I’ve been pondering the wave of Tumblr nostalgia that’s sweeping the internet right now. Since the beginning of the pandemic, but especially since the end of last year, the trend pieces have been popping up like weeds. Most focus on the aesthetics of 2010s Tumblr as the main draw for today’s internet users, explaining the second life of the “2014 Tumblr girl” on TikTok and Instagram as a form of COVID-era escapism. But I’d argue that these explanations overlook the deeper appeal of Tumblr, which is not so much about the aesthetics it birthed as it is the distinct characteristics of Tumblr and its denizens that make such aesthetic proliferation possible at all.
Tumblr’s userbase was, and still is, relentlessly discursive: not just in the sense of discourse-as-meme, but in the sense that there is always a debate to tackle, a joke to pile onto, a conversation to be had somewhere. On Tumblr, your primary mode of interacting with culture is not passive reception of whatever recommendations some black-box algorithm spits out—it is active engagement with things that matter to a community of your peers. Against an endless wave of media and culture—books, television, movies, music, comics, podcasts, video games—your mutuals can be trusted to provide that most organic of all content filters: personal taste. The thrill of using Tumblr in its halcyon days (roughly 2008 to 2015) was in the sense that we were shitposting our way towards seeing these tastes manifest IRL.
I like to joke that Tumblr will never again enjoy the thrilling level of music industry cachet that it had during this era, when it seemed like every left-of-mainstream artist was in direct conversation with its users. Alt-pop stars like Charli XCX and Lana Del Rey were releasing music videos with shots readymade to be looped as GIFS. Indie songwriters like Mitski and Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest were active bloggers themselves, making posts that in some cases continue to circulate. Local weirdos like Odd Future or Grimes blew up far beyond the bounds of the scenes that kickstarted their careers. Around the edges lurked the foreboding experimentalism of PC Music or Death Grips, exerting a subtle but palpable encouragement towards the strange. To be a kid who cared about music on Tumblr in the early 2010s felt like you were part of a secret society that was forever reaching toward a definition of cool.
Recently, while working on a different essay, I picked up my copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which I first attempted to read in 2014 as a precocious and mentally unwell teenager. I only ever got through the first 40 pages, and the notes I scribbled in the margins are full of not so much insight as the fervent desire to find an insight. I was fascinated by the very beginning of the poem, when all that exists is “Chaos: a crude, unstructured mass / nothing but weight without motion, a general conglomeration / of matter composed of disparate, incompatible elements.” Everything is formless, aimless substance; everything mingles with what should be its opposite.
Finally, an unnamed god exerts control over this mess, drawing the boundaries that separate earth from heaven, wind from sea, plain from valley, man from beast, and so on. These acts of definition make it possible for the narrative of the Metamorphoses to continue—indeed, they make it possible for narrative to exist at all. It is very difficult to explain what something is, and what it has been, and will become, without first having a clear sense of what it is not.
My fascination with the primordial line-drawing in the Metamorphoses seems to have come from the same place as my need to hash out the boundaries between pop and alternative culture on Tumblr, alongside thousands of other wannabe sophisticates searching desperately for an identity. Every blog’s free downloads section, every torrented mixtape, every 8tracks fanmix was an opportunity to expand not only the limits of our taste but also the essence of who we were as people. We did our meaning-making on a social microblogging website, because that was the space where we could exert aesthetic and intellectual independence, but I imagine that basically every generation of teenagers has gathered wherever they found suitable to build their own constitutive outsides: Tiktok and Twitter nowadays, certainly, but also listservs, zines, fan clubs, skate parks, dance halls, the agora.
It is a crucial developmental step in any era to come to know thy enemy, but the cultural milieu in which current young people are growing up is incredibly nebulous regarding what is mainstream and what is outsider. We live in a post-pop, post-truth, post-label world. The indie and the normie are all jumbled up together, and today’s kids want more than anything to bring order to that chaos. Actually, I’d go beyond saying that’s what the kids want. Considering that the authors of the aforementioned Tumblr trend pieces are well into adulthood, it seems like it’s what everyone wants.
The nostalgia for the golden age of Tumblr is less a desire to return to the platform itself than to the discourses that made it so infuriating and edifying. Now that the boundaries between the center and the margins of culture have been chewed up by the relentless demands of late capitalist media production, what people yearn for today is the ability not only to refuse what is popular, but to recognize it as popular to begin with. We want a core of widely-agreed-upon mass culture, we want unpredictable alternatives to that culture, and we want a place to argue endlessly about what defines them both.