Maybe you’re familiar with the many reasons why people hate Twitter. It’s a time sink, it enables the spread of fake news and bigotry, it encourages white hot anger predicated on context collapse, it’s allowed mildly clever people to build careers on a foundation of bullshit, and so on. The memes are good, and the animal GIFs too (and the political solidarity and the righteous signal boosting and all of the other legitimately positive things, please don’t tell me about them) but increasingly there is a sense — or rather, a range of senses — that much of this fussing around is not exactly healthy, for ourselves or society or anyone else.
This is all true to a degree, but lately I’ve been thinking about Twitter’s badness less in the context of the website itself, and more in the context of another website I used to frequent all the time and no longer do: Tumblr. Do you remember Tumblr? Of course, because the site is still objectively popular: According to Alexa’s metrics, it’s nearly one of the 50 most popular websites in the world. But you are not there; our president is not there; I am not there. Not anymore.
What made Tumblr so great? Again, I think about it in comparison with Twitter, and have pulled out a few reasons. On Twitter, the shortness of the posts forces the development of a few recognizable personality types: posters who almost exclusively tell jokes (a medium better suited to brevity) and posters who don’t tell jokes, which means they’re being almost exclusively serious, a mentality often conflated with brevity. But a great many serious things cannot be articulated in 140 or 280 characters, and so you get the most easily reducible — and therefore least accurate — version of the feeling or idea. Either that, or you get lengthy Twitter threads, which are ponderous and boring.
But on Tumblr, people could go on for at long as they needed to, a valuable tool for posters who could actually justify it. (And I use the past tense here in the context of my own experience; if you’re still doing this, bless you and yours.) Posts could be as short as necessary, but you could also find a historical deep dive, an interesting think piece (and not the kind derisively referred to as “takes”), a photo essay, or simply just a nice blog about someone’s life. The whole impetus behind following people on social media is, “Hey, I like this person’s brain, and am open to spending more time with it.” Tumblrs delivered the full, unrestrained range of someone’s head — funny, serious, and everything else.
There were a lot of people talking at all different lengths about the subjects they wanted, which enabled another major appeal: the community. Here is how it went. You started off on Tumblr by following some people you knew of, whether personally or not, and slowly ventured deeper in the world as you lurked other blogs, or discovered new people reblogged by people you already liked. Pretty soon, you could be a small part of a thriving ecosystem of posters, discoursing and joking with each other.
Again, this is how the internet works; it’s how blogging platforms before Tumblr worked; it’s even how Twitter works. But insularity was encouraged because of Tumblr’s boxed-in, user-unfriendly design. You couldn’t easily search for text, and there was no easy way to track a post’s movement through the blogosphere, so communities grew slowly. Compare, for example, how posts go viral on Twitter. On Twitter, I could tweet something facile and snarky like “Amazing to consider the Oscars have contorted themselves for a decade because of blowback for not nominating THE DARK KNIGHT, which is respectfully one of the dumbest movies to ever be taken ultra seriously by people,” and immediately blow up.
There will be some thoughtful replies, but almost all of them will come from people I’m not friendly with. I’ll have no interest in debating them because I have no idea where they’re coming from, ideologically or rhetorically. Everyone who sees the tweet will see the replies, too, experiencing all sides of many arguments all at once, with no curation or indication of which is worth following. There will be nothing familiar or contextual about the conversation, just a bunch of strangers arguing with each other.
Sometimes a overfamiliar bubble is more conducive to well-intentioned discourse, instead of a dozen randos screaming “what’s wrong with you, you Nazi and/or anti-Nazi fuck.”
On Tumblr, if the same post went viral (or better yet, a well-reasoned essay on why The Dark Knight is a perfectly entertaining, visually arresting action blockbuster with the emotional depth of a puddle), all I’d see would be generic “this post was reblogged” notifications with a smidgen of attached text. The only detailed reactions I’d read would be the ones on blogs I was already following. Meanwhile, if people had enough of an issue to talk about it, they’d be reblogging it on their blogs, for the purpose of talking to their community — a much more achievable and worthwhile pursuit than trying to craft the argument that would appeal to everybody in the world all at once. I’d never see that; my day would go on. We’d be in our little worlds, feeling out the kinks of the potential arguments on our own schedule.
Did this create overfamiliar bubbles prone to social regulation by the standards of the more sensitive members? Yes, of course. But sometimes a overfamiliar bubble is more conducive to well-intentioned discourse, instead of a dozen randos screaming “what’s wrong with you, you Nazi and/or anti-Nazi fuck.” Sure, you’d witness some truly embarrassing back-and-forths predicated on bad faith and lack of context. But it happened less, because the relative slowness of Tumblr meant people took longer to reply, which means that it took people longer to think about what they wanted to say. Even better, at some point one party would lose interest and the world would move on as usual.
The sum of this was thoughtful, personalized content (for lack of a better word) consumed at a slower, more natural pace where eventually everyone would lose interest in being mean to each other. Also, memes and animal GIFs and political solidarity and all of the good things. Wow! Doesn’t that sound great? Wouldn’t Twitter be better if it was more like that? It was like that, at least for a while; I participated in at least three distinct, naturally occurring social scenes encompassing parts of college and half of my twenties. I met a lot of people for the first time after meeting them on Tumblr, and almost all of them turned out to be actually cool. Whether or not I enjoyed someone’s Tumblr after following them for a while was, in fact, an immensely accurate prediction for how I’d enjoy them in real life.
It’s nearly impossible for me to conceive of Tumblr being as big as it still is, because almost nobody I know uses it anymore. Everyone I knew aged out of it, lost interest in chronicling their personal lives or got jobs writing the kinds of blogs they used to write for free. As denizens of scenes peeled off for different pastures (Twitter, post-graduation life, parenthood), that sense of community became difficult to find in new forms. Tumblr, after all, is still user-unfriendly. There is no easy way to find a new set of blogs without doing a lot of manual clicking around, and the wide range of Tumblr types (such as those almost exclusively devoted to social justice, or fandoms) made it difficult to stumble upon the exact thing I wanted.
This is damning for a social network, and every time I’ve tried to “get back into” Tumblr in the last year, it’s like hanging around a ghost town, and it just drives me back to the whole depressing Twitter cycle, where at least people are still talking, even if it’s mostly in the form of yelling.
This tension of insularity is at least partly the company’s fault, and a big part of why Tumblr never meaningfully grew or monetized after its initial boom period at the turn of the decade. It remains popular in the sense that people use it, but it’s just… around, no longer accessibly special in a way that demands our attention. The userbase isn’t as depleted as Myspace, but it remains much farther from the conversation about the future of digital media than ever seemed possible when it was first acquired by Yahoo, in a 2013 deal now universally regarded as a failure. (Founder David Karp has long since gone, presumably to enjoy his hundreds of millions of dollars. Hey David, send me some.)
The ethos of Tumblr is more easily recognizable in a platform like Tinyletter, where people craft small batch blogs for a curated following, the downside being that they’re entirely siloed in their own worlds with no chance of outside interaction. But considering how hectic and intrusive the modern internet can feel, this isolation feels like an asset, not a bug. Snail mail might never make a comeback, but the pleasures of one-on-one communication are evergreen.
Tumblr’s irrelevance in the digital economy is a problem if you invested in the company, but not so much if you’re a user who never drifted away. The platform remains full of the potential it once had, theoretically. So why not come back? Why don’t we all go back? I’ve tried, and I still haven’t had much luck finding a new rhythm; if you have any good Tumblrs worth following, let me know. I’d love to give it another shot.