Tumblr has been circling the drain for some time now. After the blogging platform infamously banned adult content towards the end of 2018, its stock decreased dramatically, and in 2019, the site which once sold for $1.1 billion was passed to Wordpress for the paltry sum of $3 million.
Perhaps there is simply no value to a site like Tumblr in 2020. Initially, the platform served as a haven for fandoms, artists and members of various marginalized groups. The Tumblr of the early 2010s was a place where things like the “Superwholock” fandom reigned supreme, social justice arguments dominated the timeline, and kinks were publically explored with cringeworthy abandon. It was an odd place, and the content of Tumblr’s heyday garnered the site a reputation of being one of the nerdiest, most excessively-left wing social media platforms of the internet, a label which it never really shook.
Nowadays, the type of content that was once the site’s bread and butter has seeped into other corners of the internet. Fandoms now congregate on Twitter and Discord, Reddit has become less of a boys club, and queer communities such as /r/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns have taken on hundreds of thousands of subscribers. With its core audience migrating elsewhere, Tumblr is currently a husk of its former self, and its decline in market value proves it.
If Tumblr ultimately sinks, some of the more wonderfully weird corners of the internet will disappear forever. Few sites have generated memes that were quite as bizarre as those born on Tumblr. While Reddit pushes image macros and object labeling templates and Twitter fiddles with various snowclones, Tumblr memes have been mind-bendingly surreal, often with a surprisingly intricate amount of lore necessary to comprehend the full extent of the joke. If Reddit and Twitter are to memes what Stephen Spielberg and Michael Bay are to film, then Tumblr is David Lynch.
The memeography of Tumblr is like an internet Criterion Collection. During the summer of 2017 while Twitter was dunking on takes about millennials and avocado toast, Tumblr was neck-deep in a bizarre meme about how to take care of clowns as though they were exotic pets. While Reddit was running the “ligma” meme into the ground in June 2018, Tumblr users took a deep dive into a bewildering ARG titled “Hey Peebrain, You Teleport?,” spoofing the site’s notorious porn-bot infestation with a tale about an angel attempting to reconnect with its ward after being removed by a nefarious organization called “H.U.R.L.” All the while, there was the Sandsverse, an ongoing ARG in which a bunch of accounts acts as though they are merchant animals, such as Seymour, a Tapir who sells sand.
These absurd, dense memes could only have arisen on a site like Tumblr. The community developed as an outcast culture, and was often epitomized by the site’s unabashedly exuberant fandoms. In other words, it was dorky. In the early days of Tumblr, perhaps no fandom was as uniquely “Tumblr” as the one for Homestuck, an experimental webcomic that ran from 2009-2016 which to this day inspires not only cosplay and rabid excitement but also a shuddering cringe as people remember Tumblr’s most embarrassing eras. The comic was wildly impenetrable, with its interactive nature creating dense lore that is nigh-impossible to explain. While the comic didn’t start on Tumblr, it certainly found a home there. Fan art and cosplays of the comic’s characters remain popular on the platform to this day, and it was omnipresent even during the site’s darkest hour: when the site’s unofficial conference Dashcon turned out to be the pre-Fyre Fest gold standard of disorganized events, people meme’d on it using Homestuck characters. It’s not a stretch to see how a site that gravitated towards such a dense and geeky subculture would also generate its own bizarre memes.
Obviously, not every meme Tumblr created was as impenetrable as a Porn-bot ARG or a decade-running interactive webcomic, but less obscure Tumblr memes also have a distinct flavor that separates them from those found within mainstream social media hubs. The best Tumblr memes are often the result of a series of posts building off each other. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit, Tumblr posts often appear on timelines with full comment chains beneath the original post, resulting in a branching distribution of derivative commentary. This means posts don’t just get reblogged because of the original poster’s meme but because they generated a funny dialogue.
For example, in one of Tumblr’s more popular memes, user “avatarskorra” typed “We poppin the BIGGEST bottles when Makorra happens tomorrow!”, referring to their hope Avatar: The Last Airbender characters Korra and Mako would get together in the finale. When Korra instead ended the series in an implied homosexual relationship with Asami, another user replied to the avatarskorra post with a pitying Pepe the Frog. The one-two punch of the combined posts inspired a meme in which people replicated the moment but with other characters. The catch was that oftentimes, a user would simply send out the set up “We poppin the BIGGEST bottles when X” and hope that another user would take the bait, reblog their post with the punchline, and create the meme.
This unique environment and interactive community gave Tumblr a distinctive identity. While the site is often mocked for its geekiness and commonplace social justice screeds, these qualities also fostered a community with a brilliant sense of humor. Unlike Reddit, Tumblr has no fear of “normie” culture nor a cutthroat memeing atmosphere that causes users to scramble to create the next popular template. Instead, memes on the platform seem to happen organically. It is a space where users build off each other’s jokes. On Tumblr, creativity flows precisely because the site is so insular, making it one of the last bastions of the Weird Internet. Maybe it is time for it to die, but if that’s the case, internet denizens may end up losing more than they think.