The teens are on TikTok these days, but back in my day, Tumblr was the place to be.
Does this make me sound ancient? Well, jokes on you, because I’m actually Gen Z, but old enough to remember life before TikTok. And in those days, if you had an angsty text post, an artsy photo edit, or a sexy GIF of your favorite fictional character headcanon, you posted it on Tumblr.
These days, you can still find almost all of these same trends on TikTok: 17-year-olds posting their personal drama with #messytok, artists capturing their creative processes and final results, and Draco Malfoy thirst trap edits that make me slightly uncomfortable. If you search for the older Gen Z cuspers or millennials on TikTok, you might even see specific references to Tumblr inside jokes.
Basically, if you think about it hard enough, TikTok is a modern iteration of Tumblr. But Tumblr is practically dead, and TikTok is very much alive. While a Tumblr spokesperson says that 48 percent of its current user base is Gen Z, it’s undeniable that the site’s total user numbers have dropped off in the past few years.
After a deep dive into my own archived blogging history and current For You Page, here’s why I think that is — and some takeaways on how TikTok can avoid the same fate.
Tumblr content just didn’t keep up with the times
Long story short, the social media world loves videos. Quick how-tos, lifestyle vlogs, and meme videos give me a hit of dopamine in a way that static posts just can’t accomplish. And while Tumblr had the joke text post down, you would be unlikely to find a true video post in your Tumblr dashboard. The closest it came was GIFs, which used to take a thousand years to load, so it was more worth it to just keep scrolling.
While Tumblr did have the capability to post video content, it just wasn’t that popular. People didn’t log on to Tumblr to watch videos, because nothing about Tumblr’s video format was specific to its platform. Since the dashboard was a never-ending scroll, similar to TikTok, users didn’t want to sit on one post to watch a five minute video. If you wanted longer content, you’d move to YouTube. And back then, short form videos were on Vine (RIP).
And while that was all fine and good, the lack of video content on Tumblr didn’t let true Tumblr personalities develop. You could have a super successful blog without ever showing your face or talking directly to your followers, and that’s the difference between an influencer-type of success and blogging fame.
“I think part of [what made Tumblr die] was the growing vanity around social platforms, where your image and content provides a reward for sharing yourself or an edited version of yourself,” said Haley Peterson, former active Tumblr user, in a DM. “Even though you can do that in Tumblr, I feel like it was more of a place for curating content and mood boards, which didn’t match the direction that society was heading.”
Although not exactly an influencer platform, Tumblr does currently have its Creatr program which launched in 2015. It features artists and their work for potential pairing with brands and advertisers in paid campaigns. The program’s structure allows for a similar paid content opportunity as a typical influencer, but still lacks that identifiable face that other platforms champion.
In comparison, TikTok is almost the antithesis of Tumblr’s format, but it offers similar content. It obviously has short form videos down, and it allows people to hop in front of the camera and informally offer a hot take on the latest Netflix show or showcase their art with a distinct voiceover detailing the steps. The organic, almost face-to-face interaction is drastically different from the anonymity, and allows for TikTokers to build empires beyond the app.
TikTok’s creation features also set it apart, where you can duet other users, take advantage of trending audios, and play around with filters as a central part of the content. These features encourage a different type of creativity to take place directly on the app, rather than just showcasing content that you made elsewhere. Going live on the app also drives more engagement, and contributes to that organic feel.
And while both platforms have the never-ending scroll feature, TikTok’s algorithm actively learns about the user’s preferences for content, whereas Tumblr was a labor-intensive process. You had to find the blogs you liked and follow them yourself. Sorry Tumblr, but I have only gotten lazier, so I’ll take an algorithmically curated For You Page any day.
Anonymity meant questionable content for young teens, unchecked
Scrolling your Tumblr dashboard as a middle schooler was a safe haven; you could vent about your crush not paying attention to you during math class and mention him by name without having to worry about him finding the post. Sometimes that post could go viral (if you were #relatable enough), but if your name wasn’t attached to your blog, as a lot of Tumblr users operated, they would never know it was you.
This anonymity was central to Tumblr culture, where you could get vulnerable about mental health or talk about niche interests that you wouldn’t want to broadcast publicly, like questions about sex or intense Jack Black worship. But this anonymous culture could also get nasty.
“I remember Tumblr being very eating disorder-y and had a lot of problematic content on it. It was so pervasive at the time, focusing on ‘thinspo’ and ‘thinsperation’ posts and it spread everywhere,” said Ejun Kim, a former Tumblr user who’s now a TikTok fan.
She’s not the only one that remembers this kind of content, first popular on LiveJournal, where a search for “eating disorder” still yields several pro-anorexia communities. As LiveJournal died off and many of its users migrated to Tumblr, I saw those same posts as a 13 year old. They were plastered all over the blogs I followed, full of tips on how to get a thigh gap or restrictive eating guidelines. Every comment was wistful, and all of it went unregulated.
It went beyond eating disorder glorification. You could easily find graphic images of self harm or text conversations discussing self destructive behavior. While Tumblr’s Community Guidelines directly addressed this, posts weren’t actively taken down quickly enough, or really at all, in order to snuff out what lots of users called a destructive cycle.
To Tumblr’s credit, if you actively search for terms like “thinspo,” you’re shown a PSA-like warning and resources for eating disorder help, and you do have to actively click “View search results” before potentially triggering images can appear. A Tumblr spokesperson told Mashable that “Tumblr has been running PSAs as a way to signal boost mental health topics, and we were the first platform of our kind to do this back in 2011.”
Because of this, users who may have been dealing with mental health issues for the first time were drawn to a platform that allowed them to talk about it openly, even if the conversation exposed them to possibly harmful content.
“Tumblr was definitely focused on being sad alone,” said Harcourt Allen, former Tumblr blogger, in a DM. “I have multiple in-depth stories about how Tumblr allowed for people to get inspiration and be self destructive on their own, and I think being able to openly share struggles on other platforms now is way better.”
However, other social media sites are not free of Tumblr’s issues either. Plenty of similarly triggering content makes its way onto Instagram and TikTok, just more often in a prettier package.
“I see it all the time on TikTok too, videos on how to lose weight, or ‘What I Eat In A Day’ videos, or thinspo content that doesn’t show the creator’s face, and I think they’re looking for some of the anonymity that Tumblr used to provide,” said Kim.
It’s a hard balance to strike, especially on a site like Tumblr that became known for unfiltered content and conversations. But allowing such blatantly harmful content to easily circulate understandably raised concern, and ultimately, led users to move away from the site.
The Yahoo takeover and the adult content ban
On the flipside, once Tumblr did take action to censor potentially harmful content, it did it in a way that was the pure opposite of what its users wanted.
In 2013, Yahoo famously bought Tumblr for US$1.1 billion, with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer promising “not to screw it up.” She did not, in fact, immediately or directly screw it up, but it did go downhill from there.
Yahoo sought to monetize Tumblr in a way that was “meaningful to the user experience,” which essentially translated to more ad sales. But because Tumblr didn’t really rely on knowing its users’ true identities and the content could be adult-oriented, advertisers weren’t very keen.
Adult content was pivotal to Tumblr, where users often joked that you couldn’t log on without seeing a stray boob. From erotic fanfiction to NSFW GIFs, sex creators flocked to the platform to safely post their content, where the endless scroll seemed to almost favor the female nipple.
But Tumblr kept getting sold, next to Verizon in 2017 and then eventually WordPress in 2019, for only US$3 million, as its value declined during its slow death. The nail in its coffin hit in between its Verizon and WordPress overlords, when the adult content ban was issued.
In December 2018, Tumblr updated its Terms of Service to explicitly ban “images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples — this includes content that is so photorealistic that it could be mistaken for featuring real-life humans.”
The sex ban came after Apple banned Tumblr’s app from the iOS App Store due to reported child pornography. It was devastating to Tumblr’s NSFW blogging community, which relied on being able to post erotic content for creative expression, and contributed to a significant part of Tumblr culture. This crackdown purged a ton of these blogs, leading to a mass exodus of users.
“Almost every blog in existence got flagged for NSFW posts and pictures even if they weren’t [NSFW,] which was a huge misplay and led to a huge migration from the site,” said Will Garcia, former Tumblr blogger who had a large following for his humor blog. He went inactive on Tumblr around 2017, right before everyone who was left jumped ship.
While addressing the child pornography concerns was of course pressing, Tumblr’s users couldn’t get over the site-wide ban that ruined a massive section of the website.
Over on TikTok, there’s a growing community of kink, sex worker, and sex educator creators. They often have to censor their keywords and hashtags in order not to be taken down by TikTok, and if TikTok were to take their sex content regulations even further, these creators might develop a similar displeasure with the platform that once plagued Tumblr.
TikTok, please do better
SO. What does all of this mean for the latest hip social site? While TikTok caters to some of the same niches and audiences that once found a home on Tumblr, it does have the chance to rectify these issues before its own death comes knocking.
Keep doing what you’re good at, TikTok. The FYP knows me better than I know myself, and I can so easily keep scrolling because my goldfish-like attention span is satisfied by short videos. TikTok is testing out three-minute videos, and it is my professional opinion that this is just Not a Good Idea. I come here for fast videos, something Tumblr could never give me, so don’t take that away from me.
Establish a clear policy on harmful content, and offer support to those struggling with mental health. The current TikTok Community Guidelines makes clear that content depicting suicide, self-harm, or dangerous acts will be taken down, but maintains that the platform supports open conversation about mental health. While that is surely appreciated, TikTok should consider attaching resource links or targeted ads for mental health resources if a user is often interacting with mental health-related content.
In the past, TikTok hasn’t had the best response to taking down triggering content. When a graphic video showing a suicide circled the app in September, TikTok had a hard time even finding all of its iterations to take down. Too many users were unwillingly shown the clip on their FYPs, and the whole situation demonstrated the app’s need for a better detection system on harmful content.
Value sex creators who are of-age. TikTok also has a similar adult content ban on its platform, but as mentioned, there is a growing community of creators who focus on consensual, educational sex content. While battling child pornography and age-inappropriate content is valuable, TikTok should keep in mind that this type of content exists and wants to grow when designing future features and policies. Enabling content filters for creators to use, like only displaying certain videos to users over 18, could be a useful tool that will actively promote safe sex content rather than pushing it out entirely, as Tumblr did.
Obviously, TikTok is not Tumblr in plenty of important ways, despite housing a lot of similar content. The influencer culture, viral dance videos, and some active celebrity presences (hello, Jason Derulo) sets it apart — among many other reasons.
But, as a hub for teen creators and niche communities, I want to see it succeed even more than it already has. Tumblr was once my North Star, and its death has left me directionless. TikTok is poised to fill the hole in my (and thousands of others’) hearts. I can only hope it listens to my advice and defies death for many years to come.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For international resources, this list is a good place to start.
If you feel like you’d like to talk to someone about your eating behavior, call the National Eating Disorder Association’s helpline at 800-931-2237. You can also text “NEDA” to 741-741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at the Crisis Text Line or visit the nonprofit’s website for more information.
ที่มา : Mashable