TikTok Is Just What Tumblr Used to Be
In the last year, TikTok has taken over the social media bubble. The short-format video sharing app has come to rival its predecessor Vine, in a way that is both surprising to anyone who was aware of TikTok in its earlier years of availability, and impressive, considering the cultural impact that Vine has had on the internet. As of July 2020, the app boasts an estimated 689 million monthly users. The platform, now a household topic especially after last year’s prospective ban, has exploded in popularity in a way few other social media platforms have in recent years. This popularity, of course, has garnered as much scrutiny as one can expect, and the app’s rapid development and popularity with specifically younger users (32.5% of the user base is 10 to19 years old, the largest percentage of any other age group) has older users reflecting on the trends they’re seeing evolve among the app’s younger crowd. Specifically, the 20 to 29 user base (29.5% of all users, second only to the 10-19 group) has noted a rise in similarities between TikTok and another platform, one that may trigger unfortunate flashbacks in any online person’s memory from the early 2010’s:Tumblr.
Around a decade ago, Tumblr became a popular blogging platform, used for a variety of purposes, but perhaps most infamously for the comedic text-based posts, referred to as “textposts,” that have circulated various social media platforms since Tumblr’s early years–open Instagram and go to your explore page, it likely won’t be long before you find one. Similarly, Tumblr was known for its LGBT community as well as its widespread fandom community. If you’ve ever heard the term “Superwholock,” that is the lasting influence of Tumblr. Tumblr was a blogging platform, almost entirely text-based, which highlights the curious nature of the TikTok comparisons, as TikTok is almost entirely video-based. Despite these differences, the apps have not escaped comparison, with many of TikTok’s older users insisting that the app is becoming Tumblr, a comparison steeped in fear from those looking back on Tumblr’s internet reign.
First, it’s worth examining TikTok’s start. It launched on the App Store in 2017, though became more widely available in 2018 after merging with Musical.ly, an app that allowed users to create short-form videos like TikTok, but with the sole intention of lip syncing or interacting with pre-existing music and audio clips. The app had an immediate burst of popularity, though not for the reasons one might expect. It became a jumping off point for online content creators, mainly on YouTube, to generate commentary on “cringe content” that emerged from the app. This includes users such as Kurtis Conner, Danny Gonzalez, Drew Gooden, Casey Aonso, and Cody Ko each of whom have garnered a massive online following as a result. Thus, TikTok became the popular app to hate, as it represented a newer iteration of Musical.ly. Musical.ly had previously garnered similar hate, especially as a result of male influencers on the platform that reminded many of the dark days of MAGCON, a widely revolted influencer group who dated back to Vine, much like several of the aforementioned YouTubers. It wasn’t until 2019 that the app would undergo a creative resurgence, with these content creators inspiring their viewers to download the app in search of more “cringe content,” a variety of content steeped in irony that was consumed not for its quality but for lack thereof, providing something for the consumer to mock as opposed to actually enjoy. The app saw a rise in popularity that transformed it from a factory for “cringe” to commentate on to a legitimate platform for creators of all kinds. It has since become a hub for influencers to launch their careers, and in-app popularity is enough that TikTok influencers were recently allowed to join SAG-AFTRA, the union in charge of representing the interests of actors and other media talent.
Though it now has the popularity to draw attention and warrant comparison, this still doesn’t explain where the comparisons to Tumblr come from. A TikTok by user @lonelynymph, captioned “I’m mentally preparing for the worst, cause this app seems to want to outdo tumblr” lists a few reasons, primarily LGBT discourse, the concept of “straight” TikTok and a rise in NSFW (Not Safe for Work) content. These are all topics that will seem both familiar to most TikTok users, while striking an unfortunately reminiscent chord for many ex-Tumblr users as well. Tumblr was often defined by discourse, and the perception of “sides” of Tumblr. The platform bred toxicity, with topics centering LGBT identities and their validity often causing controversy to erupt, especially as Tumblr found itself with an increasingly large LGBT community. It became an anonymous safe space, though it fell into the common trap of toxicity through the generation of discourse by queer people who were suddenly able to speak freely about their identities and thoughts on others, which proved to not always be a good thing. Notably, prominent figures in Tumblr’s LGBT discourse was largely white, and largely gay and lesbian, so much of the discourse centered on perpetuating false narratives and exclusionary opinions towards asexual and bisexual people.
TikTok has contributed its fair share to LGBT discourse as well, with videos under the tag #lgbtdiscourse accumulating 968.4 thousand views at the time of this writing. Once again, largely biphobic and transphobic users have generated discourse by falsely representing harmful arguments as sympathetic or even just directly creating false facts to further hateful ideologies. A TikTok by user @smallbisexualbitch with 46.3 thousand views breaks down the issues with the app’s penchant for wlw discourse, while similarly a tiktok under #biphobia by user @frannie.dc with 398.7 thousand views responds to a biphobic tiktok by breaking down its harmful arguments. These are examples of combatting the harm that emerges from LGBT discourse, but their existence also acknowledges the fact that the harmful views they are combatting are still being held and publicized on the platform.
In another, less disappointing instance of similarity, TikTok is drawing comparisons to Tumblr’s “sides” largely due to users’ relationship with the algorithm that promotes specific kinds of content to a user’s For You Page. It’s common for users to refer to themselves as on either “straight-” or “alt-” TikTok, with each community offering a different spectrum of creators and personas. This has become even further segmented as the user base grows, allowing for deeper content niches to be created, with users referencing different communities like “Farm tiktok,” “booktok,” “fashion tiktok,” “science tiktok” or even stranger examples like “frogtok” or “beanstok.”
Ex-Tumblr users will recognize this as the “sides” referenced on Tumblr so often, a primary example being the oft-summoned “science side of Tumblr,” mentioned in notes on posts about strange natural phenomena. The Tumblr account science-side-of-tumblr, a blog created to collect all “science side” posts in a singular place, boasts millions of notes throughout its existence. In fact, one of the most popular contributors to the abstract, nebulous concept that was the “science side of Tumblr,” Hank Green, has risen rapidly to popularity again on TikTok, answering user’s questions along much the same lines as Tumblr. Thus, the comparisons between TikTok and Tumblr can be summed up by two ideas: discourse and content stratification. If the discourse and the method of stratification remain the same across the two platforms, then maybe there’s some truth to TikTok becoming Tumblr. Perhaps the app is truly history repeating itself, the younger generation of users proving that we did not learn from ourselves at all, and are doomed to create another platform that will become something to reflect bittersweetly on while watching hour-long video essays on various controversial moments in the platform’s history.
Before jumping to any conclusions about social media and “the youth”, it’s worth diving deeper into what is making users draw this comparison, those two aforementioned ideas. When thinking of discourse, one has to think no further than Twitter to see that this is not just an idea isolated to the TikTok/Tumblr conversation. Similarly, Twitter also features content stratification, with users referring to “stan twitter,” “rose twitter,” or “film twitter” rather than “sides.” These ideas are not isolated to the two platforms, rather, they are ideas that are shared across any social media platform if one were to look closely. If that’s the case, then Twitter is no different than TikTok in the discussion of following the Tumblr arc. Does this mean that all social media will eventually approach the point of Tumblr-ization, much like the evolutionary theory of carcinization, which states that evolution will inevitably lead to all living things becoming crabs?
According to social media manager Mary Beth McAndrews (@mbmcandrews on Twitter), the answer is no. When asked about the idea of TikTok becoming Tumblr, McAndrews actually said that the conversation was confusing, stating that the difference in format between the two apps makes it “hard to say one wants to be another without navigating how they let users upload and create content.”
This is disheartening to any one searching for the pattern that shows the inevitably of Tumblr, but raises a solid point about the connections being drawn. The apps are very different, especially given Tumblr’s almost entirely text-based format compared to TikTok’s minute-maximum videos. The ways that users interact with each other across both platforms varies greatly, such that it’s hard to draw comparison between something like a duet on TikTok, where two videos by different users play side-by-side, to a reblog on Tumblr, in which a post was either added to by a user or reposted entirely to one’s own blog. Users interact in different ways on different platforms, using the tools provided by the platforms as these tools allow apps to “remain relevant and to keep building a user base.”
What drew McAndrews’ attention, when asked about the comparison, was the subject of discourse. She acknowledged that “message boards prior to Tumblr started that behavior [discourse] too,” meaning that what we recognize as Tumblr-esque discourse has been around in the same form and fashion for as long as users were able to engage with each other on the internet. In fact, this highlights the root of the comparison, and where the comparison falls due to short-sightedness. As McAndrews put it, “I think it really does come down to what is available for certain demographics to share their thoughts, [and] no matter the platform discourse follows a similar trajectory.” Thinking back to the user statistics, in particular the age breakdown of users, it becomes more apparent why this comparison is being made. The majority of users fall into the 10 to 19 age range, with many of those users too young to recognize comparisons to Tumblr participating in discourse nonetheless (This is where the author exposes themself for not being a Tumblr user at its height, but instead a satellite user engaging with Tumblr content through other platforms). However, the second greatest user base is 20 to 29, among the age group who had primary exposure to Tumblr at its height. The line of comparison, then, makes a lot more sense, as older users notice patterns in the younger majority user base, and think of the platform they were heavily involved with at that age. Thus, the comparison is a short-sighted one, based on user groups comparing the experiences they are witnessing to the experiences others are happening in front of them.
Instead of drawing comparison between the two, contributors to the question are missing the point: that online discourse, no matter the time, no matter the platform, has never actually changed. McAndrews speaks from the perspective of a social media manager who has seen the rise and fall of many platforms over the course of her career, thus illuminating the immortal function of discourse. Its structure remains the same, whether the user in question is on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Tumblr, YouTube, Reddit, or even Facebook. In fact, this is already a widely acknowledged part of our internet culture, as any adequately online person will recognize the dark cloud that hangs over the term “comments section.” If that’s the case, if online discourse hasn’t changed or evolved since its conception and all users are noticing and mislabelling the pattern, then why hasn’t it evolved? Why are still contributing to and engaging with a pattern of communication that begets toxicity? McAndrews, fortunately, had an answer: “Because people want to be right…These platforms give everyone a voice to share their opinions which is a blessing and a curse.”
Thus, what we can conclude is that no, TikTok isn’t becoming Tumblr, but it has come into its own as a social media platform. The pattern users are recognizing are almost accurate, though. While not specifically related to Tumblr, the pattern is one of a past we have yet to learn from. Discourse has existed as long as mass internet communication has, and will likely continue to exist, as social media platforms gain power and profit are on user interaction and engagement, discourse is the obvious answer to meeting those needs. Discourse is profitable, thus, it is encouraged by the very medium through which these comparisons are being drawn. The past we fear is being repeated is not self-contained, nor has it ever been, and the best that we can seek to do is not shame those new to the social media bubble for our mistakes, but educate to prevent the hostile engine’s continuation.
Mint Cadigan is a second-year Writing for Film, TV, and Emerging Media major who had a Destiel ship blog back in the day. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.