Currently Googling: How do I make a Tumblr in the year of our lord 2022?
We all have our reasons for going back. For many, it’s the great Twitter migration care of business savant (if savant meant using former emerald mine-owning daddy’s money to jumpstart a career of jumping on businesses on the rise and claiming you’re the visionary founder) Elon Musk. (If you made a Mastodon—Hi! Do you miss the toots, too?) For some, it’s the enduring and ever-alluring appeal of nostalgia, of escaping back to when you were a teenager earnestly reblogging posts about three inexplicably linked shows. For the younger kids who are coming to it for the first time, it’s an oasis from the hyper-warped speed, hyper-connected, and hyper-personalized algorithmic space of TikTok.
Whichever it is, you’re here now, pulling up your dashboard and hopefully trying not to annoy the Tumblr vets who never left the site. And if you’re scratching your head wondering what the big deal is, we talked to a few of them.
A quiet space
Tumblr, lovingly referred to as the “hell site” by its users, can mean a lot of things to them. For culture and entertainment writer Renee Nuevo, the reason why she’s still on the site is because “it feels like a slumber party just between me and my mutuals.”
“I’m still on Tumblr because it’s a quiet space; I’ve always likened it to a porch where I can just watch cars or clouds pass by. I only follow people I like, who only follow people they like,” she says.
Something she really likes about the site is the control it gives to the user. “That’s another thing I’ve always liked about Tumblr, and why I refuse to leave any time soon (I will be on Tumblr until they pull the plug and the next time I refresh it says “Error 404”)—is that they give you control over what you want to see. Hate it that posts aren’t chronological? Turn it off! Don’t want to see spoilers for a show you’re not caught up with yet? Blacklist! They allowed muting and blacklisting way before any other site did it—first, through third-party extensions like Tumblr Savior and xKit, but eventually, they added a native feature to filter tags if there’s something you don’t want to see, whether temporarily or forever.”
It’s true: Tumblr is unique in how much it allows its pocket of internet citizens to tailor make the experience for themselves. Instead of a predatory ouroboros-like algorithm causing a dopamine-driven feedback loop that practically encourages the bad behavior we now associate with social media, all for the sake of engagement, the site’s algorithm is mostly based on reblogs you and your mutuals have made and doesn’t boost posts the way other social media sites do (unless you pay for it, which users mostly treat as a joke)—and you can opt out of it.
That’s also probably why online discourse for the chronically online mostly exists on sites like Twitter and TikTok now. You don’t ratio people or get ratio’d on Tumblr. A reblog does not have the same effect that a particularly vicious quote retweet has; while both can have the effect of siccing your followers onto people you disagree with, only one site rewards the dunker for it, and one algorithm will extend an outrage cycle.
“The ugliest things on Twitter are frequently amplified,” Claire McNear wrote about quote retweets in 2018 for The Ringer. It rings ever truer as time goes on, particularly after we see Twitter Main Characters and bardagulan hits cycling through day after day.
While Tumblr is still remembered as patient zero of Discourse Brain, Renee points out, that culture is no longer a part of the site, and hasn’t been in a while. “Sure, [that was a] big thing in 2013, but [the people pushing that] all moved to Twitter since then.”
Instead of the quote retweet (and whatever TikTok’s version of that is), Tumblr has the tagging system, a dumb, silly, and wonderful way to both organize posts and provide additional insights. “It lets you whisper and add your own dumb commentary to posts; if it’s funny enough, someone will add it to the reblog thread—‘why would you leave this in the tags, OP,’ someone will sometimes say when a tag is witty, insane, or makes a good enough point in the context of the original post,” says Renee.
This is only one way Tumblr feels like an escape from the late stage capitalism sinkholes that other social media apps feel like. “While Tumblr has been trying different was to make money off users and posts, it’s one of the few social media platforms where monetizing isn’t even an option which feels like a purer online experience,” says Raya, a student and aspiring chef.
Raya calls the site a “community garden where people tend to their little interests.” She adds, “I’ve always maintained that Tumblr is the best place for fandom.”
I see what she means. On Tumblr, you can cater to every single one of your niches. For years, I’ve been following the stories of simblr story creators who only use Sims 4 Maxis match custom content. A blog I made in 2019 was solely dedicated to the canceled-after-one-season-show “Twelve Forever” and later “She-Ra.” You can argue that you can do the same on other platforms. Of course, there are niches there, too. I love dice maker Twitter. And there’s a particular joy when you’ve seen a sparkly, pastel-toned video of a train set to music in a foreign language with no hashtags and realized you’ve landed on traintok.
But I think the difference is that those platforms, TikTok especially, invite you to turn that niche into a Brand™️. Not brand in the sense that these are your interests and this is the kind of person you are, but brand in the sense that “this is something that I can make myself be known for, and hopefully in a way that is monetizable.” It’s the difference between being a classic lit nerd and being a dark academia fan, on liking something and liking the aesthetic of liking something. And while there’s nothing wrong per se with that, it puts an unnecessary pressure on users.
Creative lead at Vinta Technologies and former Scoutmag.ph editor Rogin Losa shares a similar sentiment. She likes that on Tumblr, there’s a “lack of pressure to fit a certain standard. As someone who became a social media manager, the pressure to subscribe to an aesthetic or to hop on trends is draining.”
I see people on TikTok tripping over themselves to create a name and be a big part of the next big microtrend to cycle through for the next two weeks. Similarly, I see people on Twitter breaking their backs justifying why they like something. While I know that to them it might just be for fun, I want them to know the sweet relief of realizing that you can just like something.
As Rogin puts it: “In this social media sphere where curation is the norm, Tumblr is that one site that really said: ‘F*ck it, do what you want.’”
That’s probably also why people don’t blow up on Tumblr, at least not anymore. Being a Big Name Fan (and aspiring to be one) isn’t really part of the culture now.
“That’s the thing, there are no concrete people to follow on Tumblr because it doesn’t exactly have any influencers. For a while back in 2014, it did,” says Rogin. And rather than being a detriment, it actually leads to a nicer online experience. “The Internet is so much more fun when it isn’t mainly about clout,” says Raya.
Instead of clout, what’s more important is the connections you make. All three of them mentioned being on the site because of fandom, with Renee and Rogin sharing that they first joined in 2009 and Raya in 2011, and a fandom is built by a community.
“My mutuals are some of my most treasured internet strangers, friends, and acquaintances, and the sentiment is always often the same,” shares Renee. “I’ve made so many chill, lovely friendships just because we were all blogging about Kelli O’Hara or ‘The Bridges of Madison County the Musical’ or ‘Bates Motel’ at the same time.”
These can be long-lasting relationships, she continues. “One of my fave mutuals became my mutual in 2012 when I got into ‘Sports Night’, and since then we’ve been quiet supporters of each other whether on the hellsite, Instagram, or Twitter. I’ve even bought a trinket dish or two from their ceramics business named after middle-aged actresses!”
Not a utopia
All three note though that Tumblr isn’t a perfect site. “It’s not to say that Tumblr doesn’t have any flaws. It has…a lot of flaws and is buggy to the max,” Rogin stresses. “I do understand I’m making Tumblr seem like some internet utopia when I know it’s far from that and no such thing exists,” adds Raya. There are definitely some legitimate criticisms you can levy against the site, like the banning of pornographic material supposedly to crack down on pornbots (that have never left) which started the mass exodus in the first place. Still, does it have to be perfect to have people love it? While it’s not utopia, “it feels like that compared to other social media I have,” says Raya.
Renee stresses that one thing the site does well is that it’s not exactly social media. “It’s the one social media platform that has really managed to keep the vibe of Ye Olde Internet alive—again, influencers just won’t survive on this platform, nor will any advertisers, for that matter—and it’s still a microblogging site! No other website lets you do that anymore. For all intents and purposes, Tumblr isn’t social media—it’s a blog.”
And maybe the beauty of Tumblr is that it’s a place where you can be social without it being social media. We’ve seen firsthand what social media can do: From Cambridge Analytica using the Philippines as an elections manipulation guinea pig to fine tune the methods they would later use to win Donald Trump the 2016 US presidency; Twitter a place where trolls can gather to form a hate mob against users and where transphobes grow hate campaigns against random trans people just for existing; to TikTok being a new place for disinformation to breed, radicalizing a new generation.
Compared to that, a place where you can, for all intents and purposes, be as cringe and free as that one cow sounds like a smooth balm to the brain.
Of course, I’m not here to revise history and say that these things were not, at some point, true to the site as well. I was around when fans of the Columbine High School massacre were arrested for planning a mass shooting. That maybe isn’t even the worst Tumblr-related sentence I’ve ever written! But I think it’s fair to recognize a platform for what it is now without the excess baggage of the past when its users have radically reshaped the culture.
Says Renee: “I don’t think Tumblr was ever the cool place to be; I think us users would like to think so, because again, it does often feel like a fun lil slumber party most of the time, but we know that we are here because we are #cringe and proud—though I’ve recently been feeling a lot more earnest about it because yeah, this is my lil blog! My lil blog of feelings and things that I love! It’s like a lil scrapbook of things that make me, me!”
Top Tumblr Tips
So, what are these Tumblr vets’ tips for people who are coming back or just starting out?
Rogin: I have three: Learn basic HTML if you want to customize your theme and feel what it was like to have a Friendster account back in the mid-00s; don’t feel the need to be a one fandom/niche blog because it doesn’t matter; and lastly, post whatever the fuck you want. Who cares? That’s your space, my guy.
Raya: Follow Sufjan Stevens and Frank Ocean on their Tumblrs, of course. [Follow] accounts like horroredits that posts gifsets of horror movies, if that’s your thing? I don’t know! It’s cool to start following stuff like that and following people with posts or URLs related to your interests and curating it after that.
I spent a long time on Tumblr not being very social because it was enough for me to just enjoy content, but eventually you just end up finding your circle! One of the first friends I made on there saw my blog being suggested to them because I was posting about “On The Wings of Love” (starring James Reid and Nadine Lustre) and they were watching “OTWOL”, too. We’d had a lot of similar interests, and now we’re both deep into our BTS phase. Sometimes reaching out like that works and sometimes it just kinda comes to you.
Renee: People, including me, usually block accounts that have no pics or bio, so even if they’re a real person and are just lurking, they still might get blocked (all that trauma from the porn and spam bots)—so you know, reblog some posts, tag some stuff, change your pic and add a title and a bio!
[Also,] Tumblr mobile is very different from Tumblr on the desktop! Tumblr definitely shines on desktop versus on mobile—because it was, after all, a website first and foremost before it ever became an app.