A collage illustration of a museum exhibit of Tumblr and Tumblr-inspired elements
Pedro Nekoi

How the Snowflakes Won

The soft, sad freaks on an unprofitable website claimed victory in the battle for the internet’s soul and defined the worldview of a generation.

The CEO of Tumblr—a social platform that was once worth more than $1 billion, and in its time was among the internet’s most popular and talked-about cultural spaces—quietly worked his last day on January 21. The company has not explained Jeff D’Onofrio’s departure, nor even referenced it publicly; I learned about it incidentally, several weeks after speaking with him, in a “wanted to let you know” email from a company spokesperson. Five days after that, Matt Mullenweg, whose company, Automattic, now owns Tumblr, emailed me to say that he wasn’t planning to “make a big deal out of it” in deference to D’Onofrio’s “privacy and safety.” He did not elaborate.

The news (and the refusal to present it as news) is sort of sad, sort of odd, and maybe ominous. Tumblr, launched 15 years ago this month, once had a reputation that was as big and confusing as that of Texas or Taylor Swift: It wasn’t just a blogging platform, but a staging ground for an array of political movements, the birthplace of all manner of digital aesthetics, and the site of freaky in-groups, niche conspiracy theories, community meltdowns, and one very famous grave-robbing scandal. At various points during the platform’s reign of online influence—from roughly 2010 to 2015—the phrase Tumblr user served as a proud identity marker, or something like a slur. Today, it’s an archaism.

According to data provided by the analytics company Similarweb, visits to Tumblr’s website and mobile apps declined more than 40 percent from October 2018 to October 2021, while the number of unique visitors dropped 17.5 percent. Tumblr no longer has its place on the list of internet spaces—Instagram, TikTok, Discord—that seem most responsible for driving internet culture and shaping the sensibilities of the up-and-coming generation. The site has been sold and sold again, shedding clout through both the natural aging process for social-media platforms and an unnatural run of tragic corporate mismanagement. (Also: It has seemingly never figured out how to make money.)

“We’re redoubling our efforts to make Tumblr awesome,” Mullenweg assured me via email last week. “I’ll be working with the Tumblr teams directly to fill in the gaps in the meantime, and launch an internal and external search for new leaders including a new CEO for Tumblr.” Yet this latest upheaval lends some urgency to a provocative question: If Tumblr disappeared from the internet tomorrow, how would it be eulogized? The site was once the anti-Facebook—a thriving, less exploitative avenue for social media—as well as a bulwark in the culture wars, fending off the irony-addled lunatics of 4chan and offering a different, weirder route for the “extremely online” mind. It laid the very foundation for life online as we know it—and, at times, suggested a much better way forward. Now even the once-devoted talk about it as if it’s already gone.

A collaged animation of a museum of memes and a flashing neon light
Pedro Nekoi

In the beginning—in the aughts—Facebook was Palo Alto and Tumblr was New York.

Out in California, Mark Zuckerberg was working on a website that could connect everybody on the planet. Our social networks would be visible and searchable, with friendships cataloged in photo albums full of hyperlinked tags. Facebook’s “wall” would be a site of public presentation—a chronology of schools and jobs and outfits and relationships, all cemented to a legal name—and “likes” would be a public measure of approval.

Three thousand miles away, a floppy-haired 20-year-old named David Karp—Zuckerberg’s non-evil twin—was building something different. Whereas Facebook aimed to bring everyone and their mother online, Tumblr was the opposite: an online underground, a place where your mother, in particular, would never see you. The platform was optimized for secrets and for pseudonyms, which meant it was for art and confession and porn. It had no public follower or friend counts, no comment sections, and no requirements that users provide real names. If you didn’t like what you’d put out there, or you weren’t sure of the connections you’d built, you could start over, try something else, no explanation needed.

Karp was so charming that early Gawker went after him on principle. (“If You Love David Karp So Much Why Don’t You Marry Him?”) In 2008, shortly after Tumblr’s launch, he derided Silicon Valley as “hypercompetitive” and “incestuous.” His company would try to represent a wilder and more inclusive vision of the internet. “Tumblr was like this wide-open blank canvas,” Katherine Barna, one of the site’s early employees and former heads of communications, told me. “That felt very different at the time than, like, Here’s where you plug in your information in a social platform where everybody shows up and looks the exact same and you have the same template and the same format.”

So the site raised artists and writers and activists and fangirls who came to it for pictures of actors and pop stars and GIFs of kissing but then stumbled across the language of intersectional feminism, anti-racism, gender identity, and passions of all sorts. The artist Molly Soda made her name on Tumblr in its early days as one of its first and few celebrities, and has since become something of a Tumblr elder stateswoman. “There were a lot of micro subcultures on Tumblr, but I think they all kind of blended together in a lot of ways,” she told me.

For a lot of Millennials like me, this blend produced a political coming-of-age. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street organizers used Tumblr to publish thousands of selfies paired with individual stories about student loans, medical bills, and home foreclosures. “We wanted whoever was reading the blog to feel as overwhelmed as the people who were submitting the stories, and that’s why we published, like, up to 100 a day,” Priscilla Grim, one of those organizers, told me recently. The plan worked. Ezra Klein, then at The Washington Post, noted, “It’s not the arrests that convinced me that ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was worth covering seriously … It was a Tumblr called ‘We Are the 99 Percent.’”

Tumblr, which Grim calls “the people’s platform,” would go on to be an energizing force behind the Black Lives Matter movement, while seamlessly relating that cause to the site’s ongoing conversations about representation in media, entertainment, and politics. “There was a direct correlation between internet activism and real-world activism that was undeniable,” Alexander Cho, an assistant professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara and a co-editor of the academic collection A Tumblr Book: Platform and Cultures, told me.

As the site grew, it served as a wellspring for memes, web comics, and new forms of art and popular culture. GIFs emerged on Tumblr blogs as a fully realized visual language, and a cohort of “alt lit” writers, dubbed “40 Likely to Die Before 40,” started mixing online ephemera into their poetry and novels. (When the musician Frank Ocean published an open letter about his own sexuality on Tumblr in 2012, it was a global news event and an instant classic of internet literature.) Huge new online fandoms took shape too, celebrating Glee, One Direction, Marvel, and the TV show Supernatural, among other (often nerdy) pop-culture properties; they chatted in the same space where artists and photographers were coining terms for digital aesthetics. Meanwhile, all were learning a new vocabulary with which to talk about social issues. Through their interests, Tumblr users were introduced to concepts such as sex positivity, internalized misogyny, gender identity, and ableism—as well as, somewhat notoriously, trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Tumblr would in this way become the home of the “discourse.” Because of the site’s design, conversation happened in a nesting-doll structure—to comment on anything, users had to reblog the original post onto their own page and make their additions beneath it. From there, it could be pulled onto another person’s blog with another addition, then maybe back onto the original with a clarification or a new argument. Academics have called this Tumblr’s “cascading” dynamic, which Cho described in a 2015 paper as “rhythmic and strange.” No matter why or where you’re logged on to the platform, you’ll find yourself amid dozens of overlapping conversations, informed by a never-ending mess of visuals. A blog that started out as a tribute to Lana Del Rey could end up, with only a few steps, as a place for pulling apart concepts of slut-shaming or Russian literature.

“I think that visually created the appearance of a conversation that was ongoing and building,” Moya Bailey, a communication professor at Northwestern University, told me. Bailey coined misogynoir to describe the unique discrimination experienced by Black women; the term was then popularized on Tumblr through its discussion by other women writers and academics. “There was an opportunity for people to learn from people who weren’t like them, and at that time I do think that there was a real interest in that learning,” she said. “You could see how people’s thought processes were evolving.”

But even as Tumblr came to be the center of online culture, Facebook was conquering the online economy. By the time Zuckerberg took his company public in 2012, at a $100 billion valuation, it was a hyper-sophisticated data-mining and ad-targeting operation—and the world’s “biggest mobile marketing platform,” about to get a steroid injection with the acquisition of Instagram. Tumblr, on the other hand, had no major source of revenue. (After five years of resisting ads entirely, it had only just started experimenting with them—with terrible results.) Still, its youth factor and cultural heft—the very qualities that distinguished it from other platforms—had real value. In 2013, at the height of Tumblr’s popularity, Karp sold the company to Yahoo for $1.1 billion.

“Hopefully we get this right, and Tumblr will be home to the most aspiring and talented creators all over the world,” he said at the time.

What made Tumblr special—its runaway sincerity—also painted it into a corner.

Recently, I scrolled back through the archives of my college Tumblr account to see what kinds of things I’d been reposting. Hundreds of GIFs of famous hot people. A cake with Your life is a lie in pink frosting. A cartoon gravestone that says everything was boring and I didn’t care. A now-famous (in some circles) collage created by the writer Audrey Wollen, titled “GIRLS OWN THE VOID.” A T-shirt with the message a woman’s place is in the House and the Senate. A needlepoint that reads you’re just a boy and I have galaxies growing inside of me. (What?)

This sort of stylized, self-centered feminism was popular on Tumblr long before corporations and Instagram influencers perfected the monetization of “girl power.” For all the platform’s talk of celebrating diversity and a new way of seeing, its aesthetic prized thin white women—just like the old forms of media that Tumblr users were determined to reinvent. (Dangerous pro-anorexia blogging ascended to new heights on Tumblr too.) And the platform’s power users sometimes expressed their ideas in cringey and misguided ways—see the creation of “The Notorious R.B.G.,” or the rewriting of contemporary American politics as Hamilton fan fiction.

Tumblr users could easily collect images and phrases that would help them construct a pretty shadow box of political positions and cultural signifiers. They often had a much harder time using those images and phrases correctly, as determined by an online community that could easily get carried away and didn’t leave a ton of room for error. “Tumblr also had this darker side,” Melanie Kohnen, an assistant professor of rhetoric and media studies at Lewis & Clark University, told me. “This intense emotional engagement that was prevalent in Tumblr culture and the articulation of emotion could play out in ways that were not always healthy.”

Tumblr was often criticized for its purity culture—conversations could go nuclear as soon as someone was deemed “problematic,” or once their “fav” had been declared “canceled.” Anonymous “Ask” boxes enabled anonymous harassment, and dogpiling was a common experience for anyone who misspoke. Deleting an offending post often did little to defuse a situation, because the post would still be preserved on the pages of anyone who had reblogged it. Tumblr’s “cascading” dynamic became a source of endless punishment, and cancel culture, as it’s understood and fought over today, can be said to have emerged from its milieu.

The platform’s reputation for earnest, righteous debate also made it a lightning rod for trolling. With all their talk of identity and oppression, Tumblr users would be tagged as whiny “special snowflakes,” “SJWs,” and “Tumblrinas.” A lot of this vitriol came from the memelords of 4chan, Tumblr’s darker cousin in the online underground and, for a while, its direct rival. “Two internet juggernauts … have been embroiled in a nasty online spat recently,” Wired reported in November 2010, after 4chan launched a gore-, porn- and spam-based trolling campaign against Tumblr, called “Operation Overlord,” to punish “hipsters” for attempting to participate in meme culture. Tumblr responded with “Operation Overkitten,” an appropriately twee flood of images of cats, and both sites went offline for brief periods.

That battle may have ended in a stalemate, but the feud took a darker turn a few years later, when 4chan users were more focused and more spiteful. The trolls started spamming tags like #gaypride, #ableism, #transsexual, and #depression. When Tumblr users circulated (unbearably corny) petitions to get 4chan shut down by the White House, 4chan responded with a Change.org petition asking that all Tumblr users be labeled “mentally handicapped landwhales.”

In the broader culture, Tumblr users had become synonymous with Millennial political and cultural obligations, as offline and online culture wars started to overlap. (In her book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Angela Nagle positioned Tumblr users’ “hysterical liberal” attitude as the cause of an “anti-PC” backlash with significant real-world consequences.) “Tumblr” was a shorthand not just for a certain style of internet user, but also for a generation that was learning to signal its priorities through consumer choices, entertainment preferences, and political actions that utilized social media. By the time I started working on the internet as a journalist in 2015, the power struggle between trolls and SJWs had spread from Tumblr to every major platform: Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, movie-review sites, Wikipedia. It was about to set the terms of the national political conversation.

In 2016, when Donald Trump was elected as the first meme president, trollish corners of the internet celebrated their stunning victory, and journalists agreed that the spirit of 4chan had won out: The spirit of Tumblr, so delicate and too particular, was dead.

For years, grateful Tumblr users referred to David Karp as “daddy” in their posts. But at the end of 2017, daddy told them he was leaving home. He would be replaced as CEO by Jeff D’Onofrio, formerly the company’s CFO and then COO. “Jeff is the most capable and caring leader I’ve ever met,” Karp assured the readers of his own Tumblr, called David’s Log, “which I say with no exaggeration.”

In December 2018, under D’Onofrio’s leadership, the platform announced that it would no longer allow NSFW content, including images of “female-presenting nipples.” Tumblr users, protective of the site’s long history as a home for sexual exploration, reacted with horror—even before it became clear that the jarring change would be implemented with little care or sensitivity. A mass exodus ensued: In the year after the announcement, traffic plummeted. “The nail in the coffin was the porn ban,” a former Tumblr employee who left the company in 2021 told me. (They agreed to speak with me anonymously, out of concern for their professional relationships.) “That was a fiasco. It really hurt the community a lot. It sent users off in droves and they took their followers with them. We just never recovered from that.”

When I spoke with D’Onofrio in early December, he acknowledged the disastrousness of that decision, but told me that he’d never really had a choice in the matter. He said that “other stakeholders”—Apple would have been one of them; he declined to fill in the list—had forced the issue, telling him, as he recalled, “There’s a binary choice here for you.” If he didn’t enact a sweeping ban on sexually explicit content, they promised to “unplug the servers and shut it down. I took the option of keeping Tumblr alive to fight another day.” (An Apple spokesperson would only point to the App Store’s policy prohibiting pornography.)

When Tumblr was sold again in 2019, to its onetime rival Automattic, its price had reportedly dropped by more than 99 percent, to less than $3 million. Those users who remained leaned into gallows humor, reveling in what they felt was their own ability to drain the company of its last remaining value. They’d been too freaky to be profitable, and Tumblr had been too stupid to keep the porn that everyone loved. Three million dollars was such a low price that some users held out hope for Karp’s return: Maybe he would buy the site himself, just to save it. He did not. (Three of Karp’s friends passed along interview requests to him for this story, with no response.)

D’Onofrio did tell me that Tumblr’s revenues were up 55 percent in the second half of 2021, and that he had plans to modernize its search capability, improve its ads, and make better content recommendations, all without going full Facebook in terms of algorithms and data collection. He also said he was looking for a way to bring NSFW content back to the site: “If there’s a way that we can get back to it, I’d sure love to be able to do that.” But a few weeks after we spoke, Tumblr compromised again and banned a slew of innocuous tags in its iOS app—including “#selfie,” “#girl,” “#sad,” and “#me”—because of continued problems with pornography. And a few weeks after that, D’Onofrio was out of there. “While it was a difficult decision for me to make, I’ve been at Tumblr for 8 years and it was just time for me to do something new,” he told me in an email.

Whatever this means—whether Tumblr will shrivel in his absence, or if it’s still up for the challenge of fighting another, another day—many former users already talk about the site in the past tense. The sentiment “I miss Tumblr” circulates regularly on Twitter, where nostalgists tend to refer to the latest topics of conversation or styles of humor as “2013 Tumblr” or “Tumblr season 2,” as in, invented a long time ago … on Tumblr. Some have even gone back to Tumblr to live in its ruins. “i love how irrelevant tumblr is,” begins a Tumblr post that, ironically, went somewhat viral on Tumblr in February 2020. “no celebrities on here, no colleagues or family on here, no one’s famous off tumblr or making money, tbh no ones even updating the site like is there even any staff? who knows? it’s bliss.”

If there’s any hope for Tumblr, in fact, it might be precisely that enticing distance. As people seek refuge from the endless torrent of anger, embarrassment, and misinformation they see all around them on more popular platforms, what if the ideal refuge has been here all along? With some distance from the 2016 election, the possibility of a new Tumblr has emerged, this one less fixated on the policing of discourse and more interested in finding community in seclusion. “There’s something very attractive about Tumblr having fallen off of the radar of the cultural conversation,” Melanie Kohnen told me. Tumblr could never cash in on its user base, which is why it sold to Automattic for such a low price, she said; for younger users, “there’s a sense of relief of not being tracked and surveilled and monetized at all times.”

Meanwhile, the alt-right trolls have largely been deplatformed. (Even in its current state, Tumblr still has a lot more users than 4chan—more than 10 times as many.) We’re starting to reckon with what Reddit did to boys and what Facebook did to Boomers, and with any luck, we won't repeat the panic of five years ago, when memes seemed opaque, monstrous, and all-powerful. The tactics honed by 4chan’s antisocial weirdos are now more or less widespread: Even TikTok teens and K-pop fans are using them, sometimes for good, sometimes for whatever. The social mores of Tumblr “snowflakes” are no longer so baffling either, because so many of them are now adults, and so many of their ideas have become the subject of mainstream political discussion.

When I found Tumblr, it felt like finding the whole world. This kind of thing is difficult to put into words—like the sensation of learning how to read, or your first existential crisis. When I talked with Molly Soda, she, too, struggled to capture the extent or logic of the site’s influence. We spent almost an hour on the phone together, reminiscing. Eventually, Soda admitted she was stumped. “Yeah, could I trace its exact cultural impact? Like, no,” she said. “I think it’s bled into everything.”