Tumblr Ask-Advice Blogging: What’s Holding It Back & How Link Culture Could Help

As many of you know, around the Tumblr “ask” messaging system has grown a culture of dedicated ask-advice blogs, typically inviting questions on specific identities and experiences, such as asexuality. Ideally, these blogs should be helpful places for soliciting advice and making contact with new communities. Unfortunately, however, these blogs face certain inherent problems that severely limit how useful they can be.

The biggest limitations lie in three structural elements of the format: 1) the single respondent, 2) the delayed posting of the initial message, and 3) the notifications all going to the person who answers, not the person who asks. In addition, there are also some psychological issues to account for. Popular advice bloggers, facing a deluge of advice-seekers, are especially prone to writing answers that are both 4) overconfident and 5) rushed, resulting in especially shallow, misleading, or even harmful advice. Aside from changing Tumblr’s features directly, one way to mitigate these issues would be by cultivating more of a culture of links.

Structural Issue #1: Single Respondent

Generally speaking, when people are seeking identity guidance, evaluating their relationship to a community, or even just seeking information, getting an answer from one person will be less valuable than getting a bunch of perspectives from a broad swath of people

Consider the limitations imposed by the Tumblr ask-message system. If someone is using this system, that means they have to make a choice: before they even post the question, they have to decide who (or what blog) is going to answer it. These blogs may be run by a multi-person team, but ask messages are usually only answered by one person. So that means you can’t just easily cast out a question to a whole community of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people, all equally empowered to answer. Not even close. You have to preemptively guess who would be the best person (or small handful of people) to ask. This is much more disadvantageous to you than allowing multiple people from a large respondent pool (50+) to self-select who would be knowledgeable enough to answer. Oh, and don’t forget—the character limit on the askbox limits how much you can say in a single message. Plus, sending multiple messages can risk them getting lost or separated from each other, and you can’t use any hyperlinks at all.

Structural Issue #2: Delayed Posting

At this point, besides the ever-present risk that Tumblr may glitch instead of allowing your message through, there is already another possible failure mode: your question doesn’t show up publicly until the advice blog gets around to answering it, which could take days, weeks, or even months. By then, the situation may have changed, or you may have completely forgotten you sent the message, or you might not even need the answer anymore. Some questions may not even get posted/answered at all. As the person sending an ask message, you have no control over this. In some cases, you might even be left wondering if your message even went through, because Tumblr is notorious for “eating” (glitching and failing to send) its ask messages.

Structural Issue #3: No Notifications for the Asker

When (or if) the blogger in question does post their answer, then that person will be recognized by Tumblr as the owner of the post. That means if anyone else offers their own answer to the question via replies/reblog-additions, it may not even matter, because you, as the question-asker, won’t get any notification that it ever happened. It’s quite likely that unless you frequently check back on that post after it’s been answered (something you would have no reason to do), you may never see those different answers or dissenting voices. You had your one shot, and it’s been used up.

Besides, even if you do hang onto the URL of the answering post, finding that extra input may not be easy. When you bring up the direct source/original version, the Tumblr format on a post with a lot of “likes” can make it hard to discover any conversation happening on that same post. After all, the “notes” counter doesn’t have any particular separate number for additions/responses/comments, and everything’s all jumbled together in the direct post view. So again, unless you keep tabs and go looking for it, you may never find out about what others are saying. You end up with less access to information on average than someone using a different mechanism — for instance, someone who creates a thread to a community space and easily solicits dozens of answers, all while getting a separate notification for each and every reply.

This makes a difference because keeping up with multiple answers to the same question can be important for three reasons:

1) When you have to choose ahead of time which blog to contact with your question, you might choose wrong. It’s quite possible that you’ll be met with simply “I don’t know.”

2) It could be your question would benefit from a breadth of perspectives. For example, if you’re asking a question like “What does it feel like to be nonbinary,” that’s a question where you benefit from seeing how much range of diversity there is to a bunch of different people’s answers.

3) Most importantly — the mod who answers your question might give you a flawed or just plain crappy answer.

So on that note, how do you know ahead of time who is the best person to ask? If you’re trying to gauge credibility, you might assume that a popular, high-volume advice blog that receives may questions should be considered a good candidate. However, high-volume advice blogs may end up putting out worse answers, and here’s why.

Psychological Issues: High Demand, Low Supply

Becoming popular as an advice blogger can allow you to become hasty and cocky with your answers. This is in part what happens when people are treated as automatic experts. As onlyfragments wrote, “Without knowing a single thing about me, users seemed to expect trustworthy, valid responses that might make or break their identity or relationships.” And when you’re receiving a high volume of questions—in the form of beseeching messages which, structurally, the site only allows you or your team to answer first… then, frankly, that does things to a person. Being treated like an authority by an endless influx of people can reinforce confidence in the mindset that you truly are an authority. In other words, it can make you feel smart and important, which can result in overconfident, authoritative answering styles. I’ve seen it happen too many times before.

That effect compounds one basic, self-evident consequence of someone getting inundated with lots of questions: the answers will get rushed. For example, in this post by the mods of an ace advice blog that was popular at the time, Kiowa and Di emphasize that as the mods, they are often overwhelmed by numbers, receiving “on average 10-15 new messages a day.” And because of the structure of Tumblr as a website, Di explains, keeping track of all discussion on their posts “would be almost unmanageable, and would almost certainly take away significant time from answering the accumulating messages in our inbox.” In other words, they had too much backlog to keep tabs on any followup or constructive criticism.

Add that all together, and what this means is that setting up shop as an identity advice blog can result in a high volume of short low-context messages, putting pressure on bloggers to write quick, short answers in order to answer everyone while also keeping up with their own busy lives, which means the depth and thoughtfulness of their answers may suffer. From there, these bloggers may also end up appearing unresponsive to criticism because the influx of notifications and new messages drowns out any other replies, and they might not even see it happens.

How Link Culture Could Help

In the section above, I described how advice quality suffers because advice-seekers far outnumber the respondent pool working on any given blog; these lopsided multiple-seekers-to-few-advisors arrangements often result in overwhelmed mods trying to keep up a deluge of short, low-context messages. Because of that fact, it’s beneficial for advice bloggers to save time, and one method for saving time is deploying more links.

In an exchange with an ask-advice blog mod in 2015, Sciatrix wrote:

[…] An ace advice blog should have a ‘library’ of useful links for assorted problems so that contributors can quickly pull up relevant links to send questioners to as they become relevant. If you’re completely lost and looking for a place to start, Queenie has helpfully compiled a variety of linkspams arranged by topic. There’s also the Carnival of Aces. However, I wouldn’t recommend just creating a link to these resources. If I was trying to handle a problem like this, I would think of topics that frequently come up and I would compile an annotated personal list of posts which handle those topics well and notes about when to use them. Then when I was trying to write responses, I would thumb through that annotated list and grab posts as they come up and link to them in those responses. That way, the people whose questions I answered have other things they can read and think about which are composed with more thought and emotional energy than I can spare for any individual questioner at a time […] Besides, answering questions from scratch every single time is an astonishingly inefficient use of your resources and energy.

This strategy, if it were followed, could do a lot to improve the quality of Tumblr advice blogging, even though the structural issues would remain.

Summary

Tumblr ask-advice blog culture is limited by 1) the single respondent, 2) delayed posting of the initial message, and 3) the notification system that prioritizes person who answers, not the person who asks. Plus, answers may be 4) overconfident, 5) rushed, and suffering from a lack of links. Altogether, this seriously hobbles the search for good answers. A better system would have to allow a much broader respondent pool, immediate posting, and notifications that go directly to the asker — not to mention a more robust culture of links.


8 responses to “Tumblr Ask-Advice Blogging: What’s Holding It Back & How Link Culture Could Help

  • raavenb2619

    This is a really good analysis of how Tumblr asks work. There are definitely some structural things that can’t be solved unless most of the people asking and most of the people answering questions move to a different platform, but there’s definitely some actionable advice in here as well.

    I’ve definitely noticed that my answers follow roughly the same structure (you might be this/find it helpful to learn about this, you’re the final authority on your labels, don’t worry if everything is confusing/you’re unsure, try on a label if you want). It doesn’t feel like I can really say more than that, since everyone has a different experience and because I don’t want to police anyone by telling them they are or aren’t something, so I’m a little surprised by how much it seems like that has happened.

    Re: link culture, I’ve started tagging my answers based on what different identities they might touch on. Maybe when I have time I’ll start a dedicated link page as well. Considering how similar my answers can be, I’ve also wondered if my time might be better spent making a good general answer that goes on the ask page and can handle about 80% of people’s questions.

    • Coyote

      Thanks. Yeah, I do think it’s good when people affirm the asker’s own agency in their identity, talk in possibilities instead of absolutes, etc… I’d like it if more people adopted that approach.

      Unfortunately, though, it can be really hard to get through to ask-advice bloggers with constructive criticism about their answers, speaking from observation & past experience here. If it gets through at all, it’s only by getting blown up to the level of a scandal, first. And I’m not inclined to chalk that up to just an individual personality thing. I think this whole setup makes it a lot easier to seize authority and present yourself as all-knowing than it is to introduce any kind of checks on the people who adopt the role. (Is Ari of tumblr blog discovering-demisexuality going to respond to Laura’s criticism of their identity prescriptivism at all? Doubtful. That generally doesn’t happen unless people make a big stink about it.)

      Maybe when I have time I’ll start a dedicated link page as well. Considering how similar my answers can be, I’ve also wondered if my time might be better spent making a good general answer that goes on the ask page and can handle about 80% of people’s questions.

      I think that would be a lot more efficient, yeah. Especially if it includes more links to introductory resources (and specific posts/pages/essays, not just @’ing other Tumblr blogs). You can look through the messages you’ve already answered so far — I bet you can get a pretty good sense of the patterns.

  • Siggy

    I don’t think a linking culture is enough, and here’s why. In my recollection, big advice blogs would have FAQs, which they would point to whenever people asked something similar to a FAQ. What you suggest is pretty similar to a FAQ, and would have a comparable impact, which is to say not enough.

    As loathe I am to use AVEN as a model, AVEN did it far better, by simply distributing responsibility among whoever cared. Turnover rates are high, as people get sick of the same questions, but I’d rather have high turnover than a set of increasingly exasperated mods.

    Another working model is actual advice columns. They don’t bother answering every query, just the most interesting ones, which are given thoughtful replies. Askers wouldn’t be guaranteed an answer, but they’re not guaranteed one anyway under the present system.

    • Coyote

      That makes sense, yeah. I don’t think using more links can compensate for all of it. The ideal alternative here is a forum or similar community space where anyone can chime in as needed.

    • queenieofaces

      Late to the party, but, yeah, seconding Siggy. Speaking from experience, a lot of people don’t want to click through links–they want personalized advice. So while linking to outside sources is great (and of course I encourage it), you have no guarantee that people will click through, so you have to include all the major pieces of information in your reply. That takes up a lot of time and energy, even if you have boilerplate.

    • luvtheheaven

      Actual advice columns like Ask A Manager and Captain Awkward have huge comment sections where people get more advice too.

  • How Using Tumblr is Undermining Your Community | The Ace Theist

    […] explored this issue in a separate post about Tumblr ask-advice blog culture & what’s holding it back. In summary, there are three structural elements and two psychological […]

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