“If it exists, it’s on Tumblr” (Ancient fandom proverb)
I still remember when I first discovered Tumblr back in 2011. It happened while I was searching for the latest reactions to the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (yes, the one where we all cried like babies). I had been in the Harry Potter fandom for about 10 years, but I didn’t feel that ‘sense of belonging’ until I joined Tumblr that day. Everyone could agree that there’s no place for fandom activities like the blogging platform David Karp created in 2007. But what is it that makes Tumblr so fandom-friendly?
I once read a post that asked what we all did before we joined Tumblr. As a fangirl, for me it was mostly forums. However, that still didn’t compare to the amount of in-depth, transformative content that I can find in what has become my favorite corner of the Internet. Tumblr adds a much deeper layer to the viewer experience: there’s edits, manips, well-thought out analysis, screencaps of tweets from the cast, arguments between different sides of the fandoms, shippers talking about the scenes their OTP shared… It simply offers more.
Are Tumblr users actually bloggers? Do they even act like bloggers? I once read an article that said that Tumblr is “the anti-blog”. I have also read comedic text posts by users claiming that they don’t know what they are doing or that they don’t think this is how this platform is supposed to be used. While there are many bloggers who actually take Tumblr as a serious blogging site, the truth is that the majority of users don’t take it too seriously. In fact, Tumblr is often the only place where many people can feel like they can allow themselves to be weird. It could be said that, on Tumblr, it is not about who you are, but about what you like, what your interests are and what people have in common.
Technicalities aside (I will talk about them later), one of the possible explanations for the connection between Tumblr and fandom could also be used to explain the nature of fans themselves. Without wanting to imply that all fans have some kind of personality trait(s) in common, it could be argued that people who tend to obsess about fictional works are often very imaginative and creative people who like fantasizing about different realities. And, very often, those who use fiction to “escape” from reality are also people who don’t feel like they fit in, which is probably where all the talk on diversity and Tumblr being “the land of social justice” originates from.
It doesn’t really matter if your blog is about fandoms, hipster photos or cats eating pizza, you will surely have noticed that Tumblr users are often very passionate about social matters such as feminism, racism, LGBT and general talks of equality. To a young queer person who lives in a conservative environment, Tumblr and fandom can represent a safety blanket where everything they are will be accepted and respected. How does that fit into fandom? Well, when fandom and talks of equality collide, one can only expect for fans to start asking for diverse representation on their favourite stories too. The truth is, Tumblr users don’t limit themselves to talking about the show only, but also about their individual reactions, transformation of canon and the exploration of one’s identity through the story.
“Fandom is typically associated with cultural forms that the dominant value system denigrates – pop music, romance novels, comics, Hollywood mass-appeal stars (…). It is thus associated with the cultural tastes of subordinated formations of the people, particularly with those disempowered by any combination of gender, age, class and race“. (The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. John Fiske, 1992)
While it might not be safe for someone to post about feeling identified with a queer fictional character on Facebook or Twitter, where everyone from family to classmates or co-workers can see, it’s completely safe to do it on Tumblr, where many people might support you and even educate you on your gender or sexual orientation. This is also probably why many Tumblr users deny having a Tumblr blog outside of the Internet: they don’t want their IRL friends to find out about their blogs and the things they have to say (it’s still sad that some people have to hide who they are, though).
There are also some technicalities in regards to why Tumblr works so well with fandoms. For one, Tumblr has an excellent system for tagging and tracking tags (one of the few aspects the staff hasn’t screwed up). Its search system (tumblr.com/search/) allows to find the posts that have had more notes, while the tagging one (tumblr.com/tagged/) shows the latest posts tagged with that particular word. Both options can be used to track every single thing that has happened in your fandom while you were gone. This search and tag system is much better than the ones other social media’s like Twitter (‘should I only search for the official hashtag?’, ‘should I try different word combinations?’), and let’s not even talk about Facebook.
Aside from that, Tumblr also offers the possibility to create content in different formats:
Instagram offers photos, Youtube offers videos… But Tumblr can offer anything from photos (which include photosets, gifsets…) to chats (usually used for memes) or audio/video (two options that have improved a lot over the years). Yes, Twitter has earned some popularity with fandoms lately due to the possibility of adding gifs and vines, but it’s still very limited by its 140 characters and it can’t really compare to what Tumblr has to offer, especially if we talk about text posts.
Social studies and technicalities apart, Tumblr just happens to offer the perfect infrastructure to sustain communities, which is exactly what fandoms are. This is probably not the use David Karp had in mind when he first created the site, but hey, I’m sure he is not complaining!