When tech billionaire Elon Musk made a deal to acquire Twitter in April 2022, many Twitter users threatened to close their accounts and migrate online elsewhere.
Tumblr – a microblogging platform launched in 2007, long known as a laboratory for social justice and emerging fan cultures – has become one contender.
However, it appears that many Twitter users suggesting a migration to Tumblr were who had left the site only a few years earlier.
In 2018, Tumblr content that is considered sexually explicit – or NSFW – will be banned. The controversial policy led to a mass exodus from the site, the so-called Tumblr apocalypse.
Both as a communications researcher and early era user of Tumblr, I have considered the site’s unique place in the internet culture. And in the years since the NSFW ban, I’ve seen many trying to make sense of Tumblr as a platform on the verge of a return or a remnant 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 hell site’ to hell in a hand basket
Since its inception, Tumblr has served as a countercultural hub for women, strangers, young people, and marginalized communities. At the same time, it has long dealt with issues such as recurring bugs and functionality issues, bullying, hate speech and the glorification of self-harm, which has led some users to call it the “blue hell”.
Despite this, Tumblr remains a home for art, fandom, memes and social critique. This is due in part to the flexibility of the main user interfaces. Both the individualized blogs and real-time feeds display a variety of original and reblogged media, ranging from written posts to videos. In granting greater control over how users present themselves online – through, for example, pseudonyms and relaxed content moderation – Tumblr has stood out as a bastion for creative expression.
This approach contributed to its explosive growth, which grew in 2013 and 2014 when Tumblr claimed that users spent more time on the site than Facebook and Twitter.
Such openness has also facilitated the increase in NSFW content that has become a core part of Tumblr’s identity. For the user base, access to strange, feminist and alternative representations of sex and sexuality was significant, leading to self-exploration and community building for vulnerable groups such as LGBTQ + youth. And for those who produced their own NSFW content, Tumblr’s indulgence meant revenue.
The embrace of NSFW content – a rarity for social media platforms – has even been endorsed by its founder David Karp, who once described Tumblr as ‘an excellent platform for pornography’.
In 2013, after Yahoo acquired Tumblr, there were concerns that the platform would tighten its content policies. However, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has promised Tumblr users that little will change.
However, events that followed would change Tumblr.
First, in 2017, Verizon Communications acquired Yahoo. Later that year, Carp left the company. Then, in early 2018, a federal law called FOSTA-SESTA passed, which made website operators like Verizon liable for sex trafficking or sex work performed on their platforms. That November, Apple Store removed the Tumblr app after material for child sexual abuse was found on the site. Weeks later, Tumblr announced a ban on NSFW content that went into effect on December 17, 2018.
But that same month, Vox reported that the NSFW ban was in place long before the Apple Store controversy. The goal: to sell more ads.
Tumblr’s various parent companies have long sought to earn a platform that is historically resistant to traditional advertising. The ban has become a way to attract companies that are reluctant to advertise with pornography.
This move was transparent to many Tumblr users, who claimed that Verizon was repackaging its profit motive as a crusade to protect children.
I researched how, in response to the NSFW ban, bags of resistance emerged, ranging from boycotts and petitions to sharp criticism and memes. The policy, at its core, was a battlefield for a deeper power struggle between platform owners and users.
The disconnect between how the two sides represented the platform was ultimately mutually destructive. While Tumblr’s user culture has been irreparably damaged, its corporate side has also suffered, and has experienced massive declines in site traffic. In 2019, Verizon sold Tumblr to Wordpress’ owner, Automatic, for US $ 3 million – a fraction of the $ 1.1 billion Yahoo paid for it.
The end or a new beginning?
While site policy clashes continue to this day, I started talking about Tumblr’s possible revival.
Even before Musk’s Twitter announcement, the platform seemed to have made progress in regaining public interest and relevance.
There was the uproar surrounding the Dracula Daily newsletter, which permeated Tumblr in May 2022. Fan cultures for newer shows like “Euphoria” and “Succession” also flourished on the site. And in meme culture, “Tumblr humor” – typified by a dry, absurdist and self-condemning wit – continues to circulate wide online.
But it seems that Tumblr’s “resurrection” relies mainly on a youth culture in the grip of nostalgia for the early 2010s. What has been called Tumblrcore – a 2010s subculture with a specific media flavor, internet experience and soft grunge style – is a recent addition to the trend. Its renewed popularity was confirmed earlier this year with Vogue’s coverage of the “2014 Tumblr Girl Aesthetics”.
Tumblr then, like the disbanded video sharing platform Vine, became a touch point for young people who grew up on the internet and have emotional ties to its cultural history. As companies like Facebook struggle with the Gen Z demographics, Tumblr, for some of them, has emerged as an attractive “vintage” alternative – comparable to the return of disposable cameras among young people.
The TikTok roadblock
But along with these glimmers of rebirth, Tumblr faces two major obstacles.
The first is the rise of TikTok. Although it also bans NSFW content, TikTok has introduced many of Tumblr’s cultural features – from discourses on sexuality and social justice to the promotion of pro-anorexia content and bullying. With TikTok as the beating heart of online youth culture, Tumblr is being pushed further to its sides.
The second is Tumblr itself. While fighting to increase site traffic and earn advertising revenue without driving users away, the NSFW ban, like a vengeful spirit, continues to haunt Tumblr. One only has to look at answers on Tumblr se tweets in the wake of Musk’s acquisition announcement. The ban, which represents the loss of once-valued community values, has become for many an emblem of the broken social contract between users and ownership.
And so conflicting forces shape Tumblr’s prestige. On the one hand, the memory of Tumblr keeps it alive in popular culture. At the same time, the lower abdomen of this memory – the part consumed by unresolved errors and resentments – seems to be shortening any growth that could lead to a true renaissance.
Beyond platform ‘life’ and ‘death’
The peculiar case of Tumblr shows how it can be limiting to classify platforms as dead, dying or alive. Such a framework often works according to a capitalist logic in which “growth” means life and “stagnation” indicates death.
Tumblr, living somewhere between boom and bustle, serves as a reminder that platforms are not just for-profit businesses, but gathering places with their own rhythms and cycles. They are also cultural artifacts that, as they move through the collective imagination, take on different forms and functions.
Attention to the in-between reveals a more complex relationship between users, platforms and owners. This is where the skills of social media users are on display. Although platform owners exercise unilateral power and control, users are increasingly equipped with an arsenal of resistance tactics, including exodus or migration. The rise of this unbounded user – one that takes a nomadic approach to digital life – could pose an unexpected threat to digital intermediaries.
Tumblr is an example of this. And yet, in its new phase of existence, it remains a living space for communication, culture and laughter. Its home on the sidelines should rather force us to propose an internet that is free from the belief that bigger is always better.