Written by Dr Briony Hannell, University of Sheffield
This post is published to mark the beginning of LGBT+ History Month.
Over the past decade, few social media platforms have been as hypervisible in their ability to attract young queer (i.e. those broadly aligned under the LGBT+ umbrella) users as the multimedia microblogging platform Tumblr. At the height of the 2010s, Tumblr’s popularity among queer English-speaking Internet users secured its subcultural reputation as the “queerest place on the internet” and as a platform that “queer[ed] an entire generation”. But how and why do particular sensibilities seem to stick to some platforms and not to others? And under what conditions might they become unstuck?
“A safe space for self-expression, comfort and validation”: Tumblr as a queer safe space
The latest Social Media Safety Index report from the US-based Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) asserted that the “Big Five” social media platforms (TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube) are failing LGBT+ users with regards to their safety, privacy, and freedom of expression online. This sentiment was echoed by many of the queer young people I encountered throughout my research, which examines young people’s interest-based engagements with digital feminisms on Tumblr, who routinely positioned Tumblr as a “safe space” in direct opposition to other platforms they imagined or experienced as unsafe or less safe. For example, many emphasised the risk of surveillance from family members and unsympathetic peers on platforms like Facebook, who could expose them to significant harm due to their (often undisclosed) LGBT+ identities and interests:
My family isn’t the most supportive of anything LGBTQ* centred and they don’t know about my own orientation so I avoid posting on platforms where they can easily find me. (Nicole, 21, cisgender, queer/pansexual)
While young people have long engaged in privacy-related practices of ‘social steganography’ (Marwick and boyd 2014) – of “hiding in plain sight” through the use of carefully encoded messages intelligible only to a narrow intended audience – Tumblr’s architecture and communicative norms reduces the need for such labour intensive strategies. Tumblr does not foreground the “identity cues” (Baym 2015) of its users, such as their age, gender, location, relationship status, or real name, that are central to meaningful participation elsewhere. It therefore affords users a high level of pseudonymity and control over their self-presentation, visibility, and disclosure of identifiable information on the platform. The resultant sense of privacy enables users to engage in riskier acts of self-disclosure and self-expression surrounding their identities. This is particularly important for queer young people who may not be able to access these forms of self-disclosure and self-expression elsewhere:
Without Tumblr, I wouldn’t have found my queer identity or recognised my own mental health issues. Both of those things are unknown to the people around me, making Tumblr an important safe space for self-expression, comfort and validation. (Mai, 18, cisgender, lesbian)
The sense of safety afforded by Tumblr’s privacy norms and communicative culture of self-expression is central to queer young people’s sense of belonging on the platform, producing a distinctively spatial form of belonging bounded to descriptions of Tumblr that position it as a built space comprised of distinct queer communities. Fifteen year-old Tizzy, for example, described Tumblr as inverting the imagined and lived heteronormativity of other spaces she inhabits – both online and offline:
I don’t live in a big town with support structures or even an LGBT+ group, so the internet, or Tumblr specifically, is pretty much the only place I can talk about things like my sexuality. (Tizzy, 15, cisgender, panromantic/asexual)
LGBT+ Tumblr users like Tizzy positioned the platform as important not only for self-expression and sharing experiences but also as a resource for learning and discovery surrounding these experiences. Tumblr’s high multimodality (allowing users to post across, text, images, video, audio, hyperlinks, and more), high interactivity (a nuanced range of interactive and communicative features and norms), and high scalability (high potential for content to scale-up its reach to a wider audience) provides a deliberative context within which users are able to reflect on their experiences and generate knowledge about them in dialogue with an imagined community of other queer Tumblr users:
Tumblr allowed me to read posts by other queer people and connect with them. That exposure helped me feel less alone in my discovery of my queerness, and I think that was an important step along the way to engaging with queer issues. (J, 25, cisgender, bisexual/queer)
At the same time, my participants’ appraisals of Tumblr in this regard did not forsake due criticality. One of my older participants, a 36 year-old bisexual transman named Alex, for example, recognised that it was through Tumblr that he met his “first trans mentors, genderqueer folks, other spoonies, and we could hear each other out without reservations or doubts.” However, he later expressed reservations about celebratory narratives surrounding Tumblr’s supposed safety, explaining that the platform and its users are often “less ‘woke’ than we pat ourselves on the back for.”
Rupture and revival?
Indeed, the assumed “safety” of the platform was brought into question in the late 2010s. In response to the platform’s controversial and poorly executed move to ban adult content in December 2018 (see the “female presenting nipples” debacle), commentators voiced concerns about the disproportionate impact of the ban on the platform’s LGBT+ users, who had found in Tumblr a space to engage in queer identity work and community building surrounding gender, sexuality, and sex and relationships. Tumblr reportedly lost between 20 and 40 per cent of its users in response, seemingly signalling the end of the platform’s high take-up by avowedly queer users. This brought the contingent and ephemeral nature of claims surrounding “safety” and “belonging” on Tumblr into stark relief.
Yet, to this day discourses affirming the platform’s popularity among queer users continue to resonate across both academic and journalistic domains, as well as within the platform’s own branding and communications (although not without criticism). More recently, this has been re-energised by Tumblr’s November 2022 decision to amend its content moderation policy to once again permit nudity (with some caveats), combined with recent reports highlighting its growing popularity among Gen Z users as they turn away from social media giants like Facebook and Instagram. Tumblr, and its role within English-speaking queer digital cultures, continues to resist and defy easy categorisation – much like the LGBT+ users who have, at some point, negotiated a sense of safety and belonging there.
Briony’s research examines young people’s engagement with feminism through/as popular culture on Tumblr. Her first monograph, Feminist Fandom: Media Fandom, Digital Feminisms, and Tumblr will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in late 2023.
Baym, Nancy. 2015. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity.
Marwick, Alice, and danah boyd. 2014. “Networked privacy: How teenagers negotiate context in social media.” New Media & Society 16 (7):1–17. doi: 10.1177/1461444814543995.