Last year, TikTokker Avery Steeves posted a video asking why no one talks about how there’s an entire generation of teenage girls who taught themselves to code HTML on Tumblr. “People are like, ‘Oh, there’s no girls in STEM,'” she says, imitating the faceless internet mob. “No, there were! They were just making pale blogs,” an emblem of the washed-out, soft-grunge aesthetic popular on the platform in 2014.
The comments section bloomed with notes from women who credited Tumblr with jump-starting their careers in technology: “I wrote my college app essay on learning to code on Tumblr and got accepted into college for a cs [computer science] degree,” wrote one; “And now I project manage website design,” said another.
As typical of most online discourse, there were also some replies sneering with disdain: “Front end is not actual coding you know,” a user commented, alongside scornful remarks like “Html/css isn’t really coding just saying.”
I asked Maxine Hood, a 25-year-old Software Engineer at YouTube, what she thought about those comments. “That’s like looking at the sky and being like, ‘The sky isn’t blue. How can you say it’s blue?'” she laughs. “That’s a ridiculous statement trying to demean teenage girls [and keep them] from getting credit for doing something difficult… HTML is a coding language. It is coding.”
From 2011 to 2015, Hood ran a fan Tumblr for South Korean girl group f(x). “My youth was being a fan of f(x) and running this fan site specifically for [f(x) member] Victoria. I worked really hard to try to be the best Victoria fan page on the site. You could do a lot with the Tumblr themes back then, they gave me so much control with editing the HTML.”
As a 14-year-old, “I had no experience coding at all,” Hood says, “so what I remember doing was copying the HTML from a different theme someone had posted and then going in and making changes to the color or trying to add plugins or APIs [an interface that enables two applications to talk to each other].” She would often update the theme to match the aesthetics of f(x)’s latest musical release. “I remember really struggling adding this chat box feature. I eventually got it working, but it was only in the bottom right corner when you scrolled all the way down. That was my first experience in the programming world.”
Hood’s high school didn’t offer computer science classes, but in her first semester at Wellesley College she signed up for an introductory course that would set her on a path to majoring in the subject. “I knew I’d be interested in it because of my coding on Tumblr,” she says, “without editing themes, I don’t know if I would have been.”
HTML is a coding language. It is coding.
Dimitra Zuccarelli, 26, owes her career to Tumblr, too. She joined the platform around 2009, using it first as “a proper blog” before the site evolved into the photo-and-GIF-rich multimedia mecca that is “the Tumblr that we know now.” When it came to coding, the arctic-themed multiplayer game “Club Penguin was literally my origin story,” she says, but Tumblr opened up a different world of possibilities.
“I was so obsessed,” she adds. “It was very formative for me and a lot of other people. It was the equivalent to what TikTok is now for the younger generation: a free space to learn about your style and your interests. I had a strong sense of style, and I really wanted to express that.”
Zuccarelli and her identical twin sister Milena “grew up on Tumblr together. She would design [themes] on Photoshop, and then I would go off and code them,” Zuccarelli recalls. “As a teenager, I was very, very, very tunnel visioned. If I wanted to do something, I was going to figure it out… I basically just put my head down Googling everything…going into the source code of other people’s websites, copying and pasting everything, and then literally just going line by line, deleting stuff, copying small bits, seeing what that would do. By tweaking something here, how would that look on the page? It was a lot of trial and error, but I would come home after school every single day and work on it to the point where you start to see patterns, and it becomes second nature.
“Once you understand how something works, then it’s kind of easy to start applying those principles to something from scratch.”
Zuccarelli says she and her sister excelled in a style of template that was “niche at the time, very minimalistic. It was hard to find stuff that fit exactly that aesthetic.” They began selling HTML templates and opened a small business building websites. Then, “I started to realize that while I did really enjoy designing the websites, understanding how the [programing language] PHP in WordPress themes worked was way more interesting to me,” she remembers. “I absolutely loved the logic side of it… and that’s when I realized that I could go into coding as a career. I knew because I spent my life on the computer and was chronically online that it would be a good career path.”
It was a lot of trial and error, but I would come home after school every single day and work on it.
Zuccarelli now works in backend development for a fintech startup in London, while her sister, who studied interactive design at Glasgow School of Art, works in front-end engineering. Zuccarelli says learning to code on Tumblr is now a badge of honor she finds “hilarious.”
“I didn’t used to tell people [about learning on Tumblr] because, up until a few years ago, it had so much stigma,” she explains. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, you were on Tumblr, you’re like an SJW snowflake who had an eating disorder.’ There’s loads of stereotypes attached to it. Now I think I wouldn’t be embarrassed at all.”
She sees Tumblr as a rich soil for formative creative growth — if you have the time to invest. “I would spend so much time just doing research and discovering new things and learning about photography and graphic design and user experience. I wish I had that again because I miss being able to just dive head on into things that I’m interested in. It’s harder now with a nine-to-five.”
For 23-year-old Shanaia Ramirez, coding was her main creative outlet. “I can’t draw, I can’t paint…my creative side comes out with coding,” she says. She joined Tumblr in sixth grade, in 2010 or 2011, lured by the One Direction (she’s a Zayn girl) and Percy Jackson fandoms. Ramirez dabbled in HTML editing to create Hogwarts houses widgets and themes dotted with carrots, an early inside joke within the Directioner fandom later deigned cringey.
But things got serious with “the rise of aesthetic Tumblr” when “everything was minimalist, everything was beige,” she laughs, and she chased after a “cleaner look and better flow.” Ironically, “I was able to get more creative with minimalism: make the colors pretty, the transitions, the effects, when I repost, when I hover over posts,” she tells me, her voice warm with memories. “I got addicted to learning… And when I couldn’t solve a problem, it would irk me. I’d do research outside of Tumblr, ‘How does HTML work?'”
In high school, Ramirez abandoned Tumblr to pour her energy into studying and college applications. “I’m Asian. So you know there’s a whole stereotype about going into nursing…” but she didn’t think a career in healthcare was the right fit. When she asked herself, “What did I do before this when I had time?” — the answer felt natural: “I love technology. Why not code?” It satiated her need for constant change and evolution. “I get bored easily [but] with comp sci you have to keep up. I’m always learning. It’s always changing.”
She’s learned programming languages Java, C, C++ and is working on mastering Python. “It’s always different every day, there’s always some new language. I can’t get bored.”
Ramirez will graduate with a degree in computer science this year from California State University San Marcos. It can be a lonely trail to blaze, but she says being one of just a handful of women in her major pushed her to stick with it. “You can count how many girls are in my class on one hand. I would step foot into a coding class and all the men, they’d look at me like, ‘Oh, girl, are you lost?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m actually here to do the same thing you’re doing.'”
At the end of my call with Hood, I christened this mini phenomenon the “Tumblr girl-to-engineer pipeline.” But then I backtracked — maybe “Tumblr girl” felt reductive. “Oh, you can call me that!” Hood assured me, proudly. “I’m fine being called a Tumblr girl.”