Are you a member of a small, marginalized identity-based community of Tumblr bloggers, looking to advocate for yourselves, support each other, have meaningful discussions, build, and grow? Then Tumblr itself is standing in your way.
What I criticize in this post is the structure of Tumblr as a platform and what it does to the groups who settle there. Rest assured, it has nothing to do with particular “types of people” or identifying the “bad people,” although it does get into criticizing some bad types of habits, behaviors, and mindsets. The purpose of this post is simply to discuss how the structure of the website itself can undermine community.
On that note, my goal here is to say something different than the usual complaints. I won’t be covering all the usual glitches, inconveniences, jankiness, or even the myriad problems with the automated NSFW flagging and appeal process. A Tumblr user doesn’t need it pointed out to them that the site can be technically dysfunctional. What warrants an explanation, I figure, is how the site itself — with nothing inherent to the userbase — has also been socially detrimental.
[This post has been crossposted to Pillowfort.]
You can find some similar thoughts on this subject in How Web 2.0 (And Especially Tumblr) is Ruining Fandom (PF link), which I recommend reading as well. What you won’t find here is a list of alternatives, which I know might be a disappointment. The truth is, if you decide to branch out, what makes the most sense for you is going to depend on you – what you’re looking for, what’s important to you, and where you’re willing to compromise. Don’t expect it to be an easy road. Still, it could be worth it, because…
Tumblr is Undermining You, & Here’s How:
- the “community spaces” can’t be moderated,
- the messaging & reply features allow loss of continuity,
- the reblog-addition system facilitates a hostile atmosphere,
- the reblog option can’t be disabled,
- the post edit system can’t make retractions,
- the ask-advice blogging is structurally backwards,
- the site structure itself encourages a sense of urgency, and
- the consequences of constant scrutiny are destructive.
1) The Tag Search Cannot Be Moderated
Because Tumblr lacks any built-in structure for mass community centers, some of its users rely on the tag search instead. The problem with using a tag search as a community space is that there are no built-in features to moderate these spaces. If there are posts appearing in a tag search that are irrelevant to the community, or, worse, even hostile to it, there’s nothing that community can do to directly remove them. For lack of more effective options, frustrated users to resort to more lackluster alternatives: either a) run away to a different tag or b) just yell about it, in the hopes that if they simply yell enough, the problem will stop.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. For comparison, check out other platforms that do have active moderation. If something is posted that absolutely doesn’t belong in that space at all, a moderator can just remove it. That’s the benefit of moderated spaces. And the Aro Tumblr community, for instance, is a community sorely in need of moderated spaces.
2) The Ask Messaging & Reply Features Allow Loss of Continuity
Out of the multiple ways that Tumblr users can communicate with each other publicly (via posts, reblog-additions to posts, replies, or ask messages), only one of those methods is fully threaded by the site, and that’s reblog-additions. When you look at the tail end of a Tumblr reblog chain, you can look up the chain to tell what each response is responding to. This enables a sense of conversational continuity — it helps people keep track of what’s going on.
With those other features, by comparison, it is much, much easier to lose continuity. Loss of continuity is what you’re experiencing when, for instance, you get an anonymous ask message criticizing something you said or asking you to explain, when you actually have no clue which post of yours they’re even talking about.
The reply feature isn’t as bad by comparison, but it still makes it difficult to keep track of the whole conversation if it grows to a large enough size (with new posts responding to replies responding to posts responding to more replies, and so on). This is one of the aspects of Tumblr that puts pressure on users to keep their conversations short, shallow, and limited, which means stunting the potential for real connection and growth.
So if people want to actually have coherent, full-blown conversations, then they should just use the reblog system, and then everything would be fine, right? Wrong, because the reblog system has a host of negative consequences all its own.
3) The Reblog-Addition System Facilitates A Hostile Atmosphere
This is one of the most important points in this entire argument. Many Tumblr users are aware that Tumblr posts are constantly devolving into intense and unproductive fights, but rarely do I see anyone there identifying how the reblog system itself deserves some of the blame.
If this idea is new to you, then I strongly recommend you read this post about reblog systems. Here are a few of its points, in summary: the Tumblr reblog-addition system fosters, firstly, A) reblogging to disagree. The problem here isn’t that people get into fights, of course; the problem is that when you reblog to disagree, disputing an objectionable post involves spreading that post in the process.
Consequently, a site culture of reblogging-to-disagree means B) more people sharing the worst posts on the site in order to disagree with them. This has the effect of C) stressing you out from seeing all the bad posts on your dash (especially in those long unpredictable chains).
When people are stressed out, they become less patient with each other and quicker to anger. From here, the userbase D) develops a culture of mockery, passing some posts around just to make fun of them, E) lends more visibility to aggression and hostility than to nuance or apologies, and F) makes major fights become inescapable. In these ways, the reblog-addition system facilitates an overall stressful, hostile atmosphere, which undermines community.
Plus, all the ways in which the reblog-addition system incentivizes inflammatory behavior should carry extra weight when you remember yet another drawback of using Tumblr:
4) The Reblog Option Cannot Be Disabled
Tumblr offers no option whatsoever to turn off sharing on sensitive posts, meaning there is no escaping the threat of personal, old, outdated, or embarrassing posts being reblogged by other people, as long as some copy of that post is still out there, forever. Even though some users will express their wishes by saying “do not reblog this,” some will ignore that and reblog anyway.
That alone would be bad enough, but there’s another layer to this, as well. Since threaded interactions are mainly conducted via the reblog feature, the inability to disable reblogs also means that there’s no way to disable additions, either. You can block individual people, but there’s no way to silence a specific post so that you don’t have to keep hearing the same repetitive comments, overdone jokes, unnecessary corrections, or hostile misunderstandings, over and over again.
In the case of simple mistakes, especially, this issue is exacerbated by the fact that…
5) The Post Edit System Cannot Make Retractions
Once you’ve said something on Tumblr and it’s been reblogged once, it’s out there; there’s no way to directly take it back. This has consequences both for two types of issues: a) technical errors (like safety hazards, wrong directions, absent sources, not crediting the artist, etc.) as well as b) opinions that the original poster no longer believes in.
Upon being corrected or persuaded, that user might want to amend the original post, but without the capacity for retraction, there’s no real way to correct your mistakes.
This can leave Tumblr users open to endless criticism: As more and more people discover the uncorrected version of a post, more and more will try to correct it, unaware that the poster has already got the memo. In severe cases, the inability to stem the tide is what sometimes has made it necessary for Tumblr users to completely delete their blogs in order to escape. Incapacity for retraction makes people unnecessarily vulnerable, which undermines community.
6) The Ask-Advice Blogging Is Structurally Backwards
I explored this issue in a separate post about Tumblr ask-advice blogging & what’s holding it back. In summary, there are three structural elements and two psychological ones:
A) The single-person respondent means you’re getting answers from just one person, instead of getting to hear from a broad swath of people who may collectively know more. B) Delayed posting of the initial message means you have no idea when your question will even be published, if ever. C) The way that post notifications work mean that the asker won’t get any notifications for the post, even if other users offer more advice or corrections.
Plus, when advice bloggers get popular, they become especially prone to writing answers that are D) overly-authoritative and E) way too rushed.
At least some of these issues could be addressed if ask-advice bloggers started using more links. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen much, because…
7) The Site Structure Encourages a Sense of Urgency, Immediacy, & Ephemerality
Tumblr is designed to make everything there feel very immediate. For instance, endless scrolling, which has been described as deliberately addictive, makes it easy to lose your place if you step away. This puts pressure on users to act immediately or not at all – which makes them less likely to read carefully. Plus, post date/timestamps can be hard to find, and so you easily get people reblogging old posts and old news.
The even bigger factor, though, is the lack of linking or link culture, because Tumblr has structurally discouraged its users from using links. For example, if you want a post to show up in the tag search so that it can be found by more people? Don’t use links.
This can impact communities in a number of ways:
A) Links are an important part of maintaining any kind of online community memory, not to mention breaking coinage cycles. B) The reblog feature inherently takes posts out of their original context, and the most direct possible way to recontextualize them would be with links. C) Links can be important for communicating efficiently on heavily-addressed topics. D) A lack of link culture can make people worse at resolving conflicts.
Essentially, linkless posts are more difficult to learn from or listen to unless you already know what’s going on. For example, as Siggy remarked about this post on aro community issues, “it’s quite unclear what exactly [this] is responding to.” Similarly, if you look at this whole exchange, you can see how the links completely changed Angela’s ability to follow what was being said. So when a website discourages its users from adding links to their posts, it’s making it more difficult for them to communicate with each other, which undermines community.
8) The Consequences of Helplessness and Constant Scrutiny Are Destructive
More than anything else, there is one thing that Tumblr is good at: circulation. Tumblr is one of the places to put something if you want it to get spread around. The problem is that this structural and cultural penchant for circulation occurs in a context without safeguards. Tension is amplified by a lack of control, including a lack of post privacy controls; a Tumblr post can be seen by any Tumblr user, even a blocked user, and that matters because visibility is not the same thing as acceptance.
For me, the classic case study here would be Ace Tumblr. The hostile attention toward aces on that site reached a fever pitch in 2011, and since then it’s only gotten worse and worse and worse, turning Tumblr into an ever-more hostile environment for aces and teaching many aces to adopt defensive mentalities. If there were any better safeguards on the site, that could have allowed the Tumblr ace community to put up walls and protect themselves against scrutiny and attacks. But the option simply isn’t there.
This constant over-exposure has seeped into aces’ own mindset toward each other and sapped our reserves. It’s not for nothing that our online resources have to have warnings like “please do not link to this page during an argument.” It’s not for nothing that the theme for the December 2018 Carnival of Aces was “burnout.” There are too many people I know who’ve mentioned this kind of inescapable antagonism as a reason for why they’ve pulled back or dropped out entirely. How many younger aces even know what’s been lost? How many bodies have to drop before a community concedes that maybe, just maybe, there needs to be a gathering place to retreat to off the battlefield? The inability to escape hostile eyes has eaten away at the Tumblr ace community.
When you pour your community-building efforts into Tumblr or try to instigate anything more than empty positivity and aesthetics, you are trying to extract meaningful discussion and nuance out of a platform that is working against you. It’s possible, sure, it’s not that you can’t, but it’s like trying to chop down a tree with a steak knife. It’s not a tool suited to the job. The community spaces (i.e. the tag search) cannot be moderated. The reblog system is structurally geared toward boosting hostility. You cannot disable reblogs or additions on your posts, leaving you constantly exposed to the whims of other people. There is no room for making mistakes, since anything you post (once reblogged) becomes impossible to take back. The ask-advice blog culture is completely lopsided. You are constantly operating in the short-term immediacy of the Now, you are discouraged from using a web building block as basic as the link, and you can’t even block people in a way that keeps them off your dash.
I can’t tell you the number of people who I’ve seen refer to the Tumblr experience as “screaming into the void,” and these are only some of the reasons for that. Take stock of your options and consider redirecting some of your community’s time & energy into something other than Tumblr.