Looking back on Tumblr after all this time can feel like a fever dream.
“It’s that specific kind of nostalgia of remembering something you were really into as a 14-year-old, but with 10 years distance from it,” said Rachelle Hampton, co-host and resident Tumblr scholar of Slate’s ICYMI podcast. “It’s a part of you, so you still love it. But the other half of you is just like, ‘Why did this happen?'”
Questions of “why,” “how,” and “what in the fuck” permeate just about every memorable aspect of Tumblr. From timeless meme formats to superfan communities, inclusive porn to social justice discourse, the internet’s most iconic microblogging platform deserves preservation in the digital archives. Yet sadly, most of it will inevitably be (or already is) lost to the void.
Though the social networking website still exists, with 303 million unique visitors in Feb 2021 according to Statista, its decline means most talk about Tumblr in the past tense. What remains today is a shell of “Peak Tumblr,” roughly considered to span 2013 to 2018. Memories of its glorious chaos still loom large, and not just in the hearts of the now grown-up youth who came online alongside it.
Questions of ‘why,’ ‘how,’ and ‘what in the fuck’ permeate just about every memorable aspect of Tumblr.
“A lot of things from Tumblr’s mid-2010s heyday never disappeared from internet culture, but are cycling back now in a major way,” said Palmer Haasch, an Insider entertainment reporter who specializes in online fandoms.
Tumblr’s relevance as a platform is a thing of the past, but 2022 keeps proving that mainstays of the “Tumblr Era” are more relevant than ever. “The 2014 Tumblr Girl Aesthetic Is Back,” Vogue declared back in January, while Teen Vogue pondered how this modern revival of the #sadgirl Tumblr movement (seen across TikTok and in shows like Euphoria) could impact body image (again). As Polygon entertainment reporter and Tumblr savant Petrana Radulovic (who previously worked at Mashable) argues, this speaks more universal truths about youth culture that go beyond tech cycles: “Teens are always gonna teen.”
Still, if our lovingly cringe nostalgia for Tumblr is any indication, something tangible was lost in Tumblr’s demise (and it’s not just millennials’ youth). In honor of its 15th anniversary — and to keep the memory of the microblog alive forever — we compiled some of the most beautiful messes Tumblr irrevocably gifted the interweb. Your list of faves undoubtedly differs, but that’s the nature of the very personal hellscape we created for ourselves via Tumblr’s dashboard.
1. Sexual exploration for women, queer folks, and kinksters
For many, the infamous Tumblr porn ban of 2018 spelled the beginning of the end.
After Apple removed Tumblr from its App Store over child pornography claims, owner Yahoo! Inc. made the ill-advised decision to ban all sexual content from the platform rather than attempt better moderation. In the blink of an eye, endless scrolling through porn GIFs, artful nudes, and untold fan erotica that catered to and was curated by women and queer folks was lost.
“The Tumblr dashboard was one of the only places to see sex viewed through a primarily female gaze, to see what women liked to look at and not just hardcore porn filmed for male pleasure,” said Hampton.
For those whose sexual expression was marginalized by mainstream porn because of gender, orientation, kinks, and fetishes, Tumblr became the source for spank bank material that spoke to you. While intimidatingly toxic tube sites gatekept porn, Tumblr absolved you of even the shame of actively seeking it out. The casually lewd nature of fan blogs meant you probably stumbled upon GIFs of Mass Effect aliens getting railed by accident only to realize that, hey, maybe you didn’t dislike all porn?
Predictably, traffic plummeted after the ban, and the beautifully sex-positive subgroups that thrived on Tumblr have yet to find an online home quite like it.
2. Embedding social justice discourse into internet youth culture
Whether you know it or not, you likely learned words like “problematic” thanks to Tumblr — specifically, a little blog called YourFaveIsProblematic, which both Hampton and Radulovic consider exemplar of Peak Tumblr. On the ICYMI podcast, Hampton once interviewed the creator behind ThisIsWhitePrivilege, another popular blog that helped Tumblr youths understand more subtle forms of systemic racism.
Tumblr changed online discourse forever by mainstreaming and distilling these complex socio-political theories into meme-able concepts accessible to young people who want to make the world a better place. Yet even the microbloggers who shepherded this Tumblr movement now acknowledge that the discourse often veered into unnecessary antagonism justified as social progress.
Credit: Vicky Leta / Mashable
“The concept of otherkin always felt to me like Tumblr flying too close to the sun,” Hampton recalled, speaking to an online subculture of people who identify as partially non-human. “It started from this earnest place of wanting to engage with other people’s identities or exploring what it meant to live in the world. But then, it’d turn into fighting about how identifying as a plant was the same as trans people wanting their gender identity respected — and that it is in fact offensive for you to not let me photosynthesize in the middle of my school classroom!”
Like everything born on the internet (and Tumblr especially), every gift is a double-edged sword. As it turns out, teens online sometimes mistook the nuanced tools of carefully researched academia for blunt objects to beat each other over the head with. So while Tumblr’s progressive ideal has lasting positive impacts on today’s social media, it came packaged with the more toxic (yet another Tumblr-favorite term) elements, too.
“The way discourse operates now, especially on Twitter and TikTok, is super reminiscent of Tumblr. There’s this reactionary quality that reminds me of being on a college campus when you’re just starting to learn activism and social justice terms and you really want to be a good person — then you take it seven notches too high,” Hampton summarized.
The takes of Tumblr teens matured and mellowed with us (mostly). Yet there will always be a new generation of online youths getting a little overzealous in their clamor to course-correct long-standing injustices through the collective power of social media.
3. Classic memes that never get old
Memes aren’t known for their longevity. But somehow, decade-old Tumblr screenshots and meme formats remain staples of internet humor on Twitter and TikTok.
Radulovic loved whenever super-specific in-group Tumblr community jokes would leap over into larger mainstream digital culture without any context. Case in point: Gay Icon the Babadook, an ironic headcanon born from a series of 2016 Tumblr shitposts that reclaimed the 2014 indie horror movie monster as a flamboyant gay man living for the drama. IFC Midnight even released a limited-edition Pride Month copy of The Babadook in 2019.
But you probably don’t realize just how much of everyday internet humor parlance originated on (or was popularized by) Tumblr.
Excelling at the “snowclone” meme format (phrasal templates you can fill out Mad Libs-style to fit any context), Tumblr was responsible for “but go off I guess” takedowns of popular culture still commonly found on Twitter. The platform also favored aesthetic images over blocks of text doing way too much, as seen in the beloved Do You Love the Colour of the Sky meme our sources vividly remember taking over Tumblr for months. Long, belabored, seemingly sincere descriptions of the sky would culminate in an unrelated joke at the bottom. It’s not unlike the new TikTok trend of describing an “eye-opening convo with my therapist” in a block of text that ends with unhinged advice for “healing.”
Meanwhile, Haasch was a fan of real-time jokes like Randy your sticks, in which Tumblr acted as some guy’s virtual sous chef. That style of ironic engagement translated perfectly to TikTok’s comment sections, where users regularly ask each other to tag them in a poster’s inevitable Part 2 follow-up.
4. A dashboard (aka feed) unlike any other
Unlike its cultural influence, the singular design features of Tumblr’s dashboard are likely to die along with the platform. “The dashboard, more than any other platform’s feed, was the spiritual home of Tumblr,” Hampton said.
No other feed was as hyper-curated to your personal interests while simultaneously prone to throwing you into shit completely out of left field. In contrast to the silos of TikTok’s algorithmically curated FYP that users can’t control, or Twitter pushing viral Moments or tweets that mutuals liked, Tumblr’s dashboard was pure, unmitigated chaos of your own making.
“It felt more organic because there was no algorithm, no machine involved,” Hampton said.
The human intimacy of a non-algorithmic feed was heightened by Tumblr’s commitment to presenting posts in linear chronological order, which Twitter abandoned to instead serve posts tailored for higher engagement.
“On Tumblr, if something came across your dash that was kind of unhinged (as it often would), you’d know exactly who put it there. And you’d wonder, ‘OK, what mood is this person in right now to post this? Why is this conversation playing out at 3am?'”
Haasch also laments how GIFsets remained a functionality exclusive to Tumblr.
In the upside-down world of Tumblr, people who knew basic HTML were the cool ones…
“Someone figured out a workaround to make GIFsets work on Twitter, but Twitter quashed it pretty quickly,” she said. “I feel like GIFsets were somewhat the predecessor to fancam and edit culture, in the respect of compiling a bunch of clips of a favorite character, editing them to a certain aesthetic, and presenting them in a visually pleasing format.”
Radulovic holds a special place in her heart for the customizability of Tumblr blogs, which carried over from even earlier social platforms like WordPress and MySpace. In the upside-down world of Tumblr, people who knew basic HTML were the cool ones, able to embed coding that made their layouts stand out from everyone else’s presets.
All three of our sources kept returning to how Tumblr’s dash forced them outside their comfort zones, face-first into unfamiliar fan communities, drama, and online phenomenons.
Such was the case for Constable-Frozen, which Haash described as a Tumblr “cultural touchstone. Its whole schtick was posting these Frozen edits that were, like, technically good, but just so bizarre… There was a reckoning at one point as to whether the blog had vore undertones, which Intelligencer investigated, and the artist behind it said that it was, ‘not a fetish blog’ and he ‘[hates] vore.'”
To the uninitiated, vore is essentially a cannibalism fetish. Does this popular blog secretly hunger for Elsa’s flesh, or was Tumblr just yet again On One? We’ll never know, and that’s just so quintessentially Tumblr.
5. Anonymous online personas and identities done right
Anonymity on other social platforms and comment sections often brings out the worst in people, but the anonymity of Tumblr just hit different.
For one, most communities did a pretty good job at moderating members and holding one another accountable (sometimes a bit too much), so there was never a free license to be a total asshole.
Instead, Tumblr’s anonymity gave its young users permission to build online identities without needing to offer up any of their IRL selves for the internet’s ridicule. Unlike TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter, Tumblr was the one social networking platform where you could gain thousands of followers without ever revealing your face, name, age, gender, location, school, job, or any other personal details. That’s probably a big reason why it was such a safe haven for the marginalized, too, as closeted queers found welcoming online homes that let them escape IRL homophobic households.
Tumblr was different from any other modern social media platform because, for once, users actually weren’t the product being sold. Which brings us its next gift…
6. Wholesale rejection of monetized social media
Today’s influencer-creator economy encourages us to grind everything about our lives into #content side hustles. Whether you’re enjoying a hobby, embarking on a fun real-world experience, or doing a DIY project, you wonder if it’d make good fodder for an aesthetic Etsy shop, a podcast, or a streaming career.
Not on Tumblr: We labored for free on that site, and dreamt about it, too.
As a group of proto anti-capitalists before anti-capitalism was cool, the Tumblr community remains adamant about keeping monetization off the platform. That probably contributed to Tumblr’s shorter lifespan, but it’s a hill the platform’s survivors are absolutely willing to die on.
Radulovic pointed to the website’s recent attempt to launch a paywalled Post+ subscription feature in 2021, which was met by a full-on protest from users. Aside from grating the user base’s progressive ideals, many worry that monetization will ruin the last great thing Tumblr’s still good for: fan communities. Money would invite copyright issues, putting an end to the platform’s unique crossover approach to fandom, which laughs in the face of corporate red tape around IP ownership.
7. The ultimate home for fans
The refusal to monetize is exactly what enabled one of the most legendary fandom communities in all of internet history to thrive on Tumblr: SuperWhoLock.
As Haasch explained, “the fandom amalgamation of Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock, was always known as a kind of… I don’t want to say governing force, but the major culture driver back when I was the most active on Tumblr in the early 2010s.”
In the age of divisive Marvel vs. DC, Sony vs. Xbox, or whatever other corporation manufactured war the stans are drawing blood over on Twitter now, SuperWhoLock almost sounds like a myth.
Credit: Vicky Leta / Mashable
“I just cannot imagine that kind of interplay existing anywhere else on the internet. For better or for worse, fandoms are now more separate community-wise,” said Hampton. “But SuperWhoLock was a Tumblr phenomenon that wasn’t just one person or blog. It was very much a concept, a community that people strongly identified with.”
Aside from being a place where disparate fandoms came together as one (to lovingly battle each other to the death), Tumblr’s design also united different fan creators under one roof. Thanks to its multimedia-friendly posting features, Tumblr was an equally great home for fanfiction writers as it was for fan artists and video/GIF editors. Websites like AO3 and DeviantArt may valiantly attempt to replicate this inclusivity, but have often fallen short.
Tumblr gave folks dismissed as outsiders in real life their first taste of collective power through a shared online identity, too.
“Fandom Tumblr liked to define itself, to a certain extent, in opposition to other Tumblr communities,” said Haasch. “There was a dichotomy that users kind of reinforced between the ‘fandom’ side of Tumblr and other, like, ‘aesthetic’ sides. But it was more so this dynamic where…fandom Tumblr was preemptively like ‘even if you think we’re cringe, we don’t care and we’re gonna fan out harder.'”
There is, of course, that double-edged sword of said fandoms getting drunk on that power in their more modern online iterations. The superfan community tribalism of Tumblr was mostly harmless, at worst leading to mild Facebook cyberbullying like this one that Haasch still laughs at. But today, you find traces of Tumblr’s fierce fandoms in what we now identify as toxic stan culture.
8. Online drama that simply cannot be topped
It wouldn’t be Peak Tumblr without a cacophony of online drama, community infighting, and bizarre morality mobs — which often started out wholesome enough before devolving into lawless cyberbullying.
As a member of the SuperWhoLock Tumblr universe herself, Radulovic fondly remembers the incident that went down in history as Mishapocalypse. In 2013, Supernatural fans decided to orchestrate a playful power grab by simultaneously changing all their avatars to the same exact picture of TV show co-star Misha Collins. The digital flash mob was so successful in taking over SuperWhoLock fans’ dashboards that it led to a counter strike from the other two fandoms, who retaliated with some of their own, uh, creatively photoshopped versions of said avatar.
Then there was the day of reckoning around the ethics of human bone collection, also known as Boneghazi.
“The phrase ‘bone stealing’ will always immediately remind me of Tumblr,” said Hampton, sounding almost as if experiencing a PTSD flashback. (Recently, TikTok youths unwittingly found themselves in the same exact viral discourse that Tumblr battled over years prior.)
Aside from TikTok, Reddit occasionally gives the sub-community infighting of Tumblr a run for its money. But the fervor of Tumblr’s civil wars and crossover dramas remain unparalleled in their nonsensicalness.
9. DashCon, the Tumblr convention that walked so Fyre Fest could run
If something hilariously chaotic happened on the internet after 2018, it probably already happened first on Tumblr in a more niche way.
That’s the case for DashCon, the much-hyped, fan-organized Tumblr convention of 2013 that failed spectacularly. Long before Fyre Fest’s sad cheese sandwich took over our Twitter feeds (and inspired two whole documentaries), Tumblr memed the crushing disappointment of attendees posting increasingly depressing real-time updates from the first and only DashCon.
If something hilariously chaotic happened on the internet after 2018, it probably already happened first on Tumblr.
“DashCon was supposed to be like VidCon, except it was entirely created by fans, so there was no convention organization apparatus. So the chaos of fandom spaces on Tumblr basically came to life in this hotel ballroom in Illinois,” Hampton recalled. As extremely online teens, the organizers were great digital marketers with big imaginations and even bigger promises. They advertised a bombastically awesome schedule, including playtime in a gigantic ball pit. “Then the actual photos came out and it was just three people in a kiddie-sized ball pit inside a huge, empty convention hall with concrete floors,” said Hampton. “It was incredible and united so many different aspects of Tumblr. Because we were all like, ‘Of course it flopped. Of course a bunch of people on Tumblr could not get it together to plan an actual convention.'”
The fact that Tumblr never got its shit together as a platform itself is perhaps part of that cringe-inducing nostalgia the site sparks in us today. In the back of our minds, part of us knew that nothing so beautifully unhinged as Tumblr could survive on Al Gore’s internet.
Yet the ephemerality of Tumblr only adds to its mythic, legendary status.