In 2007, journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote a piece for Harper's magazine about the future of information archiving. "The promise of the Internet-as-Alexandria is more than the rolling plenitude of information," he wrote. "It's the ability of individuals to choreograph that information in idiosyncratic ways, the hope that individuals might feel invited by the gravitational pull of a broad and open commons to 'rip, mix, and burn' -- to curate."
Coincidentally, that same year a new blogging platform -- one which could plausibly claim Lewis-Kraus' call to curation as an impassioned manifesto -- was founded by 20-year-old tech wunderkind David Karp in New York. Tumblr, the oddly spelled short-form blogging platform, has grown increasingly popular over the past three years. Unlike Twitter, which 60 percent of users abandon after signing up, Tumblr has an 85 percent retention rate. And its success holds some clues as to the direction of the social Internet itself. With blogs, everyone became a critic. With Tumblr, everyone's a curator.
Simply put, users can sign up for free and post almost anything -- text, photos, videos, chats, music, links -- to their personal "tumblelog." While one could certainly use Tumblr to post 1,000-word original essays on, say, the latest film by Pedro Almodóvar, the platform encourages a certain casualness. Tumblr's Web site offers its own analogy: "If blogs are journals, tumblelogs are scrapbooks."
At least, very hip versions of scrapbooks. One Tumblr blogger posts descriptions of her outfits every day, another uses it as an anonymous repository of Web designers' horror stories about clients, and still another dedicates hers entirely to photos of the actor Ryan Gosling. There's a preponderance of themed Tumblrs devoted to a fandom of arcana ranging from the 1920s to the band The Mountain Goats. The platform has become known as a place where Internet memes turn into gag book deals.
"Tumblelogs are so named because they're much more akin to a stream of consciousness," explained the UK Telegraph in 2007. "Unlike the verbose ramblings of most weblogs, where anything posted tends to be accompanied by several paragraphs of quotes, opinion and additional links, a tumblelogger just posts one thing at a time. An interesting photo or a single link. There might be one line of comment, but rarely more than that."
By its first anniversary, Tumblr had 170,000 registered users, and by the beginning of 2010, it had 369,031,953 posts; 3,251,482 publishers; and 10 employees. Today, brands, celebrities, and publications have joined as yet another way to communicate directly with fans (often, but not always, as a supplement to their long-form blogs). Newsweek posts clips of its favorite vintage Super Bowl ads, photographer and notorious bon vivant Terry Richardson posts photos of topless models, and University of California, Berkeley's public policy professor (and Prospect founding co-editor) Robert Reich posts videos of himself appearing on Conan O'Brien. Musician John Mayer, actor Aziz Ansari, the Universal Music record label, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Review of Books, Vice Magazine, and countless professional journalists (including, full disclosure, this writer) have tumblelogs.
This being the next generation of the Internet, Tumblr adapts some of the social-networking functions we've all come to expect, such as commenting, following, and sharing. On every Tumblr post there is a "reblog" button that allows one tumblelog's content to be shown on another. It takes a classic function of blogs -- highlighting and linking to the work of other bloggers -- and makes it instantaneous, eliminating even the need to copy and paste. If watching a video on your friend's tumblelog made you tear up, you can post it to your own with just one click -- and add a line or two of your own commentary. There's an additional community element in that each post also has a heart icon that Tumblr bloggers can click to "like" something, and the original blogger can see exactly who likes their posts. Users can also "follow" each other -- like following someone on Twitter or adding a friend on Facebook -- which tends to build quick communities of like-minded individuals.
It's this built-in community -- a more formal linkage than most traditional blogs have -- that leads to Tumblr's focus on curation. According to Tumblr's Web site, each month the average user creates 14 original posts, half of which are photos, and reblogs three. If you follow someone because you love her impeccable taste in vintage photos of Stevie Nicks, you might find that she is frequently reblogging from another Tumblr -- and then start following that tumblelogger, too. It's akin to the way that taste organically develops; you like a band, and you hear them mention an influence, and then you go out and buy that record, too.
"Tumblr has a reputation for a community of mostly urban, tech-savvy 20-somethings," says Meaghan O'Connell, Tumblr's director of outreach. "But as we grow and grow, all of that has regulated, and there is really no typical Tumblr user." Unlike most other social networks, Tumblr doesn't have a set template -- every user's page can look different. Perhaps because of its friendliness to customization, it's a hit with teenagers. (Currently, the demographics skew slightly male -- about 54 percent -- and mostly between the ages of 18 and 49.) "Maybe they are growing out of the limitations of Facebook, looking for something more their own," O'Connell says. "All I know is that 12-year-old YouTube stars are bringing in more new users than John Mayer." This puts some grown-ups in the odd position of reblogging pictures of Johnny Depp originally posted by girls born years after Edward Scissorhands was released.
Those unlikely bedfellows are also increasingly encouraged to interact in real life. Tumblr meet-ups, which are being organized by users everywhere from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Santiago, Chile, encourage real-life interactions that try to go beyond the flimsy bonds of Internet acquaintanceship. In February, Tumblr users -- many of whom happen to write or blog full-time -- gathered at a bookstore in New York to celebrate "writing, reading, and the art of the second draft."
At its best, Tumblr is a sort of modern-day zinemaking. Zines, self-published do-it-yourself magazines (often featuring photos and text cut from other magazines and photocopied) with limited distribution, have always been a part of underground culture, both as a product and as a galvanizing part of the community. As in the zine world, activists and weirdos alike thrive in their Tumblr microcommunities, posting photos of signs that read "Feminism Is for Lovers" or collages of child stars. Blogs have been accused of killing off zines (though they are still being produced), and tumblelogs seem to channel the spirit of zines more so than any long-form blog.
Tumblr might foster a more immediate sense of community than the zine scene could. Take, for example, a post written by Molly McAleer, a Tumblr blogger in Los Angeles who goes by Molls, about finding her home infested with bed bugs. She began her entry: "No one's ever going to want to see me naked again after this and I know that and I'm mostly fine with it." She went on to hilariously cover other topics such as Catholic guilt and an anecdote about her grandmother cutting her leg. The post garnered 66 notes -- reblogs and "likes" -- and a vast array of sympathy and advice. It's not unlike what might happen with commenters on a more traditional blog, only Tumblr encourages rapid reactions with its simpler -- though perhaps more passive -- ways of weighing in.
But for every post with emotional or counterintuitive analysis behind it, there are many, many more posts featuring photos of baby animals, celebrities, and luxury goods, sans commentary. On Tumblr as in life, the lowest common denominator is often the most popular. Homespun wisdom often dominates: A quote by Robert Fulghum -- "We are all a little weird and life's a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love" -- garnered 1,367 responses. There is such a penchant for ethereal scenes (of wind-swept beaches, of lavishly appointed bedrooms, of Kate Moss) that the blogging platform can feel bogged down by its users' devotion to prettiness. Tumblr at its worst is even more casual and careless than the wider blogosphere. One user likened the Tumblr experience to "crappy tapas."
There is of course nothing wrong with posting pretty things. Tumblr blogs don't have to be holistic representations of their users' lives -- one could go further than that and even call them a refuge. The simple beauty of Tumblr may be its reaction to the white noise of negativity online. Snarkiness can certainly be found here -- one popular Tumblr blog is called Why the Fuck Do You Have a Kid? -- but its overriding attitude is jovial, its aesthetic unfailingly pleasing.
The Internet is still relatively new to many of us, and users are negotiating the boundaries of what to post about themselves online. There seems to be no consensus on what's appropriate, and so many bloggers -- particularly young, female ones -- are unfairly accused of "over sharing" when they try to write about the realities of their lives. Unlike Facebook or even some other widely used blogging platforms like Blogger, Tumblr makes it possible to remain truly anonymous -- it does not have a set profile page. And maybe that's part of the appeal, given how much we share about ourselves through the newly less-private Facebook and our various other online pursuits. Tumblr is an easy way to open up one's life without feeling overexposed, to have a presence in the Internet din that doesn't have to be too high maintenance.
Tumblr also sidesteps the guilt associated with the online information free-for-all. With Tumblr, there is no "stealing" words or images, only reblogging. It encourages a delightful collectivity. The reblog button may currently only be available on tumblelogs, but it's only a matter of time until this quick-and-easy curation function is adapted for the rest of the Internet. Perhaps Tumblr's greatest innovation is that it has settled the question of who owns content on the Internet by eliminating the idea of ownership all together.