Tumblr Gets the Last Laugh

As Twitter crumbles, Tumblr is welcoming back the internet’s weirdos.

An illustration of an old computer displaying Tumblr's homepage
Getty; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

After haggling with the author Stephen King (don’t worry about it), Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, decided that Twitter users would have to pay $8 a month to keep their blue verification check marks. Previously, these check marks were free and indicated an account was authentic—that’s the real New York Times, the real President Joe Biden, the real Slim Jim, and so on. They’re sort of a status symbol, in the sense that check marks make users stand out, and the process for getting one is opaque and mysterious. And they kind of confer importance by suggesting that a person or an entity or a brand with a check might be someone who someone else would attempt to impersonate. People sometimes talk about verification badges as being signifiers of “clout.”

Musk renovated the blue-check-mark system with the stated intention of making it, like, more egalitarian or something: Anybody could have a check if they paid a fee, and then they would have the glory of the check mark, even if it would no longer indicate anything other than the user having paid a fee. This devolved into chaos about as quickly as you would imagine. A blue check appeared next to an account pretending to be George W. Bush, which tweeted, “I miss killing Iraqis” with a sad-face emoji. A blue check appeared next to an account masquerading as the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, which tweeted, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” (The verification program is now on pause until after Thanksgiving.)

For those disgusted or confused by Musk’s antics, there is an alternative: Just go back to Tumblr, where the antics are better.

The famous microblogging website for freaks is constantly rumored to be at death’s door, but things are on the upswing there—and people are paying attention, thanks to the company’s inspired response to Twitter’s tumult. Last week, it started offering users the option to purchase, for a onetime fee of $7.99, not one but two “Important Blue Internet Checkmarks” to display next to their username. “Why, you ask? Why not?” the announcement explained. (The page for purchasing the check marks discloses that they “may turn into a bunch of crabs at any time.”) This was a good joke from the jump, but it got better when users realized they could buy more than two check marks. Someone bought 10. Because this is Tumblr, the check marks quickly became the subject of fan art—“the Important Blue Internet Checkmarks are gay and married actually,” etc. Tumblr is also selling blue-check-mark pins in its shockingly good merch store.

“We’re always looking across the industry for innovation,” Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic, which owns Tumblr, told me when I asked about the Important Blue Internet Checkmarks. Then he apologized: “I’m not good at being funny.” Anyway, he went on, you can buy up to 24 check marks. “But we are making no promises. For a technology company, maintaining the check marks is very difficult.” (Joking again.) “The check marks might transform into something else in the future,” he warned. (Referring to the threat of crabs.) He wouldn’t give specific numbers but said there are now “hundreds of thousands” of Important Blue Checkmarks on Tumblr.

According to Mullenweg, iOS downloads of the Tumblr app were up 62 percent the week after Musk took control of Twitter. (Although, to keep things in perspective, Tumblr is still much, much smaller than Twitter.) The mobile app has a pretty chic new logo. The discovery features are finally useful. And, at the beginning of the month, Mullenweg announced that the company had figured out a way to allow nudity on the site again (though it will not be bringing back actual porn), putting an end to a four-year-long ban and possibly starting Tumblr down a path to regaining the trust of users who were dismayed when it began removing, among other things, posts that showed “female-presenting nipples,” in a bloodbath of poorly considered automated takedowns.

Whoever is currently running Tumblr’s Twitter account has also been making the most of the Musk era by welcoming fleeing Twitter users “home” to Tumblr and asking current Tumblr users not to scare them away: “We need everybody to pretend to be normal for a little bit.” (Mullenweg would not say who runs Tumblr’s Twitter account, but he told me that the company Slack has “kind of turned into a writer’s room.”)

Now, maybe you see this as sort of an obvious and opportunistic publicity play by a competing social-media service. Maybe it even seems crass to you—a little grave-dancy. But Tumblr’s users and staff know something about unexpected business deals with ominous implications. (The site was acquired by Yahoo in 2013; Yahoo was then acquired by Verizon; Verizon squished Yahoo and AOL together to form something called Oath; it then sold Tumblr to Automattic at a fire-sale price—a twist after rumors circulated that it might sell the site to Pornhub.) They also know something about sudden changes and broken features and never-ending suspense over when or whether a site may disappear completely. You can hardly blame them for enjoying the fact that something has gone wrong elsewhere.

Tumblr diehards do not want the site to be a landing pad for the normies. As Ryan Broderick reported in his newsletter, Garbage Day, last week, they have busied themselves posting “cringe” in order to ward off returning Twitter users—it’s kind of a “Keep Austin Weird” campaign. (Of course, the Twitter “normies” are coming from a website where people sincerely argue that it’s classist to shower and sexist to be afraid of the woman monster in Barbarian who rips arms off—so they’re not that normal either.) But some Tumblr users prefer to be welcoming. “All of us were new to the site at one point,” Nat Ku, a 20-year-old Tumblr user, told me in an email. “If someone wants to switch from twitter to tumblr, celebrity or otherwise, good for them. Who cares? That’s their business. We’re all equally insufferable anyway.”

Today, Tumblr has a reputation as a refuge from the louder and busier social-media landscape, and those who still spend time there—or who returned to the site, as many did at the start of the pandemic—love it for being somewhat creepy and overlooked. If Musk ruins Twitter, maybe it too could have a second life as something most people are always forgetting about—in a good way.

A year ago, many would have placed their bets on Tumblr having far less time left on Earth than Twitter, but that’s life online for you. Any platform that you invest years of your interest and creativity in—that you become reliant on for community and news and stimulation and something to complain about—is about as stable as the winds of capital and the whims of those who hold it. Although it feels like the end of days on Twitter right now—which is to say, everyone is acting hysterical—there’s something a little exciting about it. It’s beautiful and painful. Now, a Tumblr user might say, you know how it feels.

“I hope both Twitter and Tumblr are around 100 years from now,” Mullenweg told me. “These are important parts of the internet, and they need good stewardship to stay around for future generations.” He said he learned the hard way that running a social network is extremely difficult—in more ways than running any other large-scale internet service or tech company—and that he is rooting for anyone who tries it. “You’ll never hear me bad-mouth Elon,” he said, after I honestly kind of tried to get him to. That said, if you’re wondering what to do now that Twitter is getting more upsetting by the day: “Everyone at Tumblr has been burning the midnight oil the past few weeks to keep up with user demand.”