Why Tumblr Is Making Us All Stupid


Why Tumblr Is Making Us All Stupid


There’s a good piece from my internet pal Jed Lund on the Guardian today about the ethics of retweets and embedding tweets in blog posts. I humbly suggest you read it. It reminded me of a lot of the points I was trying to make in this piece a couple years ago,  so I’ve reposted it, reblogged it, if you will (can you steal from yourself?) because a lot of it seems truer than ever now. 

I don’t get Tumblr. There are a couple reasons for that. 1) I’m a thousand years old. 2) I’m not a vapid culture vampire incapable of expressing myself in anything other than rudimentary pictogram-like communication, and 3) I’m really old. And yet somehow, without my support, the rapidly growing micro-blogging platform is managing to get by. Around 13 million unique users a month make up about 7 million visits per week across all Tumblrs. To put that in perspective, those numbers place it in the top 10 social media websites in the world. More scientifically speaking, that’s roughly a metric shit-ton of animated black and white tattooed-tits, cunnilingus .gifs and moody, urban sunset landscapes, shared back and forth over and over again.

That micro-blogging modifier is important here to differentiate what Tumblring actually is, mostly because everyone who uses Tumblr has a tiny penis. But also because Tumblring is not blogging. I never thought I’d live to see a type of media that makes the increasingly archaic-seeming act of blogging actually seem high brow, but I suppose I shouldn’t have underestimated the downward spiral of contemporary discourse rotating toilet-like into the cultural shitter.

The distinction is this: While blogs were the old boogey-man of the traditional media, in the way that they allowed millions of hacks like me to quote from other, actual news-gathering outlets’ work, add a wry commentary, ????, then profit, (via the Gawkerization of the internet), the genius of Tumblr is that it streamlines the process, cutting out the actual step where you even need bother trying to add any value of your own. Instead you see something you like, reblog it yourself, then watch as the telephone-game like chain of successive re-blogs steams onward unto infinity. The result is something like this revolutionary contribution to the world of ideas/aesthetics below, to take an example from one Tumblr I recently stumbled on at random:

A fine picture of a wolf, sure. Handsome, majestic even. Who wouldn’t want to host such an elegant piece of lupine photography on their own website? Never mind who took the photo, mind you—that doesn’t really matter in the Tumblr model (which I’ve talked about a lot recently). It’s what follows that is the interesting part.




In three days time that one mostly unremarkable picture received 4,201 “notes.” That means that thousands of other people saw the image posted on another Tumblr and decided, yeah, that’s my shit right there, I need to get in on some of this, then re-posted it to their own specific Tumblr.

This one below got almost twice as many people to shuffle it onwards along the conveyor belt of digital refuse. I’m not even sure it’s from the same Tumblr, after a while they all start to run into one another. That’s exactly the problem.




This sort of thing is par for the course across the hundreds of Tumblrs I’ve looked at over the past couple years. What does any of it mean though? Well, TL;DR: kids are really, really stupid. Not surprisingly, the age of Tumblr users skews pretty young. 50% of them are between the ages of 12-24, a group that makes up only about 23% of overall internet use.


Granted, the vast majority of people regardless of age have nothing of value to add to the cultural conversation, but considering the ascendancy of Tumblr culture, it’s hard not to see it as actual, real time data on the further erosion of generational boorishness broadcast and re-broadcast millions of times a week.

It’s the assumed curatorial persona of the typical Tumblr that makes the emptiness of it all the more glaring. What’s the difference between re-blogging a stylized image you deem share-worthy and all the parents in my Facebook feed linking to old YouTube videos of Rolling Stones songs or pretty pictures of horses? Tumblr is simply the elevation of the “like” button to a system of aesthetic aspirations, but it comes with a ready-made set of artistic and design flourishes that render it stylish and artistic, and therefor easy to mistake as symbolically loaded. There’s nothing to say about the photo you re-blogged, because the act of re-blogging says everything that needs to be said. And the message is assumed as understood. Instead of explaining why you like something, the new model is to simply declare it to be liked, the very act of which is a bold declaration of self. I think?

We are, as consumers, after all, simply a collection of preferences, but it seems to me we’re increasingly incapable of explaining what those choices mean, while we lean on them to lend us our online persona, which is increasingly the only persona that matters.

Never mind the crotchety old conservative types criticizing the Occupy movement as evidence of the laziness of the younger generation who expect jobs to be handed to them without actually doing any work. Their argument would be better served on the Tumblr generation, (of which there is a sizable overlap), who expect meaningful artistic expression to be handed to them, without ever having to actually do anything.

Tumblring is the act of doing nothing. There’s zero effort required in maintaining the average Tumblr under the current status quo. As difficult as it may be for young people to understand, “I love lamp” isn’t a philosophy, but that’s essentially what they’re saying every time they re-blog the same limited pool of stylish pictures their friends re-blogged and so on. It’s the culmination of the sampling/information wants to be free culture, and Tumblrs are to blogs as DJs are to musicians — but not even the good kind of DJ, because at least they manipulate the original content in some way.

Your Tumblr then is like a band t-shirt you can wear to class every day, only it has room enough for every band, and every film, and every predictable internet meme you’ve ever heard of all at once. It seems like you’re making a statement about who you are, and what you are, when you curate your tastes online, but ultimately it ends up saying nothing at all besides that you’re tuned into the same channel of static noise as the rest of your peers.

I worry about what that means for our ability to express ourselves in the future, partly because I’m old, and the nature of being old is worrying about things like this, but also because being able to talk about what we like, and why we like things, (and more relevant to my interests, why we dislike things) without simply pushing a button that makes it so is what makes art and media culture so satisfying to enjoy.

Perhaps it’s just a passing phase, something the kids will grow out of, but I’m not so sure. To paraphrase George Orwell (via Miranda July), if you want a vision of the future, picture a blogger posting the same retro film still back and forth. The same poop. Forever. ))<>((