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Life How Tumblr helped create today’s culture wars

Oct. 26, 2021

When speaking with political researchers about the effects of social media on forming political beliefs, it is pretty common to talk about Twitter and Facebook; these two tech giants have developed a significant portion of politics today. But they are hardly the only ones. Today’s political discourse has become equally fixated on gender identity, racial grievances, and cultural artifacts. The public cannot deny that a large part of this is thanks to right-wing media manipulation. But a large part of the culture war today finds its roots in Tumblr’s social justice community. 

Tumblr was initially founded in 2007 by David Karp as a visual-centered blogging platform, and it soon gained notoriety as a community for fandoms. Young fans began to use Tumblr as a home for posting fan art and story compilations. If someone wanted to post fanfiction about Supernatural or draw art of 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, Tumblr was the platform to be on.

Identity’s rise on Tumblr

Tumblr soon evolved into a hub for identity politics. Both the LGBT+ community and activists of color point to Tumblr as having been a critical platform for organizing and communicating progressive ideas in the early 2010s. Discussions of gender, race, and sexual identity permeated the community as early as 2009 when these communities began to network on Tumblr and LiveJournal. 

This success was, in part, due to the platform's reliance on community interests and anonymity. For those living in more conservative family settings, this was a godsend. The hashtag-based organizational structure allowed for the crossover of social interests with nerd interests. If a user was interested in understanding racial issues, the algorithmic recommendations and hashtags would eventually link to blogs that discussed similar topics. 

Notably, Tumblr was also the digital manifestation of intersectionality—an academic term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how gender and race intersect and interact. A white man, for example, experiences different privileges in life than a Black man, while a Black man experiences completely different privileges than a Black woman. Each part of an individual’s identity plays some part in how they interact with the law. Crenshaw’s ideas were eventually expanded to include an assortment of identity categories—and for many millennials, Tumblr was the first place that intersectionality was even an idea to be considered. 

2019 survey of Tumblr’s LGBT+ users found that the social-justice oriented blogs they frequently visited acted as a sort of unintentional intersectional expression. Respondents valued the anonymous nature of the network, which allowed them to emphasize the parts of their identity that they truly valued. Notably, it created what researchers call a more “intersectional and accommodating [approach to diversity] than any other social media platform at the time.”

For many young LGBT+ millennials, Tumblr was a place that helped form their identities and organize community online. "Tumblr is kind of like a gateway drug for activism," digital researcher Philip Howard told The New York Times in 2014. "Once you connect to other people who feel strongly about race or crime or gay marriage, you stay engaged on that one issue area." 

While Tumblr's users did occasionally organize and meet in real life, most activism was online. Tumblr blogs like Your Fave Is Problematic and This Is White Privilege became popular in social justice circles thanks to their simple explanations of how power and identity affect the average American. They also acted as platforms for introducing millennials and Gen Zers to academic concepts like microaggressions and reparations.

The dark side

While many Tumblr users went onto the platform to educate themselves and others, the platform was privy to a lot of drama. Callout posts were common among many LGBT+ users, mainly when they understood queer identities or racial politics.

This was especially true for the topic of asexuality. While asexuality does have an important place in history, Tumblr helped make it a more recognizable sexual identity among young LGBT+ people. It also sparked several negative responses from other LGBT+ activists who didn’t see asexuals as part of the community, often calling them illegitimate. Some called them “basically straight” while others claimed they weren’t oppressed enough. In these cases, opposition to acephobia was typically considered a sort of gatekeeping. And asexuals were not the online ones. 

In these fights, there were often cases of misinformation. Due to many Tumblr bloggers lacking academic experience or resources about LGBT+ communities, it was common for users to rely on simplistic arguments or personal experience as objective factors. To say the least, this resulted in plenty of tension.

Asexuality wasn’t the only topic to draw out a strong emotional response. Popular debate topics included differentiating between pansexual and bisexual, the validity of using “Latinx” as an identity marker versus “Latino,” and what body positivity actually means. These conversations were often heated and led to extreme actions by select parties, including doxxing, slander, and aggressive harassment campaigns.

This also made Tumblr an easy target of manipulation by outside parties. For a short time, there was a select group of Tumblr accounts who promoted the idea that pedophilia is an acceptable sexual identity within the LGBT+ community. Journalists later discovered that the argument originated on 4Chan, and was intentionally a campaign to frame the LGBT+ community as immoral.


What happens when Tumblr grows up?

For many Tumblr users, the website’s relevance in social justice conversations was intense yet brief. Many moved on, especially after finding the internal politics of it all to be tiring and aggravating. The nonstop drama had significant effects on some users’ mental health—and for others, it began to leak into their real lives. Liat Kaplan was a young teenager when she founded Your Fave Is Problematic, a blog about celebrities making terrible decisions that should have gotten them canceled. The project started at a time when Kaplan found herself socially isolated and stuck at home. It gained more than 50,000 followers and had a substantial impact on social media discourse for years.

Kaplan now describes the project as “vengeful public shaming masquerading as social criticism.” In a New York Times op-ed, Kaplan wrote, “There’s something almost quaint about it all now: teenage me, teaching myself about social justice on Tumblr while also posturing as an authority on that very subject, thinking I was making a difference while engaging in a bit of schadenfreude.”

And she wasn’t the only one. Dion Beary, the creator of This Is White Privilege, expressed similar thoughts in an interview with ICYMI. “I was attracted to the amount of attention and ‘power’ and voice that I had between 2013-2016 Tumblr.” For Beary, the blog allowed him to encourage people to better understand their identities as white or Black millennials. But he also ended up contributing to much of the drama of the day. He noted that he rarely saw others engage with the website in a manner that emphasized nuance or thoughtfulness. 

While internet drama isn’t unique to Tumblr, the interwoven dialogue of reblogs, retweets, and aggressive responses has permeated the internet in recent years. The high demands of work, school, and social life may make it difficult to do on-the-ground work. It’s also possible that there may not be local organizations who can help young people get politically involved. But creating posts that draw from personal experience or limited research can be done with ease.

Tumblr’s future in politics

While Tumblr continues to be a platform for the progressive community to gather and debate, the website has seen its community decline in numbers. The website only reached 30 million views per day in 2018—a stark decline from its 100 million daily views in 2014. Most tech analysts point to Yahoo’s acquisition of the company as the primary cause of its downfall.

Many of Tumblr’s conversations circa 2014 are now returning on other platforms like TikTok. Older Tumblr users have already had conversations about complicated identity pronouns and racial politics that younger users are now discovering. While these conversations may seem new and extreme, they’re all part of Tumblr’s history.

And perhaps those new platforms will allow students to evolve and develop their political beliefs. For creators like Dion Beary, Tumblr sparked an interest in actual societal change. While he looks back at his days on Tumblr with embarrassment, it can’t be denied that the platform sparked a conversation for himself and thousands of other young people. It just may have come with its own baggage.