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On Tumblr, groupthink, and the glorification of Internet celebrity cultures

September 15th, 2014     by Raisa Bhuiyan     Comments

Illustration: Erin McPhee

Editor’s note: For an example of a Tubmlr page, check out Shameless Magazine’s page:

Four years ago one of my friends asked me if I would share my Tumblr url with her. I had no idea what she meant, but the name Tumblr sounded whimsical like a Dr. Suess rhyme scheme. I signed up immediately and have been tumbling ever since. It is not a joke to say that once you start a Tumblr, you can never go back. Being on Tumblr has changed the speed at which I receive social media content. I can literally catch something weeks before it appears on more mainstream social media platforms like Facebook or 9gag. While Tumblr can’t give you content as sonic-fast as Reddit, you’re still able to see something on Facebook and think to yourself, “I already saw that on Tumblr!”

Curating my own page for four years, I can’t help but liken the experience to having a Myspace. At least in terms of customization, like Myspace, Tumblr lets you play a song and decorate your page. But unlike Myspace, Facebook, 9gag, Twitter and even YouTube, Tumblr doesn’t place restrictions on types of content like nudity, pornography and graphic violence. Perhaps this is part of the appeal of Tumblr? But what really is Tumblr anyway?

Tumblr is a short-form blogging social media website that allows members to post pictures, text, videos, quotes and art on their own ‘tumblrs’. Short form blogging, also known as micro-blogging is different from a traditional blog in that its content is typically smaller. The idea is that users will post their content with the option of hashtags so that other users may track that content. To see someone’s content a user ‘follows’ another user by selecting a ‘follow’ button on a tumblr. The user who has been followed then has the option of either following their follower back or not following. When someone has been ‘followed’ both parties are able to see who they follow and who they are followed by on the respective dashboards on their home page.

Founded in 2007 by software consulter David Karp, Tumblr has become one of the most popular social media websites. It reached hive-popular status as of January 2013, when a metrics analysis study revealed that Tumblr had amassed 59 percent more North American users than social media giant, Facebook. While it was a more obscure forum back in 2010 when I created my account, it is probably a household name today with almost everyone in my online and personal social networks having a Tumblr. In fact, one of the first questions that I am asked whenever I attend a community event is, “do you have a Tumblr gurl?”

Usually, I say no. Not because I don’t want to have more followers. On Tumblr, seeing content that you like and ‘reblogging’ it to your own wall creates the conditions for you to want more followers. This way, it is assumed that you have the chance to carve out a space in your pocket of the internet where only content that you like will be featured. My reason for saying no is that I want to use the space to post and reblog things that are a source of creative inspiration. Sometimes it is hard to carve out spaces of creativity on other social media spaces because the distance between you viewing the metrics of a post’s reception is no distance. It can be argued that any social media platform can be a place for creative inspiration to flourish. However, I think what is slightly different about Tumblr is that you have an increased degree of freedom in the sense that you can more easily carve out a niche space on there and at times even have multiple Tumblrs dedicated to different topics. You can reblog and post anything that catches your eye. Seems like an attractive pursuit right? What could ever go wrong?

Today, some parts of Tumblr have become somewhat of a base for things like groupthink, the glorification of internet celebrity culture (messiah complex as I personally refer to it) and discussions about contentious topics that can become traumatic. When described like this, it actually sounds a lot like “the real world”. But aren’t online interactions also part of the real world? How is “IRL” (in real life) any different from not IRL? Aren’t the interactions and communications that we have with people on the internet part of the same time-space plane that we are also on? I think it is problematic and telling that social groups continue to delineate a distinction between online life and the real world, as though there is a binary between an earthy, outside and a stuffy, technical-dependent inside. A binary like inside/outside needs to be interrogated because it perpetuates ideas that invalidate and undermine movements and interactions that happen online as just things lonely, friendless, going-nowhere types do to pass the time. It also uncritically lets slide a separation between nature and humans, as though both are separate things.

Groupthink and the messiah complex are recent trends on Tumblr that I have seen. Groupthink refers to when members of a group begin to think the same following a domino effect spread of information. Messiah complex refers to the uncritical, goddess-like pedestal-ing of internet personalities by fans and admirers to the point where one person’s voice becomes stronger than other voices and they take up a lot of space. Combined together, both effects can often lead to some exclusionary tendencies, like being banned or side-eyed from anti-oppressive groups for not liking Beyoncé. Other times, the combined effects can lead to the hypervisibility of certain topics of discussion over others. For instance, despite the circular and insular nature of discussions about cultural appropriation, they are currently a hot topic discussion on Tumblr. Talking about cultural appropriation always generates thousands or clicks and comments whenever mentioned, often getting more airplay than other social justice issues.

For the most part, I think aspects of Tumblr culture mentioned here happen because social media is still such a new thing. It is constantly evolving and becoming something new with passing time. That is why it is harder to pin down and set guidelines and etiquette on how to do things on social media like Tumblr. Safe space policies, coming from anti-oppression practices, attempt to set out some basic guidelines on how to account for the perspectives of different people. Perhaps some, well-thought out, collaborative and accountable safe space policies are needed on Tumblr. Even on Facebook, it is only now becoming apparent in sociological analysis that unfriending someone on Facebook can trigger a series of negative and inappropriate feelings. In addition, perhaps our attention spans are shorter and that could have something to do with the fascination with trending hashtags or article-of-the-day discussions on places like Buzzfeed, Policymic and Huffingto Post.

I think if anything, the things happening in Tumblr culture are a reflection of process of people adapting and evolving. Late night American comedians like Jimmy Fallon can poke fun all they want about how ridiculous the youths of today are for talking in hashtags, but we are also living in a world where language is constantly changing and adapting to different mediums. Communication is an extremely difficult feat, and it is not made easier by the gross amounts of anxiety that having a social media presence can bring. However, the relieving news is, social media anxiety can be managed.

Today, something that I do regularly to manage my own social media anxiety is to limit how much time I spend on social media websites like Facebook. For the most part, I can control how much time I spend on sites of my own accord, but sometimes I need a little extra help. For the last 2 years, I have been using a Google Chrome browser extension called I AM STUDYING blocker to block my own access to social media websites for certain time limits set by me. This simple extension has helped me a great deal in being mindful of my work time and increasing stillness and some degree of my focus. I picked this specific add-in because it wasn’t too strict and I could be conscious of when I felt the desire to log into Facebook or Tumblr and identify these urges so as to train myself to log into Facebook and Tumblr only at specific times and durations.

Another strategy that I do to manage my social media anxiety is to fashion my Facebook feed and friends list space to speak to my own comfort. This is very important because sometimes people will keep unwanted friends and pages because there is peer/social pressure within their social circles to do so. The result is anxiety and generally negative feelings when logging onto Facebook. I think it is important to remember that your online space is allowed to be different than your in-person space and you are allowed the control to fashion it for your own comfort. Sometimes people you unfriend may be affected by you deleting them, so it is important to be clear about the reasons why if the issue is ever addressed. On the whole, it is exciting to see the colossal changes that social media sites have fostered for the ways in which we communicate with one another. It is ever important to keep tabs (pun intended!) on how we are affected by spending times on these websites and address issues as they arise.

Tags: media savvy

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