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I’d say the most common question I’ve received this year from readers is basically just, “How do I use Tumblr?”
Which makes sense, I feature a lot of Tumblr content in this newsletter. I’m an abashed fan of the platform. While other social networks have become bloated, data hungry, and emotionally manipulative, Tumblr has remained a consistently positive experience for me. I started an account in 2008 because a bunch of my college friends were using it to shitpost during class. It is essentially my homepage and is still regularly my most-used app according to my phone’s screentime counter.
I will also say upfront that I will not be sharing my own URL here! My current blog is also hidden from Google. I have a few people I talk to on there, but, for the most part, I like my anonymity on the site. It’s my zen garden of internet content where I don’t have to worry about metrics or engagement. Although, I am responsible for, I think, two 1-million note posts, so you might see something I made floating around, but who knows!
Without further ado, here is everything you need to know about how to get back into Tumblr.
The reason Tumblr is so confusing to non-users is because the main way most people experience the platform is via the Dashboard. The easiest way to think of Tumblr is a very sophisticated RSS reader. You follow different accounts, or blogs, and then those blogs populate a chronological (!) feed of content.
Every blog has an external facing website that you can customize with CSS. I try very hard to never view Tumblr posts outside of the Dashboard because, frankly, they look like crap and don’t make any sense. This has been a problem for basically the entire 12 years I’ve been on the site.
Your dashboard has buttons at the top for making content. Posts are organized by media type. I’d say the least common post types you’ll ever see are Quote, Link, and Chat. The Dashboard now also features recommended blogs to follow, which are usually quite good, and a somewhat infamous widget called Radar. Radar is an interesting feature. It’s a piece of content that is seen by everyone on the site, more or less, at once. Typically, it’s a piece of already-trending art.
The Explore Tab
If you click the compass-looking thing next to the house button up in the top right there, you’ll be taken to the Explore page. This part of the site went from something I never used to something I check regularly every day.
It’s divided into a couple subsections. The “For You” tag is usually full of posts similar to the ones you’re looking at on your Dashboard. The “Trending” section is full of posts across the whole site. “Staff Picks” are posts curated by the site’s community team, which are surprisingly good for an official feed of content. And finally, if you click “More,” it allows you to explore trending content based on the type — Text, Picture, Video, Audio, etc. Which is kinda neat.
The “For You” section has an extremely powerful recommendation engine that appears to be suggesting content a bit differently from platforms like Facebook or YouTube. As best as I can tell, it’s using Tumblr’s unique tag structure to suggest a hierarchy of related posts. For instance, if you like posts tagged #The Mandalorian, you would probably like posts tagged #Baby Yoda and #Boba Fett.
Here’s why this is interesting — those tags are created by users. Tumblr’s algorithms, once again, as best as I can tell, seem to be predominately powered by their users. This is not dissimilar to how fan fiction mega-platform Archive Of Our Own built its tag hierarchy.
So, let’s talk more about tags…
How Search And Tagging Work On Tumblr
So here’s the main thing about Tumblr’s search. It is possibly one of the best search engines that exists and also functionally worthless.
Finding a rabbit hole on Tumblr is really easy. Type in the most basic thing related to a topic you’re interested in and you’ll be greeted with related blogs to follow and, depending on the topic, an almost infinite library of posts related to that topic, organized by media type and popularity. #The Mandalorian search page recently became my Saturday morning read, as I pored through GIFsets, fan art, and analysis related to the show’s (very good) second season.
But, as I said, Tumblr’s search is also completely useless for the thing you typically would need a search function for — finding a specific post. Here’s where a platform like Twitter has Tumblr beat. I cannot tell you the amount of posts I have completely lost over the years simply because I forgot to like or reblog them. This has created an entire culture among users of preserving old posts and sharing them around.
But, let’s focus on what makes Tumblr’s search function good, because, as someone who spends too much time thinking about how social networks should work, I think it’s just really cool.
So, here’s a post I came across on my “For You” Explore page today. The original post had one tag #vegsplaining. If you click through, the tag is mainly used for sharing really intense and out-of-touch vegan discourse.
If I were to reblog that post, Tumblr would give me the option to add my own tags, as well. So I could tag it #vegan, #cows, and #yogurt and it will connect this post to those tags. Imagine that kind of inter-tag curation happening across the entire site. It’s both incredibly chaotic, and, I’d have to imagine, a massive headache for the site’s moderation team, but it’s also completely thrilling to think about. It also means that the machine inside of Tumblr is a lot more nuanced than something like YouTube.
Because the metadata is coming from users, it means the site is capable of more sophisticated recommendations based on a wider variety of emotional inputs. Put simply, Tumblr doesn’t make me angry, self-conscious, or anxious when I use it for long periods of time.
At this point, you might be saying, OK, well, a lot of this sounds pretty similar to how Twitter’s Trending Topics work and those are basically just a list of racist stuff Trump supporters are saying, sports highlights, and journalists sharing Saturday Night Live clips. What makes Tumblr different?
I Have No Idea Who Anyone On Tumblr Is
Over the course of this newsletter, I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly what makes Twitter so toxic. There are lots of little issues that add up to an overall horrible user experience, but I think if I had to try and nail down a unified theory of the hell site, I’d say this: Twitter has widely unequal user base, where irl famous and well-connected users have disproportionate amount of say over the trending content of the site, which results in constant infighting and harassment.
Conversely, the above screenshot is all the information Tumblr tells you about who you follow. This user is named communistkenobi. I know that they, obviously, like Star Wars, their name is Nikki, they’re 24, and their blog is called “milfs only zone” lol.
It’s impossible to know how many followers someone has on the site. I will reveal that as of writing this, my blog has 11,444 followers. I never interact with any of them, don’t know anything about them, and don’t know what that number really even means. Nor do I care. That’s not what I use the site for. I will say, though, if you want Tumblr followers, getting them is hard. I once grew a publisher account to 500,000 followers and it was not easy at all.
Tumblr also doesn’t really have verified users. The most irl famous active users on the site at the moment are probably Neil Gaiman and Taylor Swift. I’m sure this is a problem for Tumblr’s advertising team, but god, do I love not having to see posts from famous people. And, as for Tumblr-famous users, I’m only aware of a handful. pukicho and sixpenceee are pretty huge blogs, but, once again, I literally don’t know anything about them, including how many followers they have.
The psychological effect of removing public follower accounts from a social network is profound. The only metric visible to everyone is the “note” count. So let’s talk about how notes work.
Reblogs And Notes Are Very Confusing And Also Completely Revolutionary
A couple days ago I came across this post about whether or not a nativity scene baby Jesus in Toy Story would think it was the real Jesus or just think it’s a baby.
The post was reblogged by a user named coolcarnationkiddo, who added some very good commentary underneath. A reblog isn’t just a retweet or a quote tweet. It’s a bit more sophisticated in terms of what you can do with it. The closest another platform has come to replicating the full creative possibilities of a reblog, in my opinion, is actually TikTok’s duet feature.
This version of the post, with four posts, ending with the cursed baby head, is the one that I saw on my dashboard.
You can see Twitter users starting to do this sort of behavior more. They nest quote tweets within quote tweets or direct people to a tweet’s replies, but it’s extremely difficult on most social networks to see a snapshot of a full discussion. One weird side effect of huge platforms like Facebook and Twitter effectively removing the traditional idea of a thread from the message board experience — because individual posts are easier to fit ad units around — is now users are trying to hack thread culture back into the user experience.
Threads as a form of their own content are a core feature for Tumblr. Viral posts typically aren’t from just one person, but instead, cobbled together from different reblog additions. The reason this happens, in my opinion, is because Tumblr only offers one public performance metric — the note.
The above post has 50,066 notes as of this morning. That’s the combined amount of likes and reblogs it has received. In comparison, Twitter breaks this number up into four different metrics — replies, retweets, quote tweets, and likes. That’s insane. Facebook breaks this up even further, adding a myriad of bizarre like button-esque reactions like happy faces and sad faces. I have to assume this is meant for marketers and the rest of us just forced to live with it.
Product features shape user behavior, though. They create incentives. They direct the way we interact with a website. Tumblr’s note metric flattens shares, replies, and likes into one thing and that has led to a community that operates far more collaboratively than other websites.
If you want to see what people are saying, you can click on the notes count and it’ll show you exactly how the post is being engaged with.
And if you click the # button, you can see how the post is being tagged.
Honestly, I wish this whole feature was better. I think it’s just a really unpleasant way of navigating what is often the best thing about posts. They’re massive nonlinear threads going off in all kinds of different directions and it sucks that it’s not easy to unfurl them and dig into all the different replies.
Finally, And Most Importantly, Some Blogs To Follow
toxictiktoks: This is probably the best TikTok curator account I follow, but there are a bunch on Tumblr. These blogs are a really good way to see what’s happening on TikTok without having to actually be on TikTok. Tumblr’s video player is, honestly, not the best, especially on mobile, but what it lacks technically, it makes up for in how good the site’s users are at curating videos.
dashcon-baby-official: One of the better new accounts I’ve been following. She reblogs a good mix of fandom stuff, funny viral posts, and cool TikToks.
liamdryden: Liam is an irl friend of mine. He’s a Scottish streamer and YouTuber who has a really good Tumblr. It’s definitely a great account to follow if you want to get a sense of what everyone on the site is talking about.
unclefather: unclefather is such a good blog. I think of her as like the beating heart of Tumblr. She reblogs a ton of good stuff and her original posts are super funny, as well. Another great account to follow to surface what the whole platform is talking about.
pissvortex: This blog is similar to unclefather, but way more chaotic. I’ve featured them a few times in Garbage Day. Literally don’t know anything about them. On their about page they describe themselves as a “powerful online wizard” and I’m inclined to agree.
whomstea: Another good reblog blog. They share a bunch of good social justice and lots of fun memes.
laughterkey: Another irl friend of mine! laughterkey has been on Tumblr for maybe as long as I have. Her blog is super funny and, like Liam, she’s constantly sharing the posts that everyone else on the site are talking about. Plus she posts a ton of great fandom stuff.
thebootydiaries: Extremely chaotic. I do not endorse anything in this blog.
dongcroncher: Another newer account I started following recently. They share a lot of memes and seem to be pretty tapped into what’s happening across the site.
straycatj: A Japanese cat I really like.
heritageposts: This blog might be good for people who are new to Tumblr. It collects the cringiest and most embarrassing posts from Tumblr’s cultural peak. Tons of SuperWhoLock and Onceler stuff in this.
And here are four accounts run by Tumblr staff. staff is the main one. It’s basically just like a bulletin board for the site, but it’s useful to follow. fandom is super cool. It functions like the main hub for the platform’s fandom content. And you should follow my friends Cates (adulthoodisokay) and Amanda (continuants), who both work for Tumblr and have very good accounts.
P.S. here’s a good whittling meme.
***Any typos in this post are on purpose actually***