A Letter to My Tumblr, Ten Years Later

Header ID: This is a screenshot of my Tumblr microblog as of September 6, 2021, nearly a decade after I first made an account on the platform. The blog’s background image is the famous painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai. The sidebar says “nerdy ass bitch from da souf” and has my name, pronouns, and age. You can see one post I have “reblogged,” or shared, which reads: “‘tumblr is free btw’ maybe for you. this app has cost me everything.” The post is by user 2007xbox360.

2021 has treated me pretty well thus far. I graduated from Georgetown University; I did a fellowship at UC Berkeley; I’ve been contracted to give workshops on restorative justice, disability justice, and anti-racism; I started grad school, pursuing an MFA in creative writing. At this juncture in my life, I find myself wondering: what were the formative moments that turned me into the person I am in now — a person some might call moderately successful?

ID: A photo of Jo at his college graduation. He’s standing in front of a banner with a picture of a statue. He’s wearing a purple dress, white socks, purple rain boots, and a black graduation cap and gown. He is looking down and adjusting the gown. Picture credit: Jacqui Brown

When I ask myself that question, my mind goes to my family; influential teachers I’ve had; VOX ATL, a teen media outlet whose staff I joined in high school; and the supportive and culturally rich Episcopal church I grew up attending. I think about the friends I’ve made, the opportunities I’ve had, the public libraries I practically grew up in…the list goes on.

I also think about Tumblr. I know that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that site — and I mean that both positively and negatively.

Tumblr is a microblogging platform, which means that your account — which users call their blog — shares characteristics of both a typical social media profile and a proper blog. Tumblr blogs can be customized like MySpace pages: you can choose and/or code your own theme, add music, et cetera. They can be accessed as their own websites if you type [your username] dot tumblr dot com into the address bar. You can create your own posts and “reblog” (share) posts from other users.

You can’t talk about Tumblr without discussing its culture. Its heyday was in the early to mid 2010s; the site’s popularity went down after the porn ban of 2018. Tumblr was the place to be for online fandom culture. (Fandoms are communities of superfans; they’ve existed for quite a while, but have really popped off with the omnipresence of the internet). There are fandoms for video games, books, celebrities, television series, and even for historical periods, such as the American Revolution.

Tumblr was also known for its social justice bent. I remember having a conversation with my sister Jheanelle when I was in high school when she was shocked that I knew the word “cisgender” and understood the difference between gender identity and sex assigned at birth.  Jheanelle is ten years older than me; by this time, she’d already been out of college for a few years. She said she didn’t learn these concepts undergrad or later, while I’d learned them from Tumblr as a teen.

This is what the Tumblr dashboard — affectionately known as the “dash” — looked like as of February 2014. The dash is the site’s timeline, from which users can create and reblog posts. ID: a royal blue webpage that shows options to create and share posts as well as user functions such as seeing your number of followers or your recent activity. Source: Amazon

I’ve been thinking a lot about Tumblr lately because I turned twenty-three in September. As I embark on my Jordan Year, I find myself reflecting on my adolescence — an adolescence which was primarily spent in an online world that I curated for myself. In that world — which revolved mostly around Tumblr — I made and lost friends, achieved mild fame, and even got death threats. Most importantly, I figured out who I was — who I am. It all started ten years ago, when I turned thirteen.

It was 2011 and I was in the eighth grade at The Westminster Schools, Atlanta’s premier private educational institution. Most of my classmates were rich and white; I was a Black scholarship kid who had to leave my side of town at 6:30 AM to get to school every day. Many of my classmates already had iPhones, but my trusty red LG slide-up phone didn’t have internet access.

In middle school, I ran cross country and track and was on the swim team. [Take note of the student in the top left of the image working on a silver MacBook.] ID: Jo at age thirteen, running on a red track. She wears a white singlet, green shorts, and gray sneakers. Behind her are people in the stands.

That year, each student in the middle school received a MacBook to use for our work. Westminster absolutely sucked in a lot of ways for me as a Black lower-income student, but giving me my own laptop is probably the most significant thing an educational institution has done for me.

Being middle schoolers, we did childish things with our newfound access to technology: we took silly selfies on Photo Booth; we played games during class; we passed digital notes, undetected by teachers. By the time we got our laptops, many of my friends were already thirteen, and some redshirted kids were even fourteen by then; they were eligible for social media accounts on many platforms. I was always younger than my peers in K-12, since my birthday is a couple of months into the school year. My slightly older friends would scroll through Tumblr during class, but I felt left out; so in September of 2011, as soon as I turned thirteen, I created an account.

I think I can safely say that that decision — seemingly minor at the time, and probably seemingly minor to most people — is what set the current events of my life in motion, probably moreso than any other thing I did of my own accord as a kid.

I didn’t find Tumblr too interesting at first. In fact, I barely used my account for three months. If you go back to the very last page of my blog, where the oldest content is, you’ll see that around my birthday in 2011, I reblogged posts about The Hunger Games and some cringey, early-2010s memes. After that, there isn’t much for a while. That December, Jheanelle came home for Christmas, and I told her that I’d recently made a Tumblr. Something about conversation made me decide to give the site another try; it was all downhill from there.

From that point — December 2011, when I was thirteen years old — until around my nineteenth birthday in September 2017, I used Tumblr nonstop. I’d access the site from my laptop in my childhood bedroom (and later from my first college dorm), the mobile app on my phone at school, clunky old computers at public libraries, a distant relative’s desktop in Trinidad, and in stolen moments when I had wifi while visiting family in Barbados.

Throughout my teenage years, I often used Tumblr from when I got home in the evenings until midnight, if not two or three in the morning. I only did the homework I had to literally hand in and, being a dorky teenager, I didn’t really hang out with friends unless we made explicit plans. I didn’t even read physical books after ninth grade unless they were for class (which, being the daughter of a librarian, is notable) — fanfiction served as my literary entertainment. I barely even watched TV and I didn’t have any video games (again, librarian mother), so that wasn’t part of my life either.

Weirdly enough, I was still a “good student.” (Before college, I was always that kid who didn’t have to try very hard to get A’s; this article about school-age girls’ typical experiences with ADHD does a good job of explaining why.) In eighth grade, I captained one of Westminster’s teams at the national quiz bowl tournament. (Quiz bowl is kind of like Jeopardy!, but in teams.) In the fall of 2012, I began attending Southwest DeKalb High School (SWD), my zoned public Magnet school; the racism, long commute, and lack of financial aid at Westminster made attending untenable. At SWD, I continued to be an active member of the quiz bowl team; I also won awards for mock trial, took AP classes, and participated in multiple honor societies, including being the president of one.

In twelfth grade, I was SWD’s STAR Student, an award given to high school seniors in the state of Georgia with their school’s highest SAT score. I am pictured with Donna Lowry, an Atlanta journalist, at the DeKalb County STAR Student ceremony. ID: Jo is wearing a navy blue dress and black-and-gray polka-dot cardigan. She holds a certificate and stands next to Donna Lowry, a Black woman with short, straight brown hair who is wearing a black dress and black-and-white blazer.

This is all to say that I have no idea how I kept up a “good” academic record, robust extracurricular life, and an all-consuming internet habit. (In my last semester of high school, I read a 123,000-word fanfiction over the course of about twelve hours. I stayed up until three in the morning two nights in a row to read it and somehow woke up at seven to go to first period calculus.) I’d talk about Tumblr sometimes at school, and some of my friends had accounts as well, but I don’t know that anyone besides my mother knew just how much of my life at that time was spent in a digital space.

To people who aren’t inclined towards social media like I am, the question is always this: what do people who spend so much time online actually do? Well, it’s not just mindless scrolling, and it’s not nearly as “antisocial” as many people tend to think twenty-first century technology is. My life as a teenager was heavily centered around the fandom communities; just as with IRL communities, sometimes they were healthy spaces, and sometimes they were quite toxic.

It took a while after making a Tumblr to really get into fandom culture. In April 2012, Jheanelle — a veteran fangirl — sent me a LiveJournal link with every video of One Direction (1D) from their time on The X Factor, including their auditions, video diaries, performances, and behind-the-scenes clips.

The very first post on my Tumblr, from September 2011. ID: a screenshot of my Tumblr blog with a post that says “6 more days until Panem October!” with a gif of Josh Hutcherson saying “Oh. My. God.”

As a teenage girl in America in the early 2010s, I was in the target audience for the musical group; however, I’d managed to miss out on the hype. That day, though, I devoured every single video on that webpage, sitting in my room and staring at my school-issued laptop the whole afternoon. I was immediately enamored with this endearing boy band. I knew there was a significant fanbase on Tumblr, so I started following 1D-themed blogs and reading (shitty) fanfiction on the site.

I was in the 1D fandom from April 2012 until early 2014, which covers my last month of middle school through my first semester of tenth grade and transitioning to a public high school. Fandoms — and, by extension, Tumblr — truly became my whole life with “bandom,” the mega-fandom for pop punk bands such as My Chemical Romance, Twenty One Pilots, and Panic! at the Disco.

I’d always liked this type of music because Jheanelle and our sister Jacqui were in high school during the golden era of pop punk of the early to mid aughts. In typical younger sibling fashion, I thought anything my sisters liked was automatically the coolest thing ever — including emo bands. After they went off to college, I commandeered their Fall Out Boy and Linkin Park CDs, playing them on an old Walkman that I found in Jacqui’s old bedroom — which, by that point, had become my bedroom.

In the seventh grade, a boy I had a crush on (one of the few Black boys in my grade at Westminster) texted me the following without context: “shut up and let me see your jazz hands/remember when you were a madman/thought you was batman.” I googled it and learned that these were the lyrics to a new My Chemical Romance (MCR) song. When MCR broke up in March 2013, I heard about it — through Tumblr, of course — but I wasn’t in the fandom just yet. I don’t remember exactly how I got into bandom, but by the end of May 2014, right after the end of my sophomore year, my blog had transitioned from 1D to being covered in gifs and pictures of pop punk musicians.

That year, I started joining “nets,” short for “networks,” which were small groups of Tumblr users who were connected by an appreciation for one random aspect of their fandom, such as the ever-changing hair of Josh Dun (the drummer for Twenty One Pilots) and Gerard Way’s (former lead singer of MCR) “Weekend Pancake Report” skit. Nets were essentially online social clubs; we’d have (virtual) movie nights, (virtually) play Cards Against Humanity together, and we’d always like and reblog each other’s selfies. I made a lot of my friends in bandom through the nets I was in.

I reached five hundred followers on Tumblr around Halloween 2014, soon after I turned sixteen. On a Sunday in February 2015, I was sitting in church when I got an idea for a playlist: upbeat pop punk songs that are perfect for singing along at the top of your lungs. I uploaded the playlist to 8tracks, a social-media-slash-music-sharing site that was all the rage with Tumblr kids in the mid-2010s.

A screenshot of the 8tracks pop punk mix that propelled me to mild Tumblr fame. ID: A screenshot of a playlist entitled “sing until your lungs give out” on 8tracks. The cover image for the mix is a picture of Fall Out Boy member Pete Wentz performing onstage.

I promoted the mix on Tumblr and it got…pretty popular. I started gaining an audience at a rate I’d never experienced. (Tumblr sends users an email whenever someone follows them; after posting this, I got an email just about every day with new followers by the dozen.) My post about this mix soon got to over four thousand “notes,” a combination of likes and reblogs. It had taken me over three years to get to five hundred followers, but less than six months to double that and reach a thousand. Relatively soon after, I reached two thousand; at my peak, I had over 2,300 followers. This is the biggest audience I’ve ever had on social media, and I was just a sixteen-year-old emo Black kid.

2015 was my Tumblr zeitgeist. In March, I made my own net: the Trohman Thirst Network, dedicated to Fall Out Boy guitarist Joe Trohman. By this time, I was fully in the “skeleton clique,” the 21p fanbase. I still remember when they dropped “Fairly Local,” the lead single off of Blurryface, their second major-label record; it was uploaded to YouTube with no warning late on a Monday night in March. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, celebrating the new era on Tumblr (in fandom, “era” refers to a specific album cycle) with my fellow members of “the clique.”

Soon, though, the cracks in my tenuous relationship to this mostly white fandom and musical genre began to show. Earlier, around Christmas 2014, a net I had just joined didn’t realize that I was Black and tried to call me out for using a variation of the word “nigga.” In April 2015, just as I was starting to stan the band All Time Low, lead singer Alex Gaskarth went on an “all lives matter” Twitter rant in response to the Baltimore uprisings catalyzed by the police killing of Freddie Gray. (Needless to say, my days of being an All Time Low fan ended then and there.)

Blurryface dropped the next month; one of the songs on the album, “Lane Boy,” included the lyrics “I wasn’t raised in the hood/But I know a thing or two about pain and darkness.” Many Black members of the skeleton clique, myself included, thought these lyrics were a bit weird, since both members of 21p are white boys who grew up middle-class in Columbus, Ohio; but, as stan culture dictates, we brushed it off because they were the “band that saved our lives.” However, our unquestioning loyalty to 21p — and my devotion to bandom and pop punk in general — finally shattered in June 2015.

21p has faced lots of criticism over the years, most notably for singer Tyler Joseph’s tweet in the riotous summer of 2020 where he mocked people who asked him to “use his platform” to promote racial justice. However, the aspect that most critics miss — which is imperative to understanding 21p and its two members, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun — is that they are both products ofwhite, Midwestern evangelical Christian households and are still heavily religious as adults. Christian themes are very prevalent in their music and can be most explicitly heard in the track “The Judge.”

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-gender couples could marry each other anywhere in the country, and many bandom musicians tweeted their support. However, the official 21p Twitter account and the members’ personal pages were silent. We were a bit suspicious given the band’s background in a religious creed known for its homophobia. Some fans tweeted at the band with their concerns; in response, Tyler Joseph posted some notes app statement that essentially said he didn’t have the capacity to publicly support same-sex marriage.

The ensuing fallout caused a mass exodus of fans from the clique, myself included. Everything that had bothered me about 21p — and bandom writ large — suddenly rose to the surface. Why was I spending my waking hours stanning a bunch of white men who clearly didn’t give a fuck about my identities as a Black, queer young woman? I sold all of my 21p merch through Tumblr, including a ticket I’d bought to see them live that autumn.

On August 31st, 2015, I started hosting “21p roast nights,” which is what I like to believe was the hallmark of my time on Tumblr. The skeleton clique is a rabid fanbase; any criticism of 21p gets you dragged. Since I had a large platform and was one of few visible Black people in bandom, I hosted these virtual roasts to give other critics of the band a safe space to air their grievances. It worked like this: a couple of times a month, people would send an anonymous criticism/roast of 21p into my ask box. The messages ranged from insults to disappointment to earnest questions about the band. I would post these messages publicly on my Tumblr, often with answers or commentary, sometimes without. That way, I could weather the flack from the clique, while people who didn’t have many friends on the site wouldn’t have to deal with it.

ID: A screenshot of an anon message I got on the first 21p roast night I ever hosted.

I had a ton of fun with these roast nights. I was utilizing my platform to help people feel more welcome in bandom. Even though it was mostly “anon” messages (because people were fearful to publicly criticize the band), it really felt like a community. It was in this, though, that I learned an eternal truth of being a multiply marginalized Black person on the internet: more visibility comes with more scrutiny and, therefore, more violence.

I got far more supportive messages than I did angry ones, but I couldn’t fully avoid the vitriol of the clique: more than a few people sent me (anon, of course) messages saying that I should kill myself since I dared criticize their favorite band. I learned something that continues to follow me in my life: to non-Black and especially white people, I’m always gonna be the “angry Black girl” that people either love or hate (and sometimes, they love me until I call them out on their bullshit, and then they hate me).

For a few months starting in late 2015, I floated around Tumblr without a fandom. Then, in February 2016, I went to Barnes & Noble with a gift card I’d gotten for Christmas and noticed that the soundtrack CD for Hamilton: An American Musical was on sale. The musical was just starting its cultural takeover at the time and, while I knew next to nothing about Broadway, it had also taken over my Tumblr dash. As a lifelong nerd for US history, I was definitely curious; so, I bought the CD.

I listened to the two-and-a-half-hour-long soundtrack when I got home and I was immediately hooked. The 58th Grammy Awards, where Hamilton took home the prize for Best Musical Theater Album, happened to be that night; actually seeing the cast perform a song from the musical with choreography and everything only made me love it more. Soon, I was deep in the “Hamilfandom,” and my Tumblr reflected that: throughout the spring of 2016 and into the summer, my blog was all Hamilton, all the time.

I remember thinking this exact thing to myself soon after I joined: “Wow, the Hamilton fandom is great! It’s not racist at all like bandom.” But, like with pop punk, the anti-Blackness of this fandom (and the anti-Blackness of the musical and its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda) soon reared its ugly head. I’ve written quite a bit about how absolutely fucking racist the Hamilton fandom was, which you can read about here. The racism and other ridiculous bullshit of that fandom was just too much to bear and, by the time I started undergrad in August of 2016, I’d mostly left the Hamilfandom.

My mother and I at Georgetown University’s New Student Convocation in 2016. ID: Jo and her mother, both Black women with short hair and glasses, hug each other and pose for a picture. Jo is wearing a pinkish-red dress, a black graduation gown, and is holding a booklet. Her mother wears a monochrome checkered shirt and blue denim pants.

My very last fandom was also history-related: it was the fandom for the AMC television show TURN: Washington’s Spies. I wasn’t nearly as active in this fandom as I was in my previous ones. I shared fanart, followed the cast on social media, and liveblogged (the Tumblr version of livetweeting) episodes as I watched them, but after my bad breakups with both bandom and the Hamilfandom, I was pretty much over it when it came to fandom life. While I have been a superfan of things in recent years and dabbled in reblogging gifsets and fanart (like for Hozier or The Umbrella Academy) haven’t properly been in a fandom since TURN ended in the summer of 2017. With the end of TURN also came the end of my time on Tumblr — at least, the end of it being my entire life.

In mid-2016, a bunch of my friends from the Hamilton/history fandoms had started a group chat on Twitter, which they invited me to join. At this point, I’d had a Twitter account for a few years, but I basically never used it. Because of that group chat, though, I started using Twitter much more and have made quite a few friends on the platform. Twitter also allowed me to stay in touch with my friends from Tumblr after many of us, myself included, left the site over the course of the late 2010s.

Tumblr and fandom culture definitely changed my life; however, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. In addition to the racism from people online, my internet usage also caused a significant strain in my IRL relationships during my teenage years, particularly with my mother. While you’d imagine most teenage girls fight with their mothers over boys and going out with friends, my mother and I would fight about the fact that I was spending my adolescence cooped up in my room, staring at a screen. She often says that the laptop literally “felt like a wall between us.”

Besides contributing to emotional distance between us, she was also worried about what I was up to online all the time. I have two older sisters, but they went off to college in the mid aughts; they didn’t have the unfettered access to technology that I had as a minor until they were well into their twenties. While I am my mother’s youngest child, she has expressed that she essentially had no idea how to raise me in the technological landscape of the time. She told me that she felt like she had “relinquished parental control” and even felt as if she “could no longer be a proper parent.”

Earlier this year, we had a long conversation about her anxieties related to my usage of technology as a teenager, and she revealed quite a lot that she had worried about telling me earlier. She told me that she had “no idea” what I was doing online all the time and just had to hope that she raised me with enough sense that I wouldn’t do anything to put myself in harm’s way; despite this, though, she said that as a parent, “when you don’t know something, your mind goes to the worst place.”

She thinks that it’s probably easier to raise kids now than it was to raise a child my age — those of us born on the cusp of Millennials and Gen Z — because omnipresent internet and social media wasn’t as brand-new as it was when I was in middle and high school. Us “Zillennials” were on the “front lines” of figuring out now only how to balance our IRL and online lives but also how to balance privacy with being yourself when the whole world could be watching. To her, kids around my age “were the guinea pigs” for a life of ubiquitous internet access.

With all that in mind, I can’t change the past. My teenage years were shaped by and around Tumblr and my experiences on the site, and I have no way to alter that fact.

I learned who I am on Tumblr. I learned I am a person who loves being online. I learned that I am queer and gender non-conforming from Tumblr. I learned that I don’t fuck with capitalism or US imperialism on Tumblr. Ultimately, I learned that this world is much larger than my family or my school or my hometown; this world is much larger than me. I learned that I will never be alone if I just look hard enough — that there will always be people who can relate to my experiences, even if, on the surface, we seem totally dissimilar.

I met some of my closest friends on Tumblr, people who remain best friends to this day. (Harry and Tessa, whatup!) One person I met through the Hamilfandom has sent me a Snapchat nearly every day at 4:20 PM since we were both in that fandom back in 2016. (I send them a snap at 4:20 too, at least on the days that I remember before the clock turns to 4:21.) I still make many of my friends online today, even though I barely use Tumblr. Many of the people I talk to every day are people I initially and/or mostly socialize with online, whether through Twitter or Instagram.

Today, I am a burgeoning communications professional, having had multiple internships and jobs related to strategic communications and social media — I learned those tangible skills on Tumblr. (Deadass, I took a single one-credit social media workshop my sophomore year, and it was all things I already knew from being online all the time as a teenager.) My mom speaks highly of my skills in comms, and I always have to remind her that those skills came from the same internet usage that caused most of our fights when I was in high school.

Being a Tumblr kid also prepared me for the (physical) social distancing of the COVID pandemic. I’d been socializing with people across the country and the world since 2014, so I already knew how to maintain friendships with people when we couldn’t be in the same room. While my extroverted friends who only ever hung out with people IRL were left floundering in March 2020, my social life continued apace, practically unfazed.

Lately, though, I’ve been nostalgic for my Tumblr days. Last November, “Destiel Putin Election Night” happened on Tumblr, where memes about the show Supernatural, the 2020 election, and Vladimir Putin’s rumored resignation all converged, making for the literal funniest thing I have ever experienced. When it came time for my final winter break of undergrad this past December and January, I got back into Tumblr for the first time since September 2017. Unlike my teenage years, though, I just use Tumblr a few times a month when I feel like it for less than an hour at a time; it doesn’t take up my entire waking hours.

I might be the type of person some people would call “chronically online,” but TBH, I want to reclaim that label. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything else; I love who I am. To my internet friends, to my teenage self, and to Tumblr, I say: thank you. Thank you for helping me become Jo. I wouldn’t be myself today without y’all.

Author: Jo (Foderingham) Brown

Jo (Foderingham) Brown (she/her or he/him, use either, idc) is a poet, writer, student, activist, and all-around nerd living in D.C.

2 thoughts on “A Letter to My Tumblr, Ten Years Later”

  1. Excellent writing!!! It made me think about when I had first joined Tumblr (I think I hopped on around 9th or 10th grade). I was actually inspired by you to make my own blog. Other platforms were difficult for me to engage in because of how visible the content was to my church and family. Tumblr gave me a sense of anonymity that I honestly had been craving for a long time. I never really got into bandom, but I saw some of the stuff that went down and I literally felt like that Leslie Odom “yikes” meme from your Hamilton article. I ended up in the anime fandom which was rampant with racism, misogyny, asain fetishism, and a wide range of sexual misconduct. All of this content was exposed and promoted to minors, and it made one of the few places where I thought I could avoid the constant eyes of my church and family into this sort of toxicity factory. I’m still on Tumblr pretty consistently today, but I cant engage in fandoms like I used to. I’ve also hopped on Twitter, but I’m literally a ghost on there.

    Like

    1. Thank you, Angel!! Yeah one of the biggest things I left out of this piece is how Tumblr allowed us to be more free/more ourselves than we could often be IRL, like with our families or at school. It’s a huge reason for why Tumblr was such a big part of my life, too.

      Like

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