“It’s so important to remember that Tumblr is bad,” opens one post with over 120,000 notes written by user deluxetrashqueen. “And that is vital to our survival.” They wrote the post last month, but it picked up traction as Tumblr users began to feel that increasing numbers of new or returning users might change things on the site. “People on Twitter were talking about maybe coming back to Tumblr,” added user it-is-glorious. “But we don’t want that.”
In the wake of Elon Musk buying Twitter and laying off more than half of its 7,500 employees, there’s been a lot of talk about where users might go next. If the social media site folds, or just takes a turn that drives (even more) users away, there’s no clear replacement. Still, one of the options that’s being thrown around is Tumblr. Ex-Tumblr users especially are recommending it, after hearing the site is going through something of a renaissance.
Current Tumblr users’ response has been, in part, to amp up the cringeposting in an attempt to preserve the site’s culture. Take, for instance, the satirical “welcome” notice aimed at incoming Twitter users, stuffed with fandom-specific gifs and in jokes that were popular on the platform 10 or more years ago. The tags of deluxetrashqueen’s post mention “shooting a gun to keep rent prices down” — a comparison to the idea that the “worse” the posts on Tumblr are, the less likely it is to be corporatized or attract a larger, mainstream audience.
This concern that an influx of new users might impact Tumblr’s culture is a reasonable one. According to Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Tumblr parent company Automattic, downloads of Tumblr’s app are up by 57% and 58% in the Android and iOS stores respectively. Eternal September may well be coming for Tumblr.
So, while the cringeposts themselves are jokes — part of a trend among users of riffing off any major current events so that it feels like the whole site is doing standup at the watercooler — they also serve a more serious purpose. They’re Tumblr users’ grassroots attempt at enforcing unwritten rules within their community. It’s a test: If new users aren’t willing to embrace a little cringe, they’re probably not going to thrive on the site. It’s also a prayer that a larger user base won’t translate into additional value for commerce; hopefully advertisers (and celebrities) will think the whole site is awash with Homestuck gifs and will avoid curating a presence there.
Tumblr’s user base is self-aware, to the point that it’s become a core part of the site’s ethos. The feeling (accurate or not) that most people still on the site have been there for a long time contributes to a sense of nostalgia that informs the overall mood of its content. Users both appreciate, and poke fun at, this sense of nostalgia. There’s a reason the “welcome Twitter users” posts are mostly old fandom gifs. This nostalgia touches other corners of the site, like in heritage post blogs, both generally and for specific fandoms, which serve as autobiographical museums. Elsewhere, YouTube video essays and TikToks about fandom history — most of which happened on Tumblr, at least in the 2010s — rehabilitate cringe into something joyful and educational.
This mix of nostalgia, an older user base, and emphasis on looking backward also means a large percentage of Tumblr users simply have a good understanding of how the internet works. They’ve seen Tumblr through a number of tumultuous years. In 2013, Yahoo bought Tumblr for $1.1 billion, only for Verizon to sell it again in 2019 for just $3 million. Users also saw how the site’s porn ban, born from attempts to appease Apple and to maneuver around SESTA and FOSTA, tanked its page views. They’ve also seen other social media lean hard into everything Tumblr isn’t — algorithmically driven, influencer hungry, and non-anonymous design.
Tumblr users do not think that Tumblr is perfect. Tumblr users may not even think that Tumblr is good — I will refer you again to deluxetrashqueen’s post. But they do understand that Tumblr’s design is less focused on wringing engagement from its users at all costs, making it more conducive to casual use, building small communities, and generally having a chill time online. Posts are shown in reverse chronological order, while follower counts are hidden. There’s no clout to be gained from Tumblr fame, and brands and celebrities have never been able to get much of a foothold on the site.
And this is exactly how its users want it to stay. And so they’re making straightforward attempts to educate incomers in the necessary steps to keep Tumblr, well, Tumblr. For example, there’s a push to explain the importance of the reblog to users who are used to an algorithm curating posts to show them based on their likes, rather than others curating the experience for their followers. Some posts also emphasize the value of the silent treatment to prevent brands gaining engagement.
There is hope that Tumblr will resist becoming more mainstream or corporatized. After its acquisition by Automattic, the company began to introduce new revenue streams other than its famously bizarre adverts, including a subscription model that removed ads altogether for $4.99 per month. Other attempts catered to its audience through selling shoelaces and digital pets — in jokes based on nostalgia, exactly in keeping with the user base’s culture.
There’s also the pervasive inside joke that Tumblr is “broken” in ways that make it unappealing to broader corporate entities — and that users have a duty to help keep it that way. “If Tumblr was a good website that worked, it would get turned into a corporate hellscape like every other site,” continues deluxetrashqueen’s post. “It’s so important that Tumblr is broken and poorly run and impossible to effectively navigate. It’s all that’s keeping us safe.”
Its users can’t control whether Tumblr’s bugs will be fixed, if its search will be improved, or whether celebrities will consider it an alternative if Twitter really does go down. But they do make the site’s culture. And for that to remain the same, we must all grab our most deliciously cringe fandom weapons.