by Saffron Sener
When I was twelve, I asked my parents if I could get a Tumblr account. All my friends had blogs, and talked at length during lunch about posts they’d seen, in-jokes they were a part of, how they styled their themes. At first, my father rejected my request on the basis that the platform was “too inappropriate” for someone of my age. You could see anything on there, he said. For what it’s worth, he wasn’t wrong - anyone active during that 2012-2014 sweet spot knows all too well how dangerous it was to scroll through your dashboard in public. That was part of the allure to my almost teenaged brain, of course. I begged and begged, until finally, after my 13th birthday, he relented. My friends and I spent hours finding and uploading the perfect html, customizing our blogs and thinking of the perfect url - mine still looks almost exactly the same as it did when I last renovated it at fourteen.
A window into the mind of 14 year-old Saffi. Please don’t go try and find my blog, lol. It’s a secret!
It’s been nearly a decade - nine years in November - that I’ve been on Tumblr. There’s been gaps, some nearly six months long, but I always come back. I can’t help myself. The platform has some intoxicating mix of qualities - unique, provocative, nostalgic, alternative, strange - that keeps me under its spell. It wasn’t the same place as it was nine years ago, five years ago, even two years ago, but there are remnants that remind me of the wonderfully vibrant and compelling platform it has been to me. Back in 2018, Tumblr usership took a big hit when site administrators installed draconian anti-nudity regulations on posts, causing most active users to migrate to Twitter. The website had an atrocious pornography problem tending towards pedophilia and assault that led to its removal from the App store, so most users (myself included) were happy to learn that its programmers were going to address how parts of the website were so dark and dangerous; instead, though, they implemented a flawed content-recognition software that automatically deleted blogs with any posts containing identified “nudity” (including anatomical drawings, Renaissance paintings, and b&w architectural plans that it incorrectly flagged, for example). And the bot-porn blogs evolved, still active on the platform but skirting around the ban by links to external websites - the software did little but shuffle the more hardcore accounts off onto other, less policed platforms, failing to confront the root problem.
For reasons like the 2018 mass exodus of users, the content on Tumblr is in many ways outdated, a few years behind the neverending daily rounds of Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok. It feels like the only social media platform I can go on and still get genuine posts about SuperWhoLock reblogged onto my dashboard. Yeah - I’m not kidding. And the terrifying ads, which became a prominent and permanent feature of one’s feed around 2017, are both inexplicable and seemingly never related to anything one might search or be interested in. Surreal, almost.
It remains, though, my favorite social media platform in terms of personal, individual usage. I certainly don’t use it as much as I did, mostly just hoping on every few weeks when I remember it exists, reblogging about a hundred posts, and then forgetting about it for a few more weeks, but it holds a very special place in my heart. The sheer range of art, thought, literature, media, and music that the platform exposed me to at such a formative time in my life truly defined me. Though it was not always positive - like I said, before regulation, you were bound to see pretty much any explicit image of any nature at some point scrolling through your dash, and there was definitely a Tumblr “ideology” in 2014 that wasn’t the most healthy - it was a way to express and explore myself that I didn’t really have in any other form as a thirteen/fourteen+ year old.
Scrolling through my dashboard for hours and searching through blog archives is what introduced me to the world of zines, which is a community I remain active in today. When I started selling my first zines (technically illicitly because yes, I was disciplined for selling zines on my high school’s campus) at fifteen, there was a Tumblr blog to commemorate the moment, and to keep people up-to-date with each issue. And it was on Tumblr that I was able to privately explore parts of myself - like my sexuality - away from the scrutinizing eyes of parents. Posts reblogged to my dashboard brought me to the Queer Zine Archive Project just after I started high school, sparking tons of feelings in my thirteen year old brain that I wasn’t super equipped to handle - I’m glad now, as a twenty-one year-old, that they were swirling around tangentially in my head at that point, though. The first person I came out to was the girl who helped me code my personalized blog, the same theme I have now. I will say: on the flip side of the platform, had Tumblr users extolled a more rational, open, and less problematic governing ideology about queerness, I might have fared a bit better in that realm and avoided repressing those feelings for an additional five years. Haha, maybe in the next life.
Now, for better or for worse, I have this strange, wonderful time-capsule of my youth. I never kept a diary or a journal, but I still have my Tumblr archive - and I cherish that shit. I was embarrassing as hell in 8th grade, but I’m so happy that I have this huge collage of images and text and videos that represent my mind, my interests, my feelings at the time. To see the changes over months and years is endlessly fascinating. Unlike Instagram or Twitter, you get to customize almost every aspect of your blog, creating a little space for yourself that feels special and representative in the way I’m sure MySpace did for generations before me. I got my Instagram right around the same time as my blog, and even back as a thirteen year old, I was incredibly conscious of the fact that I carried myself differently on the photo-sharing app; every photo had to appear perfect, I needed to look beautiful, and each post had to get enough likes. My Instagram, which still has some of my photos from 2013/2014, is more sanitized and superficial - it’s a nice photo album, but it never really felt like I was using it for me, rather for the construction of some version of me for other’s consumption. Perhaps this is an individual experience, but I never felt that way on Tumblr. Tangentially, I cared what my (closest) friends might think about what I reblogged, because they were the only ones who had access to my blog; on the whole though, the things on my blog were there because I liked them and I wanted them to be there. I rarely made posts, so there was no reason to care about how many notes a post might get. It was my own little world, and I think I needed that as a preteen, teenager, and even now.