Print Editor Kitty Grant reflects on how the social media landscape has changed in past decade through the lens of arguably the most influential one of all, Tumblr
Content Warning: This article contains references to mental illness, self harm, eating disorders, and drug use
Tumblr was a dominating force on the internet of the early 2010s; it promoted creativity and community and I was obsessed. The site had hundreds of millions of users, many of whom made their love of Tumblr a huge part of who they were as a person. However, what started as a comforting community for those who felt like outcasts could easily become dangerous for vulnerable young people.
I first downloaded Tumblr when I was about 12 as part of the Harry Potter fandom and I subsequently joined more of the site’s popular communities, including Superwholock (the combined fandom of TV shows Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock) and the music fandom which for me mostly focused on the ‘Emo Trinity’ of Panic! At the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and My Chemical Romance. It was intoxicating. Once you found one fandom you would discover more, collecting them under your belt, some more important to you than others, but each part of you and your blog’s identity.
These fandoms had other locations on the internet, including Instagram and Facebook, but Tumblr provided a space for free expression that might not be felt on other platforms used by people you knew in real life. This was one of the reasons I loved Tumblr so much, even though it was a very popular platform with hundreds of millions of users, it was not a platform for keeping people you know in real life updated about you.
Tumblr was about your interests and hobbies in a way that few other platforms were – it was for sharing fan art and theories, not selfies and sunsets. That is not to say that Instagram and Facebook did not have their place, but given likes were public and followers tended to be people you knew in real life, there was little privacy on those platforms. To fully immerse yourself in fandom, which was often stigmatised by those who did not engage in fandom culture, Tumblr was the place to be in the early 2010s.
Fandoms were not the only group that found a home on Tumblr; another prominent community on the website I later joined was aesthetic Tumblr, which was full of pictures of girls in American Apparel tennis skirts and bottles of Fiji water. It is hard to explain the appeal of this community to those who were not part of it, but the basic yet aspirational images showed a life I wanted to live. The skinny girls with clear skin and pretty clothes were perfect but more approachable and alternative than the influencers who were starting to find their place on Instagram and YouTube.
But Tumblr was not perfect. The site’s infinite scroll feature meant it was easy to spend all night on the site and limited moderation could expose young children to adult content that they were not mature enough to process. Perhaps most harmful, however, was the depiction of mental illness and self-harm by many of the site’s users.
The internet provides a place for young people to openly and honestly discuss their experiences with mental illness in a way that has never been possible before, but there is a thin line between openness and glamorisation. Popular users of the site would often show instruments of self-harm that could inspire others to follow their lead, and discussion of depression was so common on the site that it almost felt like a rite of passage for true Tumblr users. Of course, the blame for this should not lie with the young users of the site who were themselves experiencing mental illness, but Tumblr should have implemented a better system of moderation to protect its young users.
On aesthetic Tumblr, the problem was particularly bad. The constant homogenous images of incredibly skinny girls and the idolisation of fictional characters, like Cassie from Skins, who suffered from anorexia encouraged eating disorders among the mostly teen girls in the community. Due to the nature of aesthetic Tumblr, complex issues such as eating disorders, depression, and drug use were reduced to simple images and gifs that were all about appearances rather than discussion.
When members of the aesthetic Tumblr community shared their struggles with mental illness they would simply share an aesthetically pleasing image, perhaps with a short quote by Sylvia Plath or Lana Del Rey. Pretty pictures and profound quotes made depression seem like an accessory, a way to make yourself more beautiful, rather than a crippling disorder that can destroy a person’s life. Without room for nuanced discussion, depictions of mental health struggles inevitably create a glamorised image that makes mental illness seem desirable, not debilitating.
As I grew older, I, like many Tumblr users, migrated to other social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and later TikTok. I left the platform relatively unscathed, but the same cannot be said for many former Tumblr users who are now left with a lifetime of disordered eating and drug use from a platform full of unchecked adolescents. I am grateful to Tumblr for the friends I made and the sense of belonging it gave me as a lonely teenager but I am also glad that the site’s influence has dwindled and I hope today’s lonely teenagers will find somewhere that protects them better.
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