From the outside, Tumblr looks like a mess. As a platform that has become the main hub for people who like fanart, fanfiction and talking about ships, Tumblr has gained a reputation for creators being driven away because of rampant harassment and abuse. From the inside, its users agree, but they don’t know where else to go.
“I got into Tumblr mostly out of necessity,” Danielle, a Tumblr user, told Kotaku over email. Tumblr began in 2007 as a blogging service trying to fill the same quippy niche as Twitter. Prior to its advent, fans and fanart creators mostly congregated on LiveJournal, a long-form blogging platform that also allowed users to make group blogs for their interests. In 2007, LiveJournal was sold to Russian media company SUP Media. In the leadup to this sale LiveJournal banned many blogs featuring sexual content, some of which were fanfiction and fanart journals and communities.
Although there were competing journaling services like Deadjournal and Journalfen, Tumblr’s format was particularly suited for posting art. LiveJournal had a limit on hosting photos, meaning you usually couldn’t update any high resolution art to the site without using an additional image hosting service. Many people who used LiveJournal as their fandom hub had been splitting their content across several different sites, posting fiction on LiveJournal and art on Deviantart. Tumblr, which has native photo hosting, would allow users to consolidate their work on one platform, making communities more centralized than they had been previously.
“The platform at first seemed pretty uniquely rad,” Danielle said, “that we were unifying to a singular platform instead of being split across several.”
Fandoms flocked to Tumblr, and it soon became a warm collection of LiveJournal refugees who were all eager to make new friends. Most people I spoke to said that the early 2010s on Tumblr were affirming, even fun. Shelby, who joined Tumblr around 2010, said that the format of the site was a breath of fresh air. “Tumblr was much easier to navigate than say Deviantart or pixiv when it came to art,” they said. “[The early days were] the age of blogs like ‘fuckyeah[insert fandom here]’ so it was simple to find people and content.”
On LiveJournal, fandoms could be concentrated on communities, which were group blogs that could be either public or private. While these made fandoms very organized, they also formalized a kind of pecking order. In order to feel confident participating in a community, you had to study the vibe. In order to get access to anything private, you sometimes had to suck up to people who were popular in the community. On Tumblr, posts are only organized by tags. Tags let users discover new fandoms or participate in communities without being a member of a group from the start, and since they’re also used to organize posts on your own journal, participating in a tag has a much lower barrier of entry. Posts that might have languished in obscurity on your personal LiveJournal could be broadcast openly to everyone who liked the thing you like. Thanks to Tumblr, Shelby got hooked on Avatar: The Legend of Korra and Portal, making fan content for both fandoms. Tumblr’s ability to host both fanfic and fanart let Shelby discover new fandoms and sides of her own fandoms they hadn’t seen before. “It was a first for me to have access to a fanbase outside of just fanfic so I really dove in,” they said.
In the beginning, the Tumblr community was also a place to find and make new friends, similar to LiveJournal but with a little less structure. Although on LiveJournal you could already identify who the biggest artists or writers were based on follower count, liking those people was mostly about the work they produced. On Tumblr, being popular in fandom also became about creators’ personalities and day-to-day lives. Although that panopticon approach to internet fame can become claustrophobic, it also makes it easier to get to know people.
One user, who asked to remain anonymous, told Kotaku that they met their first girlfriend there. “She saw a post I made about a novel that I was reading, and she was also a fan of the author. We got to talking and before long, we ended up dating for about a year and a half,” they said. “When I first started using Tumblr, I was very closeted and repressed, but Tumblr gave me access to a lot of terminology and resources I hadn’t had growing up. It probably would’ve taken me a lot longer to come to terms with my own sexuality and other aspects of my identity without Tumblr and the friends I’ve made there.”
Tumblr’s ease of use when it came to sharing information with followers also made it a resource for learning about politics and identity. LiveJournal’s community was already pretty politicized—I have read many essays on LiveJournal about what makes a ship anti-feminist. Because it is so easy to share posts on Tumblr, however, users are inundated with perspectives of people with experiences very different from their own. On LiveJournal, you had to specifically seek out that kind of content. On Tumblr, it’s just everywhere.
This had a positive impact on many users’ lives. “Due to living in a tiny-ass small town in the early days of internet, fandom was already my gateway into the idea of being queer,” Danielle said, “but when Tumblr happened and pushed the personality-driven blog style, I do feel like we all learned a lot about other people’s experiences. I met my first trans people on there, I followed a few black Bioware-centric bloggers who made me think about the video game medium in a new way, I found new labels for myself and new tools to navigate spaces and find people with like experiences.”
But as communities solidified on the site, users began to realize that the way the site was structured made it great for discovering new things, but less useable for having any kind of discourse. Most users pinpoint the change as occurring around 2014 or 2015. After the site was acquired by Yahoo in 2013, some users felt that their new corporate overlords were more distant and less responsive to the community and its needs. The community tried to police themselves because Tumblr still lacked a meaningful block feature, but communities began to fracture and users grew prone to aggression. Many users told me they feel that Tumblr is not only missing too many features, but that the community itself is broken.
Though Tumblr has a messaging feature, the easiest way to talk to another Tumblr user is through reblogs. A user takes another person’s post and appends a note to the bottom to the original poster. The original post and the comment then appear on the reblogger’s Tumblr and in the feeds of anyone following the user who reblogged the post. The post gets longer and longer as it’s reblogged, making it hard to follow conversations that involve more than two people or that go on for a long time. Being unable to really talk to another person means that conflict on Tumblr escalates quickly, sometimes over things that seem inconsequential.
“In my formative time in fandom [before Tumblr], learning the rules and etiquette of the space was not optional, it was baked into the entire structure of fandom,” Danielle said. “There was a hurdle of entry to fandom; it was organized into moderated communities and kinkmemes and other places that had rules, and even more than that had real live people who ran stuff and would prevent drama from boiling over.”
This imparting of community norms wasn’t necessary when Tumblr was small, but as the site grew larger, fandoms spun out of control. “Then. Tumblr. Then, our communities were nothing more than ‘main tags,’ with no way to impart these rules and basic goddamn manners to people coming in,” Danielle said. “We completely lost our ability to on-board new people, and furthermore we lost our sense of continuity and history.”
While tags were initially one of Tumblr’s benefits over community-oriented sites like LiveJournal, they would become part of Tumblr’s downfall as the site grew. While their openness initially invited new users in, tags also mean that in order to follow a fandom, you have to follow the tag. When you do, you see everything in that tag, including things you disagree with. Tumblr users I spoke to said they feel that Tumblr staff doesn’t care about any abuse or harassment that goes on in the community.
“I’ve literally been stalked by people I have blocked in the past because the way that works is totally fucking useless,” Danielle said. Although the blocking system prevents other users from following you or seeing your posts, circumventing this is as easy as logging out. Tumblr blogs are viewable to people who aren’t logged in by default, and although you can turn off that feature, sharing Tumblr posts on other platforms is another way to promote your art or writing. Blocking also does not necessarily block messages in Tumblr’s “ask” feature that are from anonymous users, allowing abusive messages to come through regardless. “There should be an abuse team that will actually take steps to prevent the rampaging widespread harassment on the platform,” Danielle said.
“I was in very very early Elementary fandom, after it was announced we had been blessed by god with Lucy Liu as Watson, hallelujah,” Danielle said.” And the drag out fights around that got so bad, with people coming into the main #elementary tag to call anyone who was hyped for the show a homophobe because Liu made it less ‘gay.’” Danielle said that this was the first time they felt like the Tumblr community was out of control. The fandom for Elementary ended up having to change the tag they used to talk about the show in order to avoid fighting with Sherlock fans.
Another structural problem of Tumblr is that deleted blogs don’t really go away. Once a blog has been reblogged to someone else’s Tumblr, they are essentially posting it again as a copy of the original. It’s like photocopying—even if you get rid of the original, the copies still exist. If you make a post about your own opinion and later change your mind and want to delete it, it’s not really possible to do that on Tumblr. This, combined with the difficulty of having a conversation on the site, means that many Tumblr users who speak in haste, or wrote something when they were younger that they no longer agree with, have their words out there forever.
“It actually happened to me once,” Elana, a Tumblr user who has been on the site for about five years, told Kotaku. “Nothing super bad, but I complained about [Dragon Age: Inquisition’s] Vivienne’s writing being kinda racist. The wording was bad and made it difficult to back up when a few people jumped on it to call me an SJW snowflake. At the time my follower count was pretty low and I ended up getting a few thousand notes, which was waaaaay more than anything I had posted before.” Elana deleted the blog in question, but because of how Tumblr works the reblogs of it still exist.
Web developer Julia Baritz joined Tumblr in 2011 and is still an occasional user of the site. “Every ‘embarrassing’ over-eager fandom post or politically ignorant statement by a 13-year-old would be reblogged by thousands of people who would often then mock and harass the individual, and it was considered a fun sport to do so,” she said. “The fact that deleting a post on Tumblr doesn’t even delete its reblogs means that any mistake a user made could be perpetuated indefinitely, and I think this created an environment where people became afraid of what they say on Tumblr because they didn’t want to have their personal posts dragged into the spotlight and laughed at.”
Some Tumblr users have tried to combat problems in their communities. “The community began policing itself, which in some ways was good but in many ways was not, and I think that this is a result of Tumblr’s lack of privacy options,” Baritz said.
But other Tumblr users feel the site can’t be saved and are abandoning it. Some parts of fandom are already moving to more private communities. Danielle said that they’ve migrated most of their conversations with their fandom friends to private Discord channels, only using Tumblr to announce new projects. Some people in fandom are also moving to Twitter, which has similar problems to Tumblr in terms of privacy, harassment and open tags.
In 2015 Baritz founded Pillowfort.io, a blogging service in closed beta that is trying to combat some of Tumblr’s structural problems. Pillowfort.io combines the best parts of Tumblr—the ability to share others’ posts and showcase your visual art—and the best parts of LiveJournal—making private posts, communities, and allowing comments on individual posts rather than communicating through reblogs.
“Pillowfort essentially tries to keep Tumblr’s freedom of sharing content while retaining the kind of privacy and content control options that LiveJournal had, as well as featuring ‘community’ spaces like LiveJournal did,” Baritz said. “Essentially we want to provide users with the options to be as open or as private with their content as they wish, on a post by post basis, and to provide them with better tools to really connect and communicate.”
I opened an account on Pillowfort and joined a few communities. In layout, it’s very similar to Tumblr, where my dashboard of other users’ posts in the communities I’ve joined are the first thing I see. Right now, the general userbase seems a little bit friendlier, which could be because it’s still in closed beta. Still, when I asked Pillowfort users why they were checking out the site, many of them described it as a version of Tumblr that felt a little bit safer. “The main thing that attracted me to Pillowfort is the potential to really improve upon the best elements of Tumblr,” one user replied. They said that they still use Tumblr even though things have “gone south,” but Pillowfort has given them features they think the other site needs. “[Pillowfort] offers the same experience but with things I have wanted from Tumblr for years (actual threaded comments, the ability to keep things I post from spreading where I don’t want them to, etc.),” the user said.
I have high hopes for Pillowfort. Even in beta, it ticks almost all my boxes for what I want on a blogging platform: native image hosting, the ability make specific posts or even your entire blog private, and organizing of fandoms by communities, not tags. But Tumblr’s history as a central location for fandom makes the site hard to leave altogether. Despite its problems, many users see it as their uncomfortable home on the internet.
“I can’t really leave Tumblr because there’s just such a large community now that I enjoy participating in,” a Tumblr user who wished to remain anonymous said. “I have a long history on Tumblr and I feel too safe to ever think of getting a fresh start.”
“It’s awful,” Danielle said of Tumblr. “I have fantasies about [Tumblr parent company] Yahoo killing the blue hellsite overnight like they did with [social bookmarking service] del.icio.us. Force fandom out of this place and make us resettle elsewhere. I’d welcome that with open arms.”