We’ve all read Lord of the Flies, right? A bunch of tween boys get stranded on an island and all of their deepest, most repressed urges surface as they desperately attempt to organize and manage the tiny preteen society they’ve found themselves in. The novel ends in bloodshed, as the author theorizes that the immaturity, communication breakdown, and decision making difficulties one would find in a group of adolescent boys would create a chamber of destruction. How would it have ended differently, some have asked, if the story was one of a stranded group of girls? What would happen if every troubled, isolated, self-loathing, depressed, and emotionally overwrought teenage girl in the world wound up alone on an island?
Tumblr. Tumblr would happen.
Tumblr: you either love it, hate it, or have no clue what it is. Tumblr is the microblogging platform that has given birth to some of the most intensely devoted fan bases online, with over 456 million registered accounts as of 2019. While known widely for fandom-related art, writing, and discussion, there is another, darker aspect of Tumblr that requires a better acquaintance with online communities to understand. In many corners of the internet, Tumblr is known as the core of a certain brand of leftist ideology, not-so-affectionately dubbed the “Social Justice Warriors.” It is these “SJWs” that have taken the site from a platform for fan content to a highly influential ideological powerhouse.
However, an analysis of Tumblr as simply a bunch of “crazy SJWs” does not do the site justice. To understand Tumblr and its influence in youth mental health, culture and politics, you must realize that Tumblr is not simply a site some people visit to share their opinions or look at pictures. You must stop viewing it as merely a website, but as more of a dimension: it has its own social rules, hierarchies, ideologies, and interconnected communities. As a site where millions of people, mainly teenage girls cut off from the outside world, maintain constant daily connection, it has developed into a true culture–the mammoth hub of alternative teenage lifestyle.
Most people are aware of the new challenges our increasingly online culture presents to us. The internet has given rise to a slew of new concerns about psychological impacts, particularly pertaining to previously nonexistent and more covert forms of predatory or manipulative behavior. Tumblr is, of course, just one website out of many that raises these concerns, so why does Tumblr specifically matter? It matters because Tumblr, to millions of its users, is not simply a social media platform. It is their world, the place where these teens make their deepest friendships, express their most vulnerable selves, and begin to develop their own identities. It is also the world from which a surprising amount of our modern-day social justice ideology emerges.
The internet is the 21st century town square, and it is no secret that the discourse that takes place on it is at the forefront of every aspect of our society and politics, Twitter being perhaps the most notable example. On Tumblr, there is a running joke that “Twitter is everything Tumblr was three years ago;” in other words, whatever social justice topic is fashionable on Twitter at any given time has long since been beaten dead on Tumblr. As someone who spent 2011 to 2016 on Tumblr, and 2016 to 2019 on Twitter, I can confirm this as true–the discourse we see on the liberal sides of Twitter would have been seen on Tumblr three years ago.
When I check up on some of the current Twitter topics (such as queer theory) on Tumblr in 2019, the conversations are far more intricate and removed from reality than they are currently on Twitter. As time progresses, the seriously confused debates and ideas cooking within the Tumblr echo chamber find their way to other platforms and push those user bases in the same direction. This is scary because, unlike Tumblr, Twitter is taken very seriously. Citizens can converse with politicians, celebrities, and influencers in a way that was never possible before, and activists can reach a spectrum of people who would have otherwise never listened to them. Now, when I think about the kind of ideologies I subscribed to as a teenager on Tumblr, and as I see them being played out on Twitter and in the real world years later, it deeply concerns me. My concern about this trend is exacerbated even further when I realize that most people do not understand the planet from which many aspects of online activism emerge. And this lack of understanding is shared by a wide demographic, including professionals, parents, and confused Leftists and Liberals blindsided by the turn activism has taken in the last half decade.
Now, before I begin the first installment of this adventure through the space-Tumblr continuum, I must issue a disclaimer: I am no expert in psychology, sociology, or social media. Research into the complexities of social media and the various platforms’ effects on human communication and mental health is a growing field, with new empirical studies emerging rapidly. My observations as a former daily user of Tumblr are purely that: my observations. This being said, I have insight into the site that gives me an advantage over those who may be curious from the outside, experts or not. When I look back on my time spent on Tumblr, I am overwhelmed by the many malignant qualities I see reflected in my own actions and beliefs, and those of the site’s current and former user base. After mulling it over (and spending way too much time scouring the site for visible patterns of dysfunctional behavior), I have identified three crucial aspects that make Tumblr the problem it is, the first of which I’ll discuss in this article.
#1 Tumblr is designed in a way that fundamentally enables extreme groupthink, manipulation of information, destructive interactions, and distorted ways of thinking.
Information on Tumblr is shared in two main ways: posts and reblogs. Posts are content that users share on their Tumblr blogs. Posts can take the form of text, imagery, quotes, links, audio, or video. Reblogs are posts that users share that originally appeared on the blogs of other Tumblr users. If you are familiar with Twitter, the concept of “tweets” and “retweets” is a good comparison. When a user reblogs a post, they have the option to add a comment that will appear below the original post’s text. Other users may reblog the content further, each time adding their own comments. Eventually, you may have a long comment chain emerging from a single reblog.
Above is an example of Tumblr’s reblog and caption system at work. At the top is the original post, and the bottom two comments are the comments that existed on the version of this post at the time the person who reblogged the chain onto my dashboard chose to reblog it. There may be countless other versions of this post that others are reblogging, with different captions added onto it, all under the same original post. All the interactions, including likes, reblogs, captions, and replies that exist for this post can be seen by clicking the “notes” indicator on the bottom left hand side.
Innocuous as this may seem from the screenshot above, it is this very feature of Tumblr that I find to be one of the most problematic. On posts that are more emotionally or politically charged, it’s not uncommon for users to reblog full blown arguments that, by the last visible caption in that particular version of the post, arrive at a conclusion, often reflecting the beliefs of their established social circle. This prevents the reader from ingesting the point the original poster was trying to make and coming to their own logical conclusion, because they have a certain version of a back and forth dialogue laid out for them, often expressed in a very intense and polarized way that makes the final conclusion seem more correct simply because of the way the argument is framed. Unless one has the self awareness to check the full amalgamation of comments in the notes section and attempt to decipher the jumbled mess of heated additions to the post, one isn’t going to get every side of the argument. Unbeknownst to the reader, there could be yet another comment after the “conclusion” that could completely flip their view on the topic once again.
After months, or years of developing opinions and a worldview through spoon-fed arguments that disengage the mind from processing the information at hand autonomously, critical thinking skills can take a serious hit. When one listens to a live debate or has an engaging conversation with another human being, information can be shared back and forth, enabling all parties present to grow from the debate, learn from each other, sharpen their critical thinking skills, and refine their own arguments and world views. On Tumblr, this necessary form of communication and intellectual development is often lost to this new sort of “factory farmed” way of forming opinions and debate (or lack thereof), resulting in highly opinionated youth who have never actually thought about what they believe and why they believe it. I once passionately held beliefs that I believed were my own, but when I tried to describe them in my own words, I would often arrive at a sort of mental barrier. As my peers and I exchanged scripted rationalizations, we were unable to connect the dots between the intellectual blind spots in our own minds.
As users read through the captions on a contentious post, especially if they are unfamiliar with the topic, it’s not uncommon for their opinions on the matter to flip back and forth with every comment they read as they go down the post. The reader then eventually arrives at the stern conclusion, which they are likely to adopt as their own. Readers may also feel pressure to agree with the dominant opinion in that particular snippet of the conversation, as the person framed as being “wrong” or the “loser” typically is indicated to be bigoted or stupid, often receiving backlash or public humiliation based on the particular version of the post a certain circle of users is reblogging.
When you try to navigate the world of Tumblr posts, the task of separating fact from fiction is herculean. A major part of the online experience for people with better critical-thinking skills is the constant effort to contextualize and cross-check events, claims, and sources. Children and teens often do not have these skills just yet, and it seems that Tumblr’s developers have failed to compensate for this at all. Sites like Facebook have claimed to take a stand against “fake news” while many users on Twitter and other sites encourage others to refrain from knee-jerk reactions to “news,” and to cross-check claims before letting the starving Rottweiler of outrage out of its kennel. Tumblr, however, has neither the self-aware user base to encourage such attitudes, nor a team of developers who seem to care about whether or not the confusion of Tumblr users is affecting their mental health, let alone influencing international public discourse.
Users can also interact more interpersonally in the form of “asks” (direct messages that can be answered either publicly or privately and have the option to be sent anonymously), as well as instant messaging via the Tumblr chat function. “Asks” will appear in the inbox, and are more often than not a variety of different types of messages as opposed to actual questions. The option for anonymity has allowed for this feature to be used as the primary method of bullying or harassment, as well as, interestingly enough, a method for users to send themselves messages, often hateful, to gain sympathy or manipulate discourse happening within their social circle.
When a user makes a statement that another group considers “problematic”, it is not uncommon for that user to be absolutely obliterated with anonymous messages demanding changed behavior, apologies, or simply exercising the sender’s desire to decimate someone online. When someone is harassed like this over a heretical statement, the entire situation, along with the mental state of the user being attacked, often descends into complete chaos.
It is expected that when you are called out, you immediately and calmly apologize (flog yourself) and promise to never do whatever it is you are being called out for again. Even then, it is hard to satiate the hungry mob. People who appear too calm can be accused of not taking the situation seriously or disrespecting the feelings and concerns of those who were offended. It is always a lose-lose-lose-lose….lose… situation, and as you may have already discerned, critical thinking in this atmosphere is nearly impossible. Without the anonymity of the ask feature, and the capability for one user to send multiple messages causing an illusion of a mass attack, mole hills would not be perceived as mountains as often as they are. What is in reality more likely to be an individual perceiving your words as offensive begins to feel like you have stepped on a mine that has just decimated the peace and order of your entire community, even if it really is just one or two people sending dozens of anonymous hate messages (often including to your friends and followers) and calling enough attention to the situation that your entire social circle is pressured to stand up and persecute you for your crimes.
To a young teen who knows no better source of community, this can feel devastating. There is intense pressure to avoid critical thought and embrace toxic tribal attitudes, heavily valuing conformance with ideology over individualism and loyalty to important relationships. When someone is accused, their friends are expected to sever ties with the accused, lest they themselves be accused of supporting or conspiring with a convicted transphobe, racist, or abuser, as perceived by the community. These experiences sound crazy, and they most certainly are, but they would not be happening to the extent and in the fashion that they do on different social media sites without some of the particular features mentioned above.
If that wasn’t enough, there is a final piece of inspiring web development that makes Tumblr unique: Tumblr posts don’t have timestamps. Unlike your timeline on Twitter, Reddit, or YouTube, your Tumblr dashboard offers no way of knowing when something was posted. It could have been four hours ago or four years ago. It’s not uncommon for posts written in urgency about a certain situation, oftentimes having been previously debunked (even in the notes sometimes! Too bad 99% of the user base would never think to check. See what I mean about that being a problem?) to continue circulating years later, inspiring misinformed or unnecessary fear within readers. This lack of time context can seriously distort a person’s perception of events or political and social climate. Too many users are getting their news, partaking in a community, developing a sociopolitical ideology, and curating their own identities based on internet posts floating around in a vacuum devoid of reference to reality; not even time.
“Call-out culture,” the pervasive danger of groupthink, attitudes towards mental illness, and militant activism are all topics I will analyze in more depth as this investigation progresses in later installments. As concerned adults or Tumblr veterans, we must understand that these noxious conditions are a result of the site’s fundamental building blocks and not purely a reflection of the character of the individuals who use it. Tumblr seems to be designed for destruction, and it’s incredibly sad that one of the only places so many young people feel able to express themselves is also oriented in a way that seriously compromises their emotional and intellectual development. This online world feels like a necessity for so many young people. I myself wonder if I would have survived the most turbulent and depressed years of my young adolescence if it were not for the capacity for self expression and friendship I found on Tumblr. This is why we have to understand the many ways in which the site has gone wrong, and how these outcomes can be traced down to Tumblr’s very roots. Consider the fact that adolescent distress is being fed into a convoluted mechanism designed for distortion, and the whole thing begins to make a lot more sense.
Thank you for reading, and I look forward to sharing more of this online world with the real one. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3.
4/6/2019 05:30:42 am
Great article Helena! I myself have never used tumblr nor was even aware what it really was. I can now see how kids caught up in this could really end up making decisions that were not their own.....thanks so much for sharing!
4/10/2019 10:29:09 am
As a parent of three teenagers who obviously has their mental, emotional and physical well-being uppermost in my mind it is truly terrifying to know that there are places online unknown by well meaning but clueless parents such as myself, where your child could be attempting to form their identity within such a toxic and emotionally fragile environment.
5/22/2019 04:06:37 am
Thank you! Even, as you say, you are "no expert in psychology, sociology, or social media", you certainly do a great job as you have the insider view. Helps me a lot to understand my teen. I'm waiting for part 2 and 3...
5/22/2019 06:19:01 am
Amazing and enlightening piece. Thank you so much for your tour of this alternate reality, and for explaining its inherent structural problems. We have to find a way to create online forums that bring out the best in people, instead of intimidating and controlling people while rewarding the worst in them. I wish we would be face-to-face a lot more, but since the modern world is not heading in that direction for now, I'm hoping we can at least create better structures within the Web.
6/6/2019 07:09:24 am
Thank you for this piece. Helena. Helena is a powerful name, it is one of the names I gave my third daughter for that very reason. Continue to speak out, you are a voice of sanity in a torrent of online chaos.
6/6/2019 09:34:52 pm
Yikes! As an older user of Tumblr for the purpose of sharing my artwork, I was not aware of the stuff going on in the shadows. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
8/3/2019 08:56:47 am
I am truly sorry for your experience, but I am very grateful that you have taken the brave action of exposing the darker corners of Tumblr. Your experience is very helpful to those of us with teenage children. I wish you the best of luck, and I look forward to reading your next installments.
8/4/2019 07:13:48 am
Yep your screenshot of tumblr is not visible.
10/5/2019 07:00:10 am
Yeah, I had tumblr when i was 15 (25 now) and i never got many followers, which made me get bored with the platform after a year or two. But i do remember seeing the phenomenon you describe; i even held a lot of the idealogical beliefs i was most likely exposed to on the site. My roommate in college years later was younger than me and had a huge presence on tumblr, and she also had a lot of strong opinions that reminded me of the people on tumblr. I wonder if or when the creators of the platform will ever acknowledge the effects they have on developing adolescents? Granted i personally didnt get sucked too far into the vortex but i also wasnt allowed online 24/7 like most millenials my age were. My dad did not let us on the internet but may 4 hours a week, if that haha. I also didnt have a cell phone until i was 18 (which i bought with my money from working, so essentially my parents never gave me any of that stuff). I think being tech free is probably safest for kids these days.
11/4/2019 09:29:15 am
As an older woman, a lesbian, without kids, I had heard about Tumblr but never experienced it first-hand. Your article is very well written and insightful. It's also shocking, for instance, your description of how Tumblr works:
12/8/2019 02:24:52 pm
Thankyou. Brilliant and insightful article.
12/12/2019 09:40:01 am
Wow, this was so excellently and expressively written and extremely informative. This article has helped me understand so many things about the current political climate and the young people on the left, that I didnt have insight into before. Extremely valuable - thank you!
1/9/2020 06:00:58 pm
You write very well. Looking forward to the next installment.
1/20/2020 08:29:03 am
I loved this article so much. Just watched your follow up interview with Benjamin Boyce and I thought you said that the second installment was available?
1/25/2021 08:18:03 pm
Thank you for your wonderful article!
8/23/2021 02:35:41 pm
Thank you for taking the time and having the courage to speak out about extremism fringe-group-think where they fall into the same errors of thinking (without critical thinking) as those they claim to be 'against' and in so doing, can ostracize and condemn as much as the rest. The group-think proponent that elects copycat behaviors in vulnerable individuals (and we've all been one at some point or another) only pushes them further down the rabbit hole. If more had the courage you possess then young girls wouldn't feel the pressure to conform to fringe-group-think and could truly be themselves. If that's Trans, great, if that's lesbian, great, if that's something else, great. But it would be a true choice. Please keep doing what you are doing. The world needs divergent thinkers so badly.
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