember when Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed in 2010, and it was a huge deal for so many people both in real life and on the Tumblr community," Nguyen says. "I remember when DOMA Section Three was struck down in 2013. It was such an emotional day for so many people, and having this community to celebrate with was amazing. We were all in the same boat, and we all won that day."

Screenshot of a typical Tumblr post

Marisa Liang, a 22-year-old Californian, says that Tumblr was the first place she encountered lesbian and bisexual women who were comfortable with and open about liking other girls. "A big part of me learning to accept being gay came from the way Tumblr posts/users normalized w/w attraction," she writes to Pacific Standard. "Seeing girls fawn over famous actresses in the same way my classmates talked about actors somehow gave off a sense of normalcy, like we were still the same dumb, obsessive teenagers, just dumb and obsessive about different things."


Maybe Tumblr's porn ban isn't the issue; maybe, as some have suggested, the Internet is just changing. The anonymity offered by early sites has dissipated in favor of turning the online space into an extension of offline relationships—today, people interact with their real-life friends, colleagues, and family members through most social media, not strangers from across the world, like they might have a decade ago.

Tumblr's unique community was partially an accident of the era it was founded in. "Tumblr has become a dominant cultural archipelago for queer young people today by virtue of its timing. As the participants in my study were coming of age, so was the digital platform. Both grew up and matured in parallel," wrote Andre Cavalcante, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, in an article on the platform published recently in the Journal of Homosexuality. DuFort says much of the same, unprompted, reflecting on why the site was so important to her: "I miss Tumblr in the sense that it was the closest I ever felt to an Internet community, but I also don't know if I could ever recreate that experience, because it brought a lot of people closer together at very emotionally fraught times in their lives."

But its decline has prompted a lot of nostalgia from young adults who spent their formative years on the site. "Tumblr was a big part of my childhood. It's sad to see a lot of people leave, even though I did the same thing entering college," Lu says. Some users are joking about how the "Tumblr is dying!" alarm has been sounded plenty of times in the last five years. Others (news outlets and users) are sharing the stories of the site's wildest chapters—for example, the first of three (yes, there were three) controversies over bones and witchcraft, popularly called "boneghazi."

Lu worries his younger cousins don't have a similar platform to grow up with. They can Google questions about social justice or find communities on YouTube and Facebook, but that requires them to already be curious about it—on Tumblr, the content seemed to show up organically. "If Tumblr—finally and inevitably—implodes on itself, I hope that those who need it find a safe space on a better platform," Nguyen says.

They may have already found it. Young women are especially politically engaged. Feminist and anti-racist communities are flourishing on Instagram, and Facebook is full of popular left-leaning groups. Even if Tumblr goes down, the kids might be all right.