We continue with our countdown to the Tumblrpocalypse, today with Elise Vist, PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo.
Tumblr’s recent “no female-presenting nipples” rule, which bans NSFW content from its platform, is yet another sign that it is no longer the intimate social networking site it started as. Although imperfect – and becoming imperfecter over the last few years – Tumblr initially offered users a middle-ground between the very, very public Twitter and the locked and gated communities of private blogging. The way that Tumblr tags worked (for a while) set up blogging practices that encouraged the formation of intimate publics. Broadly, intimate publics are publics – that is, groups of people who are addressed as a group by media, like a newspaper, a TV show, a radio broadcast, etc – but intimate publics are more protected and private than the dominant, normative publics. Intimate publics tend to be, according to Aimée Morrison (as informed by Lauren Berlant’s work), small, relational communities who protect themselves from outsiders and write to each other as an “us” that they name through metacommentary and discussions about what does and does not belong. Morrison’s work focused on mommybloggers, but we also see intimate publics that form around certain ships, or fanfiction tropes, or even interpretations of what a book means culturally.
Intimate publics really flourished on Tumblr, because it was easy to create those semi-permeable boundaries around ourselves: people could find us, but only if they knew what they were looking for. Additionally, we could have – and react to – conversations about what did and did not belong in a tag and therefore in our intimate public, using new tags to determine new boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘not us.’ In the past, I’ve argued that Tumblr’s tagging system was ideal for the creation of intimate publics, although as Tumblr’s searching and tagging systems have shifted with the goal of creating more publicity, it has become….well, worse.
To understand how Tumblr worked, it helps to contrast it to Twitter. On Twitter, the hashtag and the text appear in the same limited post. Community practice discourages an over-use of tags, because it clogs up the tweet and is seen as spammy rather than a meaningful contribution. Because people see what you post when you retweet or reply to them, you are always in conversation with the tweets you react to (hence the invention of “LRT” or “last retweet” on Twitter, which lets people react to a tweet without necessarily attracting the attention of the tweeter). As a result, then, we use the Twitter hashtag to gather people as a public – for instance, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are particularly famous examples of this, as are #CuteAndDisabled, #DistractinglySexy, and even #G*merg*te.
On Tumblr, however, tags and posts were separate and practically infinite. If you reblogged something, for example, you could react to it in two ways: you could add your text in the post, alerting the user and entering into dialogue with them – publicly – or you could react in the tags, which would not necessarily alert the OP to your commentary (tumblr saviour extensions notwithstanding). You could choose, then, whether to enter your reaction into the public of that post, or keep it to the intimate public of people who followed you and/or the other tags that you included. The obscure rules about which tags got included in searches (i.e. the first five globally and the first twenty on your blog) also helped us fine-tune our intimate publics, once we learned and shared those rules with other users. The point of Tumblr, as we might understand it through its tag and search technologies, was to share posts only with people who wanted to see them and knew how to find them.
As we got used to creating these intimate publics, it became a kind of second-language of blogging. We developed idiosyncratic tagging practices and used those to further limit the reach of our posts – using tags like “#destiel” (or “#deancas” when destiel became too public) or “#Johnlock” (or “#TJLC” when the difference between maybe-canon Johnlock and fic Johnlock became too important) to ensure we didn’t show up in general searches for “#Dean Winchester” or “#Sherlock” – potentially attracting the ire of people who didn’t want to see destiel slash or Johnlock theorizing. We created content warning tags and placed them outside of universal searching parameters, posting things like “#1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #suicide cw” so that we could discuss a topic without entering the larger public. We could then both warn our followers – our intimate public – of the topic and avoid attracting the unwanted attention of people looking for that topic. As Tumblr widened and broadened searching, we tried to keep up by developing more and more idiosyncratic code-words, incorporating misspellings and asterisks to fool the search algorithm, but that signaled the end of Tumblr as a place to form intimate publics.
The thing is: intimate publics are not profitable. It’s hard to serve ads to an intimate public, because the things we’re posting aren’t legible to the public, and therefore the technologies that determine which ads to show us. You can’t sell an intimate public as an audience as easily as you can a public, because we’re capricious and private, changing our language in response to unwanted attention. We’re not interested in getting bigger, so investing in our eyeballs isn’t worth the time. It isn’t to Tumblr/Yahoo’s benefit to sustain our carefully crafted intimate publics, so they have been working over the past few years to force us into publicity – to create, in their words, “a better, more positive Tumblr.” The “better” Tumblr they’re creating is better not for its users, but for its advertisers. It’s a shame, because although the intimacy of Tumblr’s publics is also partly to blame for the Thing known as Tumblr Drama, it’s also what allowed people to find their people and to craft a place of safety that would be impossible to create on a public account like Twitter. What we’re losing as people migrate away from Tumblr, and as Tumblr makes its commitment to advertisement and profit clearer, is a place where people could shape their online space – for good or ill – to their own desires.