Our final scholarly reaction to the Tumblrpocalypse comes from Allison McCracken, DePaul University. Allison is a co-editor of A Tumblr Book: Platform and Cultures (forthcoming 2019).
I first went on Tumblr in 2010, because I was a Glee fan. As a fan and scholar of musicals–their social and industrial contexts as well as the texts themselves–Tumblr was a dream come true, a wide-open town with every kind of content related to the show available in the same place. And because Glee was its own kind of TV animal –a teen musical with I-Tunes hits and live tours – and because its immediate popularity coincided with the rise of social media, there was an enormous amount of content immediately available on the platform: entire episodes, every separate musical number (video and audio), every performance from every “Glee Live” show, every tweet by cast members or production staff, all show publicity and promotion, and literally every public sighting of the show’s stars anywhere. Because the cast were young and because they were network TV stars who had to do a lot of promotion, they were more accessible than many film stars (they flew on commercial airlines, for example). They were more covered than the Beatles in their early days just in terms of the volume and depth of material provided by both the press and the social media fans in those first few years (for example, it was quite possible to know where Glee’s top stars were almost every minute of their lives everywhere around the world). Tumblr’s “endless scroll” was ideally suited to accommodate Glee’s 24/7 news cycle, but of course, Tumblr also constantly made available fan creative production as well: art, video, and fan fiction; indeed, many of Glee’s early fan production integrated Tumblr as essential to its character’s lives, just as it had become part of its writer’s lives. Either as a fan or a scholar, I had never seen anything like it before.
As someone who has also always been fascinated by the cultural work of popular texts, Tumblr was goldmine of a different sort. In the early 2010s, I began to focus my attention to the way fan tumblrs visibly integrated other kinds of social discourses. Fan media practices have always been rooted in particular social contexts and dynamics, and I have focused most of my work on the fandom of marginalized groups (women, queer people, people of color, working class people). Tumblr made these intersections between fandom and marginalized identities and social justice politics publicly visible in a way, again, I had not seen before; the fluid nature of its interface made them part of the fabric of Tumblr fandom as a whole. Most of these intersections involved discourses of feminism, queer/gender identity affirmation and formation, public education, alternative porn and pleasure, critical media analysis, and social justice.
The greater effects of this integration on young people’s lives first crystallized for me at LeakyCon 2012 in Chicago, a smaller con (4-5,000 people) targeted at feminist and queer teens. I attended it (my first time) for a single Glee-related event, and while waiting in line I met two 16-year old best friends who were deep into discussion about Glee’s “heternormativity” and possible “transphobia.” I asked them whether they were learning these terms in school (both of them attended Michelle Obama’s alma mater, the excellent magnet school Whitney Young), and they replied that no, they had learned these terms from Tumblr. That single conversation determined much of my research for several years, which has focused on the cultural work and significance of Tumblr ad its users. Since I was particularly interested in young people’s uses of Tumblr, I subsequently attended and wrote about several similarly targeted cons between 2013 and 2015: LeakyCon, GeekGirlCon, and DashCon.
These cons were one of the few “Real Life” spaces where Tumblr’s users were both publicly visible and in which they were able to exercise a great deal of agency in the construction of the space. The producers of these cons developed panels and events in response to fans’ interests and concerns. Therefore, the cons reproduced the integration of fandom, alternative identities and social justice that characterized Tumblr and had become naturalized for its young users. These cons not only hosted standard fan events devoted to “squee-ing” over fan content and fan performances, but “social track” and “community connection” panels and gatherings devoted to learning, for example, about how to live with chronic pain, mental illness, and disability (“spoonie living”); feminism (rape culture, intersectional feminism); body positivity; alternative sexual practices and pleasures; ethical cosplaying; queer community; alternative sexual and gender identities; and social justice discussions (charities) and opportunities for “on the ground” political action. Panels devoted to media criticism integrated these tracks in the most obvious ways, producing cutting edge media analysis that often surpassed that of the scholarly conferences I was attending at the same time.
I found these cons enormously educational and inspiring, and I really felt like these young people represented a generational shift in fandom and in the larger culture. Today, I see the legacy of Tumblr everywhere, in the discourses of #metoo, in media criticism (especially regarding representation), in the rise of black women as significant public voices on media platforms such as Twitter and Teen Vogue, in the way the Parkland students speak about social justice, in the attention to mental health and chronic pain, in the calls for more sexual education, in the mainstreaming of alternative sexual and gender identities such as asexual and non-binary, in the greater attention to and activism of transgender publics, and in the rise of intersectional feminism. Tumblr made spaces—however limited, unstable, and sometimes wounding they were—for young people to find community and comfort and pleasure, to self-construct their identities, to create and share their art, to critique the mainstream, to network with each other, to learn from peers and mentors about sex, about history, about activism, about self-care. The outpouring of sorrow and criticism that greeted Tumblr’s announcement, on Dec 3, that the platform was banning adult content made Tumblr’s cultural impact more visible in the mainstream, all at once, than it ever has been before. And I believe we all will feel that impact for years to come.