The microblogging site now rivals Facebook and Twitter in reach and influence, but it represents everything wrong with the online echo chamber.
In grade two or three, we had a rock tumbler in our classroom. It sat in the corner, rumbling boringly, providing our arithmetic lessons, Bible studies and lunchbox trade summits with a gentle, abiding din. The point of the rock tumbler was to illustrate how tides shape large rock formations over time. This meant eons, but, with sufficiently small stones, we got it down to a month. My classmates and I would load the canister up, plug it in and pretend to marvel as flinty, interesting pieces of rock became sleek and dull, the difference bleeding into a gross, silty runoff.
Today, we have Tumblr, the successful blogging platform and coincidental namesake of my elementary-school geology experiment. In 2011, the site was valued at $800 million. It hosts Lady Gaga’s blog. And President Obama’s blog. And probably your blog. Like Twitter—which it is kind of like, though not really—Tumblr seizes on the internet’s fascination with brevity. It’s used for “microblogging,” which is what it sounds like: blogging, but smaller. Though it also hosts lengthy diary entries and well-researched takedowns of the #Kony2012 video, Tumblr is mostly devoted to images of Nicolas Cage’s face superimposed on Abraham Lincoln’s body, or to curt, mock-juvenile comments like “Mitt Romney sucks pass it on,” which, in September, became the most popular post in the site’s history. Tumblr serves as a breeding ground for the memes of tomorrow. If something on the internet goes viral, Tumblr probably incubated it.
There are plenty of good Tumblrs, which is to say that there are plenty of people who are good at Tumblr: funny, smart, internet-savvy folks who employ the site’s highly useable interface to curate collections of photos, odd YouTube videos and jokey non-sequiturs. On these Tumblrs, the larger web is regarded, almost reverently, as a garden of infinite stupidity in need of vigilant stewardship.
But the dummy-proof simplicity of Tumblr also inspires a contrary, competing impulse: aggregation. Tumblr, in fact, works much like a rock tumbler. It takes something potentially exciting, smoothes its lumps and rough edges, and spits out a more palatable version. The majority of Tumblr blogs see the internet as nothing but a resource, fit to be exploited in the interest of, as Heidegger puts it in The Question Concerning Technology, “maximum yield at minimal expense.” These are the Tumblrs that Tumblr is truly made for—the ones whose growth is soulless and algorithmic, collecting and crudely contextualizing images in a bid for viral ascendance, which Tumblr’s own re-blog function (allowing you to share someone else’s post with a mouse click) all-too-readily encourages. These are the Tumblrs that are spoiling the internet.
Arguably, this all began with Look At This Fucking Hipster, one of Tumblr’s earliest successes. Like a less-funny riff on Vice magazine’s “Dos and Don’ts” column, Look At This Fucking Hipster runs photos of young people decked out in oversized glasses and chest tattoos, accompanied by rote captions about mustaches, Ambien and gluten-free diets. Shortly after its founding, in 2009, Look At This Fucking Hipster lit up the internet. Now it’s a book, somehow.
The popularity of Look At This Fucking Hipster kicked off a race to the bottom of single-serving meme Tumblrs. There’s Awkward Family Photos, People of Walmart and about nine million “Fuck Yeah!” blogs, which stockpile pictures of individual celebrities like Ryan Gosling. This is online virality at its worst; derivativeness breeding derivativeness, the modest novelty of an idea watered down by unlicenced knock-offs.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Tumblr’s short-form blogging (or tumbelogging) format can be traced back to Anarchaia.org, a site developed by a seventeen-year-old German named Christian Neukirchen. In the site’s FAQ, Anarchaia calls itself “the very first tumbelog,” designed to facilitate “experimental, impressionistic sub-paragraph tumblin’ (think obstsalat).” In German, obstsalat means “fruit salad.” Anarchaia’s concept of an ideal tumblelog is apparent: a mélange of different links and file types (text, images, video), designed to stress individual personality and facilitate a ragged, motley aesthetic. But Anarchaia’s experimentalism probably couldn’t weather inflation. The site is nowhere near as popular as Tumblr, which hit fifty million blogs (and twenty billion posts) in April 2012—a growth rate of 120,000 potential new memes a day.
In name, Tumblr suggests progression and accumulation—cartwheeling through the internet, acquiring new, weird resonances as material becomes shared and co-opted, like a snowball picking up twigs and old candy-bar wrappers. In practice, the opposite happens. Tumblr moves more like a cartoon tumbleweed, wobbling through an online ghost town colonized by keyboard-cat videos, paparazzo shots of Suri Cruise and Ron Swanson GIFs.
GIFs—we can blame Tumblr for their revival, too. GIF is the ancient graphics format most commonly associated with the World Wide Web’s infancy, used to make an 8-bit globe spin in place or to animate a stick-figure construction worker. One of Tumblr’s most popular—and egregious—styles involves putting a ready-made GIF (typically a series of stills from a film or TV show) in relief against a custom-made caption, one usually hyper-specific to certain corners of the online echo chamber.
Examples include #Realtalk From Your Editor [hashtag sic], which might plop an animated image of a charming Home Alone–era Macaulay Culkin under the words “When I’m Trying To Get Someone To Write For Me.” There’s also the godawful Toronto Strife, which flatters Toronto’s sense of its own uniqueness by placing GIFs alongside text about cognate urban experiences like sitting in traffic and shopping. These are prime examples of Tumblr’s Heideggerian leanings—minimally moving images and minimally clever jokes paired for maximum meme potential. Many of these blogs are even organized using a design template called “The Minimalist.”
In cinema, there’s something known as the Kuleshov Effect. Early in the twentieth century, the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov created a montage that intercut the flat, expressionless face of silent-film star Ivan Mozzhukhin with images of a bowl of soup, a small girl in a coffin and a woman stretched on a chaise. Mozzhukhin’s face never changed; the shot remained the same. Yet audiences interpreted his unblinking visage differently given the preceding images. The bowl of soup meant he was hungry, the dead girl meant he was sad, and so on.
GIF Tumblrs are drained Kuleshovian experiments. Their content is empty. After all, several frames of Jeff Bridges hypnotically shaking his head in The Big Lebowski can be positioned in infinite ways. Its meaning—in this case, its humour—arises solely through the juxtaposition of text and image. GIF Tumblrs don’t offer jokes so much as the experience of understanding a joke—the a-ha moment that limns the gap between a setup and a punch line. As Tumblr thins down the internet’s vast goofiness into a series of flippant photos, a certain attitude emerges: an elevated, self-congratulatory sense of getting it. Being in on the joke is the joke.
Technology at once shapes and reveals our relationship with the world. If Facebook provides a perfected means of scrapbooking your presentation of self—all unflattering photos swiftly un-tagged—and Twitter offers a higher form of pithiness and information access, then Tumblr’s social network is by-and-large attitudinal. Tumblr provides raw data and then, Kuleshov-style, asks you to position yourself in its orbit.
Now we can get back to that bugaboo h-word: hipster. Hipsterism, as amorphous as we all like to believe it is, is similarly dispositional; you can get away with wearing a Screamin’ Eagle T-shirt if you get it. If modern hipsterism is vague and notoriously difficult to define, that might be because it cuts such a vast swath of cultural inclusion. Across fashion, music, food and taste, hipsterism is all-inclusive, rolling over different subcultural indicators and effectively re-Tumbling them. The hipster himself is incidental. It’s the play of signifiers—blue-collar beer, couture fashion, a Crass-logo tattoo, knowing what sous-vide means—that’s interesting. Pure content. No context. You know it when you see it.
So perhaps Tumblr is less a rock tumbler or a tumbleweed than a sinkhole, a gaping e-maw into which all these pretty, precious poses can be dumped. It may be extravagant to use GIFs as fertile turf for some full-bore generational critique. But Tumblr, infectious as it may be, is symptomatic of a vacuous taste-making culture that thrives on fickle inside jokes and the immediacy of novelty qua novelty. “Look At This Fucking Hipster” might as well be the name of the meta-Tumblr that aggregates all of Tumblr. Imagine it: clumping together the images of a generation, hokey and ephemeral, a steady drip of cultural runoff.