Six Years of Tumblr
For a recent episode of the podcast “What’s Tech?” from The Verge, Chris Plante has a conversation with The Verge’s Social Media Manager Kaitlyn Tiffany about what Tumblr is.
Listening to this podcast, I began reflecting on my time over the last several years of using Tumblr, and I began to realize that I actually have a somewhat interesting perspective of the site after my experiences. It’s not that I’m some famous blogger or have experienced everything that the site has to offer, but I’ve been involved in a community and have been blogging consistently since mid 2009, about two years after Tumblr was founded and years before it was acquired by Yahoo in June 2013.
I first created my Tumblr blog during my senior year of high school. I have always been interested in new social platforms and in building websites — I probably have tens of accounts on now-defunct social networking platforms over the years — and Tumblr sounded like an interesting and easy way for me to talk about things I liked to my vacant corner of the internet.
I remember I had the theme with the typography from Vertigo for awhile. Funny in retrospect that it was one of the featured themes.
I followed a handful of generic blogs and posted a few times over the next couple of months. It wasn’t until I started my freshman year of college that I actually began to be an active user.
When I moved away to university I left behind a core group of friends who had cultivated my creativity throughout high school. We were really into filmmaking, and as a group we would write, direct, and perform in our own films shot around our home town. We spent hours driving around and talking about our favorite movies in between shooting our own.
At school I was starved for a community who I could share my appreciation for film with, and I never found that on campus. Instead, I began to discover that community online in a handful of different Tumblr blogs I stumbled over.
I can’t even remember now how sifted through the Tumblr user base to find the blogs that I started following. But slowly and surely my network expanded from a few key bloggers to well over a hundred blogs I followed in a loosely-connected community of film appreciators.
What really tied us all together was a medium that is critical to my experience of Tumblr — the cinematic gif.
The .gif format — an image format that allows for animated images — would later explode in popularity online. Today you see gifs on every major social networking platform, from Twitter to Reddit to messaging apps like Facebook Messenger. When I first joined Tumblr, however, the concept was still fairly unique.
What truly made it unique in my particular online community was its use as a vehicle for sharing snippets of films as images on blogs. Bloggers would take shots from movies that they enjoyed and create a gif as a tiny snapshot of the moving scene to share with other fans.
When I initially started making gifs the Tumblr size limit for gifs that were animated was 500kb. It became quite an art to make a smooth, well colored animated gif of a scene that fit under the 500kb marker. In later years this limit was raised to 1MB and finally to it’s current 2MB limit. Gif dimensions also had to change to be optimized to the dashboard post width, which lost it’s margins and re-sized images from 500px to 540px sometime after the Yahoo acquisition.
I eventually learned how to create gifs in Photoshop, and began to make cinematic gifs my primary original content on my blog. As my gifs improved, I began to gain a following. And because I posted gifs from the films I enjoyed, I started to get followers who appreciated similar films. This is how my Tumblr network exploded and began to solidify.
I found gif-makers who I liked and who gif’ed the content I liked and I would follow them. Appreciators of the gifs I made and the movies I made them from began to follow me and I began to follow them back. Eventually my dashboard was a two way communication between my ‘mutuals’ instead of just a content delivery system.
A ‘mutual’ is a blog who you follow, and who follows you in return.
So there was this very interesting progression that happened over the years. Initially I followed blogs just to curate my dashboard with cool content. Slowly this led me to discover a community that I could later contribute to. Through these contributions I gathered my own following which turned into a network of blogs mutually sharing and appreciating each other’s work.
I remember this ‘era’ in my Tumblr experience very fondly. Making new friends, creating new content, and the rush of gathering a following.
Eventually I had created a network of connected blogs who I shared interests with, mostly with a focus on an appreciation of film and television. Tumblr begins to actually become really social when you create this interconnection.
Any time a new movie from our favorite directors was released, or someone discovered a sleeper indie film, or an obsession with an actor/actress or director reached meme-worthy-levels, Tumblr was the most fun place to be. Me and my online friends would discuss and gossip and joke about all these things we mutually loved.
It made something that I already loved so much more enjoyable and engaging.
The best events were film and television awards shows. The Academy Awards are a reason to stay on Tumblr all night to discuss each minute detail of the event, react to winners and losers, and discuss the implications following the event late into the night. It made something that I already loved so much more enjoyable and engaging, and every year brought my blogging community closer together.
Tumblr begins to actually become really social when you create this interconnection with mutual blogs, and this social connection you have with each other is bizarrely intimate. This is one of the most important aspects of my Tumblr experience — the connections.
Happy Place to be Sad
See the thing about Tumblr is that everyone is personally present in their blog, as well as abstracted away or hidden behind the facade of the blog they run. Users will go from creating new content to re-blogging their friends’ work to posting the most intimate and authentic text posts about their personal lives.
They do this because they feel protected. You’re not talking to people you really know in your own life, and you’re not really speaking as yourself, but yet you know there are people there to listen to you and sometimes to talk back.
Tumblr users can be whoever they want to be and can share in a safe place, away from the reality and challenges of their actual lives.
You get consolation while also maintaining your distance and safety. When you create a community of mutual followers Tumblr can be this really comforting and mostly safe place to unburden yourself, at least in my experience. It’s why I don’t share my Tumblr URL with people I know in my real life — I have an identity to protect.
This is what persists. This is why Tumblr is special and different. It’s a place for the lonely people on the internet to create their own social circle. They can be whoever they want to be and can share in a safe place, away from the reality and challenges of their actual lives. I lost my creative community and was able to find it again online through Tumblr.
I’ve had a lot of experiences and relationships over the years on Tumblr. I remember them like chapters in my journey. The first few chapters involved me discovering my identity. The middle chapters involved me becoming an established blog and finding my community.
The latter chapters involve a changing of the guard — in which many of my friends left and I discovered new subgroups to replace them, as well as the Yahoo takeover — and finally a year of weirdly intimate relationships between mutual blogs as the broader community I was a part of transformed into something less tight-knit.
Friends change, move on, delete their blogs.
The current phase I’m in seems to be a turn away from this personal blog-to-blog connection and towards more of an established self-serving relationship. I’ve spent less time on my personal blog conversing with others and more time developing a side blog where I create gifs from the Star Wars films. I’ve also spent a lot less time caring about follower counts or the film identity for my personal blog, for better or worse.
My blog is a lot less film-focused now and is a little bit more blended, as I’ve started to follow more personal blogs or ‘aesthetic’ blogs instead of strictly film appreciation blogs. In fact these days it feels that blogs focused on one topic are less and less the norm — but that could just be my dashboard.
Friends change, move on, delete their blogs. New blogs take their place. Younger bloggers trying to find their own community. Nowadays I’m the old man on my dashboard, and eventually I’ll move on to other things.
Old Man and his Memories
Tumblr for me is more than just a website I visit. It’s a part of my identity that has shaped who I am during some of the formative years of my life. My blog is an archive to the things I loved and the people who shared those things with me. I would be a different person without it — for better or worse — and I think that is important and meaningful.
What I learned from Tumblr is that everyone has a side to them that they show only in the most intimate or desperate moments. Everyone needs an emotional and mental release and for someone to be there for them. Everyone needs a community and a sense of belonging. Everyone needs to express themselves or share with others or be creative. For many people, that place is Tumblr, and I think its importance should not be underestimated or forgotten.