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 that has long been known as a laboratory for social justice causes and growing fan cultures — became a contender.
However, many Twitter users who were proposing migration to Tumblr seemed to who left the site a few years ago,
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.
As a communications researcher and early-era user of Tumblr, I have contemplated the site’s unique place in Internet culture. And in the years since the NSFW ban, I’ve seen many people try to understand Tumblr as a platform that is on the verge of a comeback or a symbol of a bygone era.
And yet, long overshadowed by social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat, Tumblr continues to resist easy answers to what it is and can be.
From ‘Blue Hellsite’ to Hell in a Handbasket
Since its inception, Tumblr has served as a cultural hub for women, queer people, youth and marginalized communities. Plus, it tackles issues like long-recurring bugs and functionality problems, bullying, hate speech, and self-harm glorification, leading some users to call it “Blue Hellsight.”
Despite this, Tumblr remains the home of art, fantasy, memes and social criticism. This is partly due to the flexibility of the main user interface. Both personal blogs and real-time feeds feature an array of original and re-blogged media, from written posts to videos. In allocating more control over the way users present themselves online — for example, through pseudonyms and relaxed content moderation — Tumblr stood out as a bastion for 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 also facilitated the rise in NSFW content that became a core part of Tumblr’s identity. For the user base, access to gay, 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 created their own NSFW content, Tumblr’s generosity meant income.
The embrace of NSFW content — rare for a social media platform — was even endorsed by its founder, David Karp, who once characterized Tumblr as “an excellent platform for porn.”
In 2013, after Yahoo acquired Tumblr, there were concerns that the platform would tighten its content policies. However, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer promised Tumblr users that little would change.
However, the events that followed would change 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, which made website operators like Verizon liable for sex trafficking or sex work done on their platform. That November, the Apple Store removed the Tumblr app after child sexual abuse material was found on the site. Weeks later, Tumblr announced a ban on NSFW content, effective December 17, 2018.
But that same month, Vox reported that there was an ongoing NSFW ban before the Apple Store controversy. Purpose: Selling more ads.
Tumblr’s various parent companies have long tried to monetize platforms historically resistant to traditional advertising. The ban became a way to attract companies hesitant to advertise with pornography.
The move was transparent to many Tumblr users, who claimed that Verizon was re-framing its profit motive as a crusade to protect children.
I have researched how, in response to the NSFW ban, pockets of resistance emerged, from boycotts and petitions to scathing criticisms and memes. The policy was, at its core, a battleground for an intense power struggle between platform owners and users.
The contrast between the way the two sides conceived the stage became mutually destructive. While Tumblr’s user culture suffered irreparable damage, its corporate side suffered as well, suffering a massive drop in site traffic. In 2019, Verizon sold Tumblr to WordPress owner, Automattic, for US$3 million – Yahoo paid $1.1 billion for it.
End or a new beginning?
While the conflict over site policy continues to this day, I’ve started talking about a possible resurgence of Tumblr.
Even before Musk’s Twitter announcement, it looked like the platform was making strides toward gaining public interest and relevance.
There has been hype surrounding the Dracula Daily newsletter, which spread on Tumblr in May 2022. Fan cultures have also flourished on the site thanks to new shows like “Euphoria” and “Succession.” And in meme culture, “Tumblr humor”—distinguished by a dry, absurd, and self-deprecating wit—continues to circulate. In encompassing manner online.
But Tumblr’s “resurrection” relies primarily on a youth culture gripped by nostalgia in the early 2010s. What has been called Tumblrcore – a 2010 subculture with a particular media taste, Internet feel and soft grunge style – has been a recent addition to the trend. Its renewed popularity was confirmed earlier this year with Vogue’s coverage of the “2014 Tumblr Girl Aesthetic”.
Then Tumblr, like the passive video sharing platform Vine, has become a touchpoint for young people who grew up on the Internet and have an emotional connection to its cultural history. As companies like Facebook struggle with the Gen Z demographic, Tumblr has emerged as a tempting “vintage” alternative for some of them — the equivalent of disposable cameras among young people.
But even with these flashes of regeneration, Tumblr faces two major obstacles.
The first is the ascent of Tiktok. Although restricting NSFW content, TikTok has imported many of Tumblr’s cultural features – from discourses about sexuality and social justice to pro-anorexia content and promotion of bullying. With TikTok as the beating heart of online youth culture, Tumblr has been pushed further to its fringes.
The other is Tumblr itself. The NSFW ban, like a retaliatory sentiment, continues to haunt Tumblr, as it struggles to increase site traffic and earn ad revenue without turning users away. one just needs to see the reactions tumblr Tweets In the wake of the announcement of the acquisition of Musk. Representing the loss of once-valued community values, the ban became, for many, a symbol of the broken social contract between users and ownership.
And so conflicting forces shape Tumblr’s position. On the one hand, the memory of Tumblr keeps it alive in popular culture. At the same time, the lower part of this memory—the part consumed by unresolved mistakes and resentments—stops any development that could lead to a true renaissance.
‘Life’ and ‘Death’ beyond the stage
The peculiar case of Tumblr shows how limiting it can be to classify a platform as dead, dead or alive. Such a framework often operates according to capitalist logic in which “growth” means life and “stagnation” indicates death.
While somewhere in the midst of boom and bust, Tumblr serves as a reminder that platforms are not only profit-driven businesses, but gathering places with their own rhythms and cycles. They are also cultural artifacts, moving through the collective imagination, taking on various shapes and functions.
Intermittent attention reveals a more complex relationship between users, platforms, and owners. This is where the wisdom of social media users is displayed. Although platform owners unilaterally wield power and control, users are increasingly armed with an arsenal of resistance tactics, including escape or migration. The rise of this unethical user – who takes a nomadic approach to digital life – could pose an unexpected threat to digital intermediaries.
Tumblr is an example. And yet, in its new phase of existence, it remains a vibrant place for communication, culture and laughter. Its home on the margins should instead lead us to imagine an internet free from the belief that bigger is always better.