Tumblr nostalgia

Online(TM) feels like such a hellish place that it’s not surprising to see the outpouring of nostalgia that has accompanied the news that it’s being sold by Verizon.

The fact that it’s being sold to WordPress’ parent company Automattic for just a fraction of what Yahoo (who would later be purchased by Verizon) paid for it ($1.1 billion down to a paltry $3 million) serves as an elegant metaphor for the degradation of our digital lives, and, indeed, the degradation of public life as we know it. What was once valuable and pure is now worth little more than pocket money compared with malevolent and far less edifying platforms.

Tumblr’s appeal

The sale of Tumblr is an occasion that has forced many to reflect on what can be good about communities online and what we have lost over the last decade or so. On Wired, Angela Watercutter explains the appeal of Tumblr very clearly:

“What made Tumblr such a haven in its heyday was that it felt like a place where freak flags waved proudly and everyone felt supported. Communities self-policed and everything was shared and shareable. Want to talk about Glee? Tumblr was there for you. Need the perfect Beyoncé GIF? News about Barack Obama's reelection campaign? Ask and ye shall receive. Politics, comics, essays, discourse—it was all there, and easy to find.”

Tumblr, to expand on Watercutter’s line of argument, was a ‘safe space’ in a very literal sense - it allowed groups of likeminded people to get together and share jokes and ideas. It helped to form identities, but also became a place where people could learn about culture and politics.

Perhaps unfairly, Tumblr has become associated with a generation of aggressively woke people, raised on recontextualized academic concepts. (This pretty bad article on Vice from earlier this year argues that Tumblr, along with Buzzfeed helped to popularize the word ‘problematic, for example.) But whether this is just mean hyperbole or not doesn’t really matter - there’s still a grain of truth that’s worth retrieving: Tumblr was a place where it was okay to care about things. Just because there’s been a reaction against that in politics and society doesn’t mean that was wrong or misguided.

Kara Swisher takes a similar line on the New York Times:

In its earliest incarnation, the kaleidoscope of a microblogging platform was rich with quirky communities, wonderful memes and, most of all, where vibrant creativity once reigned and often astonished. It was one of the most delightful places one could be at the time.

Tumblr was about stuff, not broadcasting yourself

Unlike many of the most popular social media platforms today, Tumblr was about stuff. Swisher writes that she had a Tumblr she used to post images of signage she saw every day. “I find signs everywhere. On sidewalks. On walls. Sometimes misspelled. I cannot ignore them. So it is written, so it shall be posted.”

This is echoed by my girlfriend who was (apparently) a pretty big deal in UK Tumblr circles a decade ago. “Everything was based around being a fan of something. You found who to follow through hashtags… And you made networks that became proper friends.”

Today, social media teaches us to broadcast ourselves and build our personal brands. On Tumblr, it taught us to be curious and open to the world around us.

Could Tumblr help us build a better digital future?

Although a lot of the conversation around Tumblr has been about looking backwards at what we’ve lost, people are also starting to think about whether it’s spirit could be recaptured.

Many are optimistic because of who it’s being sold to - WordPress. Tumblr and WordPress were both closely related platforms that were integral to the blogging boom.

“If Tumblr was the Coney Island freak show of the blogosphere,” Matthew Ingram writes on the Columbia Journalism Review, “WordPress is the more dependable cousin—the one with a steady job.”

Although Wordpress is today valued at more than $1 billion and is the platform that supports a huge proportion of websites, it hasn’t really lost its DIY ethos. It might have gone from strength to strength in a way that Tumblr was never allowed to, but perhaps now it can help Tumblr rediscover its magic.

The noises from Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg would suggest he’s in tune with people’s nostalgia.

“Tumblr had kind of died under its variety of corporate parents” he said in an interview with The Verge. What is critical, he suggests later, is getting back to the idea of openness and independence. That was something that Facebook severely limited following the Cambridge Analytica scandal (the platform essentially shut down the posting APIs that let users cross-post), but it would seem Mullenweg believes this has to be the way forward:

“At one point, blogging had a real magic to it. A frisson. You’d have blog rolls and links and people would follow and comment and you’d keep up with things and it was a really, really nice social network. But it also was totally distributed and people had their own designs, and all those sorts of things. I think we can bring some of that back and reimagine it in the mobile world which is where Tumblr is also super strong.”

Let’s hope Muellenwegg can help Tumblr get back on its fit - I can’t help but think there are millions of people who really need it.