Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Tumblr Transformed American Politics

Identity as it now defines our discourse found its origins not in the ivory tower but in the realm of online fandom.
Protest against ACTA 2.0 In Krakow

There’s a piece of wisdom circulating online that says for every strange (or even just unfamiliar) proclamation about identity—whether it’s the claim that humans aren’t sexually dimorphic or the introduction of the more inclusive “latinx” into political discourse—there’s a Tumblr post from the early 2010s introducing the concept. What was once a digital sideshow attraction is now serious business.

Much has been written about the rise of these new identity politics, colloquially termed “wokeness.” Early in the conversation about “the Great Awokening,” academics-cum-media-personalities such as James Lindsay posited that there was a clear “university-to-culture pipeline.” To summarize the argument, it’s not all that different from what your Silent Generation mother or grandmother might put forth: “We sent you to that college, and look at you now!”

On some level, this theory made sense. The foundational texts for our new understandings of everything from gender to race to the very structure of oppression sprang from either academia or activist circles and, often, the interplay between the two. Millennials are the most credentialed (and overcredentialed) generation in history. Put two and two together, it’s just simple math. More undergrads, more grad students, greater surface area for once-obscure ideas. The reason that the “lab leak” didn’t happen earlier is because we didn’t reach critical mass until millennials completed their undergraduate and graduate educations.

This theory makes two major mistakes off the bat.

The first error is that it doesn’t appreciate just how obscure some of the intellectual leaders of domains like Queer Theory are. You need to dig pretty deep. People might credit movements like the Frankfurt School as origin points, but that’s also a mistake. On the most superficial level, most of those actors understood as implementing the Great Awokening simply didn’t engage with these ideas as they’re presently understood. For example, there is no reason to believe that Starbucks mandating that their employees share their preferred pronouns is the product of too many acolytes of Adorno and Horkheimer, or even just Marx, in the corporate world. If anything, thinkers like Adorno offer explanations for how the culture wars have been reshaped, as opposed to galvanizing these changes themselves.

The second is that it presupposes that universities were labyrinths of Marxism, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Feminist Theory in the first place. Up until fairly recently, you could go four years at any major university without ever encountering these ideas, which hitherto were confined to some advanced and graduate-level coursework in very specific fields. Lindsay himself, at one point, published a figure that suggested only 2 percent of students graduated in fields where they would have interfaced with these ideas.

Lindsay and his cohort eventually realized there were blind spots in their “University lab leak” theory, and instead began to point to a complicated stew of activism, social movements, and Obama-era legislation as historical flash points. One could argue that the explosion of wokeness colonized universities from the outside, and not the other way around.

The journalist Wesley Yang’s “successor ideology,” his term for “wokeness” (or neoliberalism, political correctness, social justice, et al.) follows a similar trail, and his Substack Year Zero sets out to chronicle the history and rise of our new cultural and political landscape, or as he once framed it, our “bourgeois moral revolution.”

In his inaugural post, Yang alludes to successor ideology being a culmination of aspects of several important historical movements and events, including the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, the New Left, and the social movements these things spawned. Perhaps there is no single antagonist; instead, we were brought to our current moment by a number of factors, that, paradoxically, are contradictory.

Yang’s thesis seems more reasonable, as it appreciates just how complicated our current moral landscape is. The changes we’ve seen have been so vast and, in some cases, so radical that to pinpoint one cause (the university, feminism, the economy) seems like a fool’s errand.

Although it’s too early to tell with Yang’s work, as he’s still in the process of publishing it, others in the field of anti-woke criticism seem to miss an important element of the story. Just how did these theories spread so effectively? Yang and Lindsay are likely right—a complicated convergence of activism, policy, and economic changes led to a shift in our culture, the seeds of which were planted far before the Obama administration. But the narrative they’re piecing together seems to be missing one thing: the fact there was a clear and, importantly, documented “super-spreader” event.

That was the strange and powerful union of fandom, social media, and journalism between the years 2013 and 2015.

Enter Tumblr, Where All the World’s a Fandom

Fandom has long been the dominant mode of engagement online—as far back as Usenet.

It’s well-documented that some of the earliest and most active communities online were places where people shared their fan works: fan fiction, fan art, and text-based roleplaying. Fans aren’t just people who like or even love something (and really, it can be anything, from a film to a TV show to a politician, everything and anything is fair game). They are people who participate in that love, with others, through a variety of different expressions; it’s even been shown that micro-economies emerge within fandoms, usually via gift-giving.

Fandom comprises such a unique set of behaviors there’s an entire academic discipline devoted to studying it, Fan Studies, and even a brief overview of what those behaviors are would be enough to fill an entire book. Suffice to say, fandoms are cultures-within-cultures and to identify as a Trekkie or a Browncoat (fans of the short-lived television series Firefly) or Potterhead carries a lot more baggage than just someone who likes a particular television show or book. It is not a stretch to characterize it as something of a simulated nationality. membership in a group greater than yourself. As one former Tumblr user and One Direction fan told me, “Fandom is a cult.”

For the alienated, fandom gave them everything they needed and more—not only a support system, but a structure, and identity. The oppressed, the abused, misfits, and just plain weirdos have, for at least 100 years, found a “second family” within fan-created worlds.

For this same reason, it also has traditionally attracted adolescents, in particular teen girls, who tend to feel alienated just by virtue of their age and place in life. Teenagers grow out of fandom though, as the real world presents more titillating opportunities than fantasy.

When they fail to, it can be a sign that something more serious is afoot. If not a personal crisis, then a lack of belonging in their immediate environment.

C., a 20-year-old ensconced in online fan communities during her teen years, shared more about the dynamic with me, explaining that online fandoms helped assuage the pain of being a teenager, “They helped me close myself off to the physical world, and project into the digital. But after high school, I forgot about it. I just logged on less and less.”

The thing with fandom though is that for the longest time, it had a relatively high barrier of entry. Yes, even by the time we’d already made the shift to the digital world.

You had to collect the merch, which hadn’t always been a Google search away. You had to seek out conventions or organize them yourself. You needed to do the legwork and find the Geocities pages, the webrings, and the message boards where fans of your type congregated. And importantly, you needed to contribute, which was its own kind of labor. Not only did you have to draw the fan art or write the fan fiction, you needed to figure out how to share this work.

After you had achieved membership, fandoms also had a number of rules. Some fandoms, like the one surrounding certain k-pop acts, had strict etiquette about criticizing the bands. Others used criticism as a form of gatekeeping. Did you approve of the right plot points? The right lyrics? The right creative decisions? These boundaries kept the often-bewildering dynamics contained within fandom. You might end up at a Star Trek convention as an entertainment piece, or maybe lurk on a forum or of a LiveJournal, but unless you were “in it,” you didn’t get sucked into the drama inherent in the scene.

But in the early 2010s, these boundaries started to fade away.

B., a 40-year-old SuperWhoLock fan I spoke to, described it like this: “All you had to do to be part of a fandom was post and follow the rules. It became a lot easier.”

What led to this change? Fan Studies scholar Casey Fiesler lays it out in her brilliant video (and paper), “The Life and Death of Fandom Platforms.” There was a mass digital migration of fans from websites with more gatekeeping (locked, invite-only communities or difficult-to-navigate user interfaces) to more open websites, including and especially Tumblr. According to Fiesler, “Tumblr changed the culture of fan culture.”

Tumblr, an open platform where everything is available to everyone, where filters are all but non-existent, where all you need to do is log-on, brought fan culture, en masse, to teenagers. Tumblr, which launched “fandometrics” in 2013 to more precisely measure this phenomenon and share it with media owners, advertisers, and other social media platforms, was the place for fans. Coincidentally, it was also the place for teenagers—in that same year, it was one of the most popular websites for adolescents.

For this article, I interviewed approximately 100 Tumblr users. Almost everyone under the age of 30, and everyone under the age of 25, was first introduced to fandom by Tumblr.

Identity Politics, Identity Fandom, and Journalists

Tumblr’s user interface made it very difficult to avoid certain topics without serious curation. One might be able to reasonably argue that it was this mindset becoming ingrained in teenagers that created the “trigger/content warning” fad of the 2010s. On Tumblr, if someone you follow reblogs something, you’re going to see it—hence the necessity of trigger warnings. You couldn’t easily mute a topic away, so if someone was discussing something sensitive, it was easier for everyone if they put a trigger or content warning, then, optionally placed the content under a “cut,” which would hide the content from your main feed.

This quirk in design also made Tumblr famous for cross-pollination. The most iconic instance of this was with “SuperWhoLock,” which is the marriage of the Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes fandom to create one monster fandom, but this happened with a lot of other things as well. Namely ideas.

See, fandom, being a safe space for the marginalized, is also home to a number of fantastical conversations about identity, and as a by-product of this, often hosted a significant amount of interest in activism as well. In fact, most people I spoke to shared that the first time they were exposed anything related to identity politics (especially queer identity or feminism) was on Tumblr, and almost always within the context of fandom, e.g. representation in a favorite fan property.

M, who was only peripherally involved in fandom, shared that she used Tumblr so much she found herself subconsciously wanting to watch shows like Doctor Who, which hadn’t previously been on her radar. Her theory is she just saw images of it so often, it wormed its way in somehow. She also pointed out something interesting, “I noticed myself censoring myself, like when I said something like ‘hey guys,’ and it was because of conversations I was seeing online.”

These conversations became endlessly amplified as they were shared throughout different communities on the site. Many of them broke off from fandom, too, and new fandoms were formed—“identity fandoms.” Most of these “identity fandoms” were either the birthplace or incubators for many of the things we consider excesses today, including labels like the recently revived “demisexual” which was born in fandom and then began a life of its own outside it (though it should be noted that specific instance wasn’t born on Tumblr).

Why do I call them “fandoms,” and not “communities,” or even support groups? Pertinently, as the YouTuber Lily Alexandre explains in their video about Tumblr’s Marginalized Orientations, Gender Alignments, And Intersex (MOGAI) community (the community notorious for labels like “libragender” or “coigender”), most of the people involved had little lived experience as these identities. Tumblr became a place for people to fantasize and build upon ideas about real identities. There was an aesthetic dimension, a dimension of role play, a feeling of camaraderie with others—but it was often pure fiction.

This same pattern emerged with mental illness, and, having such a noticeable impact on teens, spawned several studies.

Tumblr was perpetually tessellating fandoms, one creating another, creating another. On Tumblr, all the world was fandom, both recognizable expressions (like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Harry Potter) and less recognizable. Lily Alexandre points out something else very important about this dynamic, that not all of these movements were big, particularly the more unusual ones. With MOGAI, she notes, that content about MOGAI was bigger than the community itself. Without that metaconversation, she says, MOGAI would have “lived and died in obscurity.”

Tumblr will have always been a pastiche of fandoms, but there were certain aspects that may have never caught on without additional help.

Tumblr’s heyday coincided with another interesting cultural shift. Media outlets were slashing budgets and, notoriously, publishing clickbait. Contributors to websites like BuzzFeed would trawl the internet looking for obscure communities to write about, magnifying trends that may not have ever been real trends at all.

PBS highlights an interesting example of this in their documentary short “Can Fandom Change Society?”:

Holmies arose out of the Aurora shooting tragedy. After it happened, on Tumblr, a group of people, in their fannish engagement, started to post strange photoshops that seemed to be in support of James Holmes, who was the shooter. Within a few hours of that, BuzzFeed posted a listicle about [it]. And then suddenly, it became a story. Originally, it was 6-10 people. But the way it was reported, it sounded like there were tens of thousands of people. The resulting media attention meant that more people were going to be brought to that space.

This happened ad nauseam.

The craziest part of this story is a lot of this—most of it, even—was documented as it was happening. Angela Nagle’s very prescient book Kill All Normies famously spoke of Tumblr’s impact on culture at large. But media owners such as the Walt Disney Company, Big Tech companies like Microsoft, and importantly, publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post were also aware not only of Tumblr’s influence on culture, but the interplay it had with fandom.

Headlines from 2013 and 2014 provide a nearly endless stream about Tumblr’s new social activism, how it helped organize millennials who wanted to get involved with Black Lives Matter, how it shaped our understanding of gender…but all this seems to have been memory-holed. And so today, many of us spend much of our lives scratching our heads asking, “When did the conversation change so drastically?”

When Tumblr ruled the internet.

Katherine Dee is a writer trying to uncover what happened between 2008 and 2015. You can read more of her work at defaultfriend.substack.com.