Tumblr's a rare safe haven amid all of the internet's ugliness

Most people have written off Tumblr, but there's still value that's harder quantify.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
9 min read

Tumblr is still a safe space for many internet users.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On certain evenings every month, the Taylor Swift fandom of Tumblr hits the pause button on its usual business of sharing quotes, memes, artistically edited photos and analyses of the songwriter's lyrics. Instead, users make room on their dashboards for "selfie nights," when fans from minority groups post pictures of themselves -- serving the dual purpose of increasing visibility and celebrating diversity.

For Elizabeth, 25, from Austin, Texas, who identifies as sexually fluid but isn't out to her family and friends, Tumblr -- and the LGBTQ selfie night in particular -- has been a safe space for her to express her sexuality. "It's important to highlight minorities and the LGBTQ community because it makes those feel loved and accepted when they might always not be," she said. "I really feel the love."

Creating a safe, inclusive place for people to connect is part of the platform's DNA -- a rarity at a time when most social networks offer more than their fair share of toxic comments and misinformation. 

But on Tumblr, you might find friends who are the first you've had who understand your hidden disability and are willing to listen to how it affects your life. You could find an audience for your art or writing, inspired perhaps by your favorite sci-fi franchise. Or your favorite pop star Taylor Swift might reblog a funny video you made, adding her own caption in the process. "Sometimes the internet is bad but in this moment it is truly good," Swift said in just such a post back in July.

But now Verizon, which acquired Tumblr in 2017, has sold the social network-cum-blog platform. The announcement, which arrived in early August after months of speculation, also came with the news that Tumblr's sale price was less than $3 million -- significantly less than the $1.1 billion that Yahoo (now a Verizon property) purchased it for in 2013.

That dramatic drop in value underscores how Tumblr's parents failed to make the most of the site's potential and its still sizable user base. It's far from the only once-hot commodity to end up in the bargain bin -- you need only look as far as AOL, Yahoo or MySpace to see how the biggest names on the internet can become obsolete without a rigorous plan in place for long-term monetization.

But to really understand Tumblr's value, it's important to look beyond growth statistics. Despite the decline, there's life in it yet, what with a current tally of 475 active million blogs, according to the platform's own stats. What's more, that life consists of vibrant micro-communities -- fonts of creativity and places for people to explore their passions.

"It still, to me feels like this magical place, unlike anywhere else on the internet," said Tumblr's Amanda Brennan. Formerly of KnowYourMeme and sometimes referred to as the Meme Librarian, Brennan spends her time looking at the trends among fandoms, compiling lists of the top fandoms on Tumblr's Fandometrics page.

The emphasis on growth within the tech world leaves little room for spaces to endure that aren't all things to all people at all times. And yet niche spaces like Tumblr, as well as fan fiction site Archive of Our Own (AO3) or even services such as Pinterest and Reddit, are crucial to keeping the ecosystem of the web diverse. There are reasons people are still drawn to Tumblr, and those reasons are worth acknowledging. It allows people to find their tribes, to share, to laugh, to educate themselves, to experiment creatively, collaboratively and sometimes furtively.

Fandoms and creativity

In an interview, Melanie Kohnen, assistant professor of rhetoric and media studies at Lewis & Clark University, noted the importance of Tumblr in popularizing what are today internetwide modes of creativity, such gifsets and meme culture. "There's also a really developed culture of commentary and tags," she said, explaining the unique way in which Tumblr users can write full sentences in tags to augment posts or reblogs.

The original Tumblr fandoms (circa 2010-13) tended to revolve around the band One Direction and the TV show Glee. These days, the fandoms are many and varied, based on diverse interests, including F1 and WWE. TV fandoms still dominate, with 29% growth in related content over the past six months, according to Tumblr.

The very best cosplay we saw at Comic-Con 2019

See all photos

Since the debut of the TV show Good Omens in May of this year, it has consistently been the top fandom on Tumblr in every weekly Fandometrics report, according to Brennan. In part, this could possibly be attributed to the fact that Neil Gaiman, who wrote the Good Omens series, is active on the platform, engaging with fans and sharing their creative work.

"I've been here six years, and prior to that I was studying Tumblr in grad school and at my previous job, and every day I'm still surprised to find something where I'm just like, 'Whoa, someone thought of this, this is awesome.'" she said.

The web turned 30 this year, and its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, has encouraged people to use the web as a force for creativity.

But creativity requires safe spaces to flourish, and it's entirely possible that these spaces lie beyond the homogenous, mass-market platforms we're all shepherded toward using. We need places for people to go other than Facebook, which ties everything you do to a single identity; other than Twitter, with its neat little 280-character boxes and sense that you're yelling into the void; other than the Instagram show window, where resharing and opportunities for multiperson discourse aren't built into the platform's core mechanism.

In her paper Tumblr Youth Subcultures and Media Engagement, Allison McCracken, associate professor of American studies at DePaul University, noted that Tumblr's design facilitates a participatory culture that provides a "counterpublic space for marginalized millennial communities and progressives" to explore "fannish passions and creative production."

A private world

For many users, a significant part of Tumblr's appeal is the ability to disguise your true identity. Over email, McCracken described Tumblr as an "opaque" platform, which is partly by design: Users can be as pseudonymous as they choose, or have multiple blogs that aren't visibly tied to one identity. This "makes it much harder for families, employers, friends, and other institutional authorities to police them; as a result, many youth feel a greater sense of security and privacy on Tumblr than on other platforms," she wrote in her paper.

It's a reversal of the idea that anonymity on the internet is automatically a bad thing, having opened the door to trolls and the darkest aspects of the internet. (Just look at 8chan and parts of Reddit.)

Tumblr's opacity even protects publicly identifiable users, giving them a modicum of privacy that other platforms fail to replicate. Take Taylor Swift, whose use of Tumblr is fully public and yet feels to her fanbase -- and possibly to her -- like a private forum. Swift controls her Tumblr experience by following fans (on other social platforms she maintains "following" counts of zero) and readily engaging with content that appears on her dash (the Tumblr equivalent of a home or news feed).

If you follow Swift on Tumblr you'll be familiar with the sense of intimacy between her and her thriving fan community. It allows her to be more playful, funny and open than she is when posting cross-platform content or in formal interviews.

"You don't have to be the one version that you want to project," Brennan said. "You don't have to hide who you truly are. And I think that when it comes to [Swift], she gets that."

While Swift's public support of the LGBTQ community appears to be new, the star has been embracing LGBTQ fans privately on Tumblr for years. Within Swift's Tumblr fandom, it was the discourse around inclusion and visibility for minority fans that resulted in the creation of the LGBTQ, disability and Swifties of Color selfie nights.


Yumna with Taylor Swift at the Lover Secret Sessions in London.

Taylor Nation

When Yumna, a 21-year-old Londoner, attended one of Swift's prerelease album-listening parties, known as Secret Sessions, last month, the artist told her that she'd been chosen after taking part in a selfie night. (Yumna participates in selfie nights for religious Swifties and Swifties of Color.)

"The Swiftie fandom can be seen as a mini society in itself, and so it is important to celebrate those within this fandom who are ethnic minorities or part of the LGBTQ+ community, just as it is important to do so in society itself," Yumna told me over email.

A place for the marginalized

This sense that Tumblr is a safe space for minorities isn't unique to Swift. Just as it's long been a place for subcultures to flourish, Tumblr is home to people who want to explore their identities or feel like they don't necessarily fit in elsewhere. This is to its credit, but also hasn't helped when it comes to being taken seriously.

"Tumblr gets dismissed -- and always has been -- because its users are devalued in the culture generally (youth -- girls especially, queer and non-binary/transgender persons, disabled persons, 'social justice warriors')," McCracken told me. "It's tremendously important as a space of self-expression especially for marginalized/devalued groups who feel community, support and validation there."

Brennan noted the amount of learning that takes place on the platform. Communities spring up around learning calculus or languages, but a common theme among different fandoms is educating one another about topics including homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism and body positivity.

Sammii, 24, from Australia, has been on Tumblr for 10 years -- almost since its inception -- and uses it mainly for posting personal photos, poetry and thoughts. As social justice and allyship have become increasingly important on Tumblr, she said that she "felt a responsibility to educate myself and learn as much as I could to keep being a part of the community." The biggest change she's seen in that time was the ban on adult content, which began in December and reportedly caused a 17% drop in views

"I understand why they made the decision, but that took away a lot of users I knew, and I almost left myself, but I have such a nostalgic feeling for this social media site that still feels different from the rest to me," said Sammii. 

A big part of why Sammii (and others) wanted to leave was Tumblr's policy of banning "female-presenting nipples" (the phrase used by Tumblr) but still allow so-called male-presenting nipples. But being able to open the app up anywhere knowing that there was no risk of adult content popping up on her screen actually led her to stick with Tumblr, she added. "It still brings me joy to use for so many different reasons."

A new era for Tumblr

Fortunately for Sammii, Tumblr's new owner, Automattic, which also owns Wordpress, appears to see and appreciate the value in the platform. "It is an essential venue to share new ideas, cultures and experiences, helping millions create and build communities around their shared interests," Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg said of Tumblr in a statement after purchasing the company earlier this month.

As Wordpress is also a blogging platform, Kohnen said she believes Mullenweg is more likely to "get" Tumblr and not just treat it like another Twitter or Instagram. When previous owners realized it wouldn't follow the same business model and start generating money straight away, they "lost interest," she said.

"I think he seemed to understand Tumblr, a little more than maybe previous owners, which I think really bought it just because it was a hot item," said Kohnen, who is interested in the idea of providing different access tiers, some of which are paid.

Brennan believes there's something for everyone on Tumblr. Recently, she's noticed a sharp increase in the amount of outdoorsy content people are posting -- cozy cottages, camping, that kind of thing. To her, it "signifies a shift in our culture to get away from the internet a little bit -- it's kind of like reconnecting to nature." And yet however much users want to get away from the internet, they come back to share what makes them happy on Tumblr. 

"There's something about Tumblr -- once you find your community, you get this feeling of being understood and seen, no matter what that is, whether it's a fandom or something sports related, or even social justice movements," said Brennan. "[It] takes a second to find but once you find it, you're there forever."

Some surnames have been excluded to protect the privacy of contributors.

The story was originally published at 5 a.m. PT.