The Demise of Fandom on Tumblr

Wherever fandom chooses to go next, I'm going to follow.

Tumblr

If you have an account on Tumblr—and if you’re involved with fandom, you probably do—you might have noticed a few unsettling changes: replies are gone, tracked tags are now tracked searches, and there’s more recommended content than curated content on your dash. Who is this person posting about this ship I don’t like? I don’t need to buy shoes. That is the ugliest looking video game I have ever seen in my life!

That’s what browsing Tumblr feels like now. And worse, if your friend posts something about their terrible day, you can like their post which may come off as liking that they had a terrible day or you can reblog their terrible day to your followers just to say something encouraging—which they might not really want. There’s no longer a way to reply directly to their post without making it public. Of course, there are still fanmail and ask features, but those features have long been unstable and tend to be avoided.

But as I sit here on my iPad, idly scrolling through my dash to find posts to reblog, I can’t bring myself to feel terribly bothered by all this. Here’s the fact of the matter: I use Tumblr for fandom like many of you do, but I also use it as a marketing tool for my home business. Part of my daily routine is to spend an hour or two on Tumblr to market my site and my shop. Since my business blog and my personal blog are both tied to the same account, I get some fandom reblogs in as well, but the majority of my time on Tumblr is scrolling through my dash and reblogging relevant posts. My follower count goes up = more people see the ads I post = sales. This is what Tumblr is leaning toward as they slowly but surely rebrand their site right out from under fandom, drawing in more corporate accounts so they can sell more sponsored posts. After all, the money has to come from somewhere, and a site like Tumblr isn’t cheap to run.

Losing the reply feature is a terrible loss for personal blogs. I will not deny that. But replies were the worst for my business blog. I kept them open as a PR tool. I wanted to seem friendly and approachable since I’m my own marketing and PR department. I want to interact with my customers, and I want them to interact with me. The problem comes from not having an accessible computer at my disposal. My business is run entirely from mobile devices. There’s no Xkit for iPad. I don’t get a handy “Reply” button on my dash next to replies to my own posts. (And the idea that a site requires a third party app to even function properly says more about the site than anything else.)

If a person replied to me, the easiest and cleanest way to respond to their reply was to screencap it, crop the image, post the image, tag the person (and hope the tag worked) and then reply. I could copy the reply and paste it in, but it will inevitably turn into a formatting nightmare because of the way iPad and the Tumblr app both habitually misbehave. But now, if I post something to invite conversation, my followers are forced to either go click the ask button and hope I see their response or reblog my post. This makes my job much easier.

As Tumblr begins their shift away from individual social networking and more toward media and brand social networking, reblogs are worth so much more than a reply. A person reblogs a post, and more people see it. The result of this, coupled with your tracked searches now randomly showing up on your dash, has doubled my average new follower count over the last week. My business blog is loving these changes, and so is my business as a whole.

Tumblr was created to be a thing which, at the time, happened to be exactly what fandom wanted in a site. It offered things—like reliable image hosting—that the main alternative at the time didn’t. It was also just similar enough in its basic layout that it didn’t feel terribly different. But like LiveJournal, it was never meant for fandom.

Of the sites that were made for fandom at the time, we had Dreamwidth, Fanfiction.net, and AO3. AO3 existed, and still exists, solely as a fic archive with no social networking capability. FFN had its forums and communities, but in the wake of AO3’s foundation, had begun to be seen as a terrible plague upon fandom. And Dreamwidth, with its outdated source code and terrible journal layouts, was like literally stepping into a time machine to 2004. The only alternative was to go elsewhere and hope that the new fandom hub would be run like Pinboard.

When Maciej Cegłowski, Pinboard’s creator, realized that the site he had created had begun to be used by fandom, he didn’t respond with repulsion. He recognized immediately that fandom wouldn’t use the site exactly as he imagined it, so he created one tiny little feature: a tick box in the user’s settings to indicate if they’re using the site for fandom purposes. Clicking this tickbox gave users a few extra little things that helped with fandom bookmarking. It was such a simple thing, and yet Pinboard was one of the only sites catering to fandom without having been specifically designed for it in the first place.

And this is something I am starkly reminded of as I’m scrolling through my Tumblr dash, ogling pictures of Tom Hiddleston, when spoilery gifsets from a movie I haven’t yet seen show up without warning. Suddenly, I remember why the changes I’ve been enjoying are actually kind of terrible. They’re great for business but stressful for personal users.

While the changes to tracked tags and recommended blogs aren’t exactly new to mobile users (tracked tags have been tracked searches for months on the app), they are still affecting anyone who frequent Tumblr for fandom or personal use. You can spend days or even weeks or months curating the content of your dash, following and unfollowing blogs until you see exactly the content you want and nothing else, and it’s all ruined by Tumblr’s wonky algorithms putting random posts by random people on your dash. Maybe you don’t follow that person for a reason, or have even actively blocked them. The loss of control over your dash and the almost smarmy way Tumblr staff is responding to criticism is beginning to give older Tumblr users war flashbacks.

I keep expecting to see “ROLL BACK 86!” on my dash, as I’m reminded of a time when LiveJournal switched ownership and decided to shift away from individual social media to become a political platform. I remember the bitter resentment when the Russian side of the site began to get more and better features and support than the English side. I remember a series of changes that felt like they were designed to make fandom feel unwelcome, ultimately pushing fandom away while reminding us all of Strikethrough.

There’s still a tiny shred of people holding on, but LJ is a fandom ghost town now. The things fandom loved most about the site are long gone. Sure, there are still threaded comments and userpics, but fandom needed more than just that to thrive on LJ. It needed a place where its users didn’t feel like they were going to live through Strikethrough Part 2: the Strikening. It needed a site that wasn’t constantly bogged down by DDOS attacks and staff that responded with more than just “deal with it.” For a while, that site seemed like it was going to be Tumblr.

David Karp had a vision, and that vision was a site with unlimited, free image hosting; a photo album married to a microblogging platform. It was going to be open and friendly, free of the corporate tomfoolery seen in all the larger social media sites. And then he sold Tumblr to Yahoo!, the company known for having once before pulled the rug out from fandom’s feet by taking Delicious and stripping it of every single feature fandom found necessary. Luckily for the bookmarkers, there was Pinboard. And Pinboard has remained a constant; all that’s changed is its sign-up fee but not much else.

These days, I hardly recognize Tumblr, and in the face of continuing changes to the site that feel almost hostile at times, I’m wondering how much longer its userbase will stick around. There are no paid and permanent accounts at stake here; no feeling of financial loss tethering account holders to the site. Perhaps this will make the eventual and inevitable transition away from Tumblr go more smoothly. Or perhaps the best alternative will be another Pinboard—a site with everything fandom needs but requires a fee to join. But will the average Tumblr user be willing to give up unlimited, free image hosting if the alternative is a paid service?

It’s still too early in the game to speculate what will happen next, but I’m going to be watching to see where this is going. I don’t want to make the same mistakes as last time.  I’m not going to hold out and stay on a sinking ship only to jump into a life raft with a hole in it.  Wherever fandom chooses to go next, I’m going to follow.

About Miles Larson (1 Article)
Miles is a small business owner with an aquarium hobby and too many cats.  He divides his time between Portland and rural Oregon.

2 Comments on The Demise of Fandom on Tumblr

  1. This is a phenomenal look at a very real and relevant problem. There’s just no way that fandom can last much longer on tumblr considering the current environment, and all of this is far too much like Strikethrough and Bolthrough for my comfort. I think what we really need is a fandom-specific social space: something like what AO3 is for fanfiction, but for the community and social element. These are excellent insights and just like you I’ll be watching to see what happens: where fandom goes, there I shall follow.

  2. Rachel Smith Cobleigh // December 9, 2015 at 5:51 am // Reply

    Wow, it’s kind of disturbing when you point out the antagonistic, repeated patterns in all these social media sites. I can understand sites’ need to have a revenue stream so they can continue to exist, but it seems like they’ve done a really poor job of making use of all the energy and eyeballs that fandom can bring. I’d pay a small fee to join a platform if I got a good, reliable experience out of it and there were enough people in my fandoms there to make it a fun place to be. Thanks for pointing us towards Pinboard! I’d never even heard of it before. Must go check it out…

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