My chin was sore from the acne bubbling underneath. I was, at the time, unknowingly PMSing, exhausted from the torture that was a double period in Year 8 Maths. I’d used up all of my data trying to watch the new Sherlock episode. My sister had taken the concealer I needed to cover up my scabs from popping too many hormone-induced pimples. A literal, and all too common, teenage hellscape.
I complained to my mum, and she laughed. Furious, I logged onto Tumblr and there it was, an edit of a Lana Del Rey music video with some vague lyrics that somehow embodied every pain and joy that I was experiencing at that moment. It was followed by an anonymous post in which someone had ranted about their day, ending with the infamous “and everyone clapped”. The comments were filled with other teenagers expressing anger, frustration and even rage at this mystery teacher who commented on the length of a girl’s skirt.
I felt validated. For better or for worse, people were affirming what I was feeling. I had a community of teens who also had just as many intense emotions brewing inside.
Tumblr, for all of you who were both (un)blessed and (un)fortunate enough to miss this period of internet culture, is a website that was created in 2007 by David Karp. It was famously acquired by Yahoo in 2013 up until 2017, and has birthed multiple cultural moments: fandom culture, words like ‘shipping; and ‘feels’, the egregious ‘smol bean’ discourse, the sad girl era of Lana Del Rey, Gaylor, 5SOS versus One Direction, rookie discourse and more. These were just a few common facets of a mammoth entity that acted as a haven for all these flourishing subcultures. Up until recently, the site also infamously hosted quite a lot of X-rated content which was subsequently removed after Yahoo’s acquisition. As this was what accounted for a large portion of its user traffic, this decision has often been accused of solidifying Tumblr’s downfall.
Despite all this chaos, Tumblr, I would just like to thank you for a few things. As someone growing up affected by misogyny, you let me have a space to rant and celebrate all things feminine. You validated my puberty-induced anger at school dress codes, our Catholic modesty class and the ‘not-like-other-girls’ mindset (whilst also simultaneously fuelling it). You let me celebrate my interests within a community that wouldn't make fun of me like the boys in primary school did. Instead, my silly little fan-fictions were celebrated and my week-to-week obsessions were a valuable attribute, not something to be ashamed of. You let me see that men too could be the centre of sexual desire, not just the objectified women that were rampant in mass media. Teen AFAB sexuality was acknowledged and celebrated in a way I had never seen before.
Tumblr provided a sense of humour that focused on story-times, quick whips and occasionally, really bad puns. Dashboards were swarmed by a specific visual aesthetic I would describe as ‘middle school grunge’, which celebrated Marlboro red cigarettes (the pretty girl cigarette), Doc Martens and fishnets paired with a band-tee and box-dyed blue hair. Another infamous side of Tumblr that largely impacted me inspired the now known rookie magazine aesthetic: a celebration of collages, stickers and pastels. Whereas middle school grunge rejected the common trope of girlhood, ‘rookie’ aesthetic revered girlhood. These two sides are just a small example of what could be found in all niche corners of this site, alongside multitudes of fan-works that came in the form of art, fanfiction and “edits” that served as appreciation of popular media. Tumblr providing a creative outlet for the things the predominantly AFAB user-base adored. It was a relative melting point of content.
Tumblr, you made me laugh. You made me cry. And I’m thankful. However, I most definitely deserve an apology.
You were a website designed for profit, that needed our addiction and space in order to cash your silly little checks. You let vulnerable people read posts from users with no genuine lived experience, sharing their ideas with no trigger warnings in the name of online discourse. My identity and attachment to feminism should not have been left to be discussed on a corporate entity. I should not have been exposed as a child to these unchecked posts. Whether it was the ‘Alexa Chen body goals’ content or the romanticisation of Lolita, there was a lack of incentive to protect children from toxic ideals. A whole generation of young adults internalised these messages, seeing them every day for years on end.
It wasn't rare on Tumblr for 14-year-olds to speak to 32-year-olds who initially bonded over a Harry Styles edit. It was just as common for that child to then have to comfort the adult over a traumatic experience that a child is far too young to learn about. Romanticisation of harmful behaviours and body checks were easy to find and not enough was done to limit it.
The damage has been done.
But I guess, underneath all of this, my message is still a thank you. All I know is that I am still thinking about this site that defined my early teen years, even now as they come to a close. You provided me with the space to gush about Taylor Swift, explore feelings that were dismissed as frivolous, and explore my girlhood in a way that centred creativity and emotion. But you also made me question my body, my worth and allowed me to partake in discussions that caused more harm than good.
I hope you’re well, but I will not be going back anytime soon.