Why do we keep talking about Tumblr?
Tumblr has been popping up more and more in online conversations as one of the drivers behind the abundance of affinity-based identity groups flourishing. I call it the “stanning” of real life —also, the fandoming of real life— because it’s how I learned how to make sense of it, and the dominant traits are the same. The passion, the moral drive, the relentless pursuit for more, more.
At a glance, Tumblr isn’t much of a success story, not compared to the hype and presence of Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Once sold for $1.1 billion to Yahoo, it only took six years for the value to drop. When Yahoo offloaded the site recently, the price had dropped to $3 million.
The users on my dash were mostly celebrating and laughing at Yahoo and how funny it was that we somehow devalued the site just by using it as usual. Perhaps it’s part of the aspirational anti-capitalist atmosphere, it may also be schadenfreude over the site changes that derailed the way the site was used by fandom.
Fandom swarmed to Tumblr after Livejournal took a nosedive following their Russian acquisition (all the way back in 2008), but it didn’t instantly become the go-to fandom hub. I suspect fandom is the biggest part of Tumblr’s userbase, but I don’t know for certain. It can be hard to gauge because there are no barriers between different factions, and posts can travel through multiple networks of people, amassing notes and comments. There are jokes about how the best advertising for a new show, musician or film is seeing it favourably covered on your dash.
In 2014 Tumblr created Fandometrics, an attempt “to compile a database of Tumblr’s most talked-about entertainers and entertainments, and track the shifts in our users’ collective conversations.” In other words, whether you’re on Tumblr for fandom or not, your content will be measured as such. Which is good to know, isn’t it?1 Whether Fandometrics was also an attempt of Tumblr to have a ready-made press release every year or a genuine archival attempt, it has become a mainstream reference for fandom temperature.
But Tumblr isn’t the only place fandom exists; most Twitter users have likely come across people from “stan twitter,” whether in a reply or QT, perhaps even engaged with some only to have them laugh that a “local” is getting involved. That’s to say, fandom on Twitter isn’t small or inactive. And TikTok is on fire, allowing individual people to track their mentions and popularity into the billions.
Then what makes Tumblr such a resource to plunder, hands-on and intrusively? And what makes fandom hang on to Tumblr despite multiple updates that present hurdles for fandom habits? The dashboard, where new posts populate, has always been chronological. That alone is a big positive in our algorithm-obsessed platforms. The ads are bizarre and appreciated to the point that many scoffed at the recently rolled out ad-free browsing option.
Part of what is different with Tumblr is that it’s not being used by outsiders to harness talent. It’s there for them to harness content. No one makes a career off of Tumblr, you don’t really make money, and fame and influence are hard to gauge outside the communities you’re part of.
There’s no way to tell just from looking at an account when it was created/how old it is. There’s no way at all to see how many followers someone has. This makes Tumblr feel less corporate. So much so that viral posts describing the good things about the site cite its lack of, “incentive to promote products or brands.”
But that doesn’t mean that corporate isn’t watching, picking up data, and pivoting or leaning in accordingly. Tumblr is mostly treated as a virtual bulletin board for them to pick over as if they were creative commons, abdicated snippets of thoughts and jokes. Buzzfeed and other listicle sites would collect clicks and advertising dollars by screenshotting others’ work. User elodieunderglass said, “Tumblr generates quite interesting content that others are very happy to exploit on their own marketing platforms. Yet their own home platforms rarely generate the same kind of content.”
I’ve mentioned it before, but Perez Hilton uses Tumblr update accounts run by fans for his content. He even complained to one Taylor Swift account that it was posted too late for his liking. While official celebrity accounts are scarce on the site2 there are plenty of writers and journalists on the site. There are many artists, and illustrators, using Tumblr as their portfolio or archive, sometimes contributing fan art and gaining attention.
Despite the claim to the contrary, influence does exist on the platform. It comes from inside the building when we look at communities and fandom cliques. I discovered that my fandom had been steered by self-important bloggers who got together and agreed on how to address various topics. They had manuals on how to rebuff common complaints and agreement on quashing dissent to “protect fandom.” None of those people are around anymore, but their work has been done, massaged fandom narratives living on in various enclaves.
Influence also comes from the anonymous asks that can be received— and influence comes from the way bloggers respond to anonymous messages. Anonymous messages can only be answered publicly, which means it’s performative, to a degree. The response will be read by the rest of the fandom and will possibly set off further anons and discourse. Some anonymous asks are aggressive and driven by ill-will, you can shrug it off, but it will likely affect you in some way.
In-group influence and manipulation is familiar to most users, as is the idea of angry scrollers-by fuming as they send an angry message. It makes sense that this is what users focus on because it’s what affects the fandom climate.
But despite the site being used and seen as a semi-private platform, it isn’t private at all. The price drop that Tumblr endured? To those who treat Tumblr as their diary, that was just a confirmation that no one really looked in our direction. There’s a detached awareness that we are observable, but it’s not top of mind.
But external observers are there, and they have budgets. The one-sided call and response are used for data collection, creative projects, and marketing. There’s “infiltration” by creators like those behind Euphoria who created an account for one of their characters, having it behave as if it were really run by a teenager interacting with other teenagers.
Some fandoms have started to set up Discord servers for fandom to supplement Tumblr fandom, which allows for one type of barrier between public and private. The servers and groups also add to existing communal hierarchies, cliques of friends becoming in-group idols, attracting attention and worship just like the school’s cool kids would. It’s just in a different format.
Taking a step back from the fandom community, looking at the gatekeepers of creative industries, there is much reporting that suggests there is a struggle going on. Ted Gioia has written about how old music is more popular than new music, pointing out, “Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact.”
This is true, even with the absolute frenzy and dedication of fandom. The theory of 1,000 True Fans which was proposed by WIRED’s Kevin Kelly in 2008 has been used since to provide hope for indie musicians who are trying to make a living.
These “true fans” are essentially the stans. The customer evangelists. Those that will click through all your links, like and retweet official tweets, participate in streaming projects, buy multiple copies of any given album, and so on.
William Deresiewicz spoke to many artists and musicians about the present creative economy for his book The Death of the Artist, and in it, he concludes that the 1,000 true fan theory doesn’t really work anymore. I don’t think he’s the first to discover this, as I think the pivoting towards fandom and standom, in particular, suggests a desire to train customers into appropriate responses; profitable responses.
I’ve made the case before that fandom management predates online fandom, so of course, it’s continued since. Of course, those people already knew that one thousand true fans were no longer enough. That’s why I think stan communities have been growing and becoming more brazen, working in unison to support their cause. You might have a smaller, more concentrated audience, but the devotion is multiplied. Not enough people to buy enough albums? Don’t worry, fans will organize buy-outs of store stock, will pre-order all the possible copies from all possible outlets, and possibly even gift a few.
This is also why Tumblr matters. Stan Twitter may be the easiest to stumble into, but Tumblr is where the stans are fostered. Tumblr is where communal idolatry takes place, where the moral reasoning behind the required unconditional, unending support. It’s where the infrastructure exists for fandom projects. It’s where fandom history lives, orphaned blogs and theory posts that have long been debunked recirculating every couple of years, collecting more curious would-be fans into the fold. It’s where wounds and disappointments are nursed, where worship is bolstered. It’s where fandom becomes purpose.
The annoyingly misspelled names and c*ns*red words started to be used to avoid being tracked. It’s a workaround seen on Twitter as well.
Taylor Swift is a notable exception. Her official account interacts with blogs regularly, and fans will often address their posts to Swift/her team.