The Many Sides of Tumblr: An Internet Coffee House

Resident Tumblr ambassador here, this time drawing a connection between Tom Standage’s discussion of coffee houses as centers of social media and Tumblr.

At first, I thought that Tumblr is more akin to the Devonshire manuscript (Standage 65). A post is “reblogged” across the site among users with varying degrees of anonymity that can add to it however they want (with images, audio, video, capitalizing, quoting and italicizing, quoting and bolding, quoting and italicizing and bolding…and capitalizing…). What intrigues me about Standage’s description of the coffee houses, however, is his observation that different coffee houses were the home of different subject areas: science, literature, law, sailing, and so on. It is this description that brought Tumblr to my brain as site users have “divided” the community similarly.

Tumblr science side(Source on Tumblr)

I see the “science side of tumblr” most frequently. (For a more scientific science side post, see: Shape Memory Alloy). Not being all that well-versed in science, I never know immediately whether the information is accurate (but there’s Wikipedia for that). All the same, users who want to find a funny, often irreverent, and generally speaking fairly accurate update on something to do with science can explore the science side tag or follow the ever-increasing number of blogs devoted to the science side. There is also always the fact-checker side of Tumblr. They arrive on a post about science, history, politics, you name it, and are often accompanied by a .gif from Mythbusters.

Users expand and transform these informational posts through creative use of images, audio files, and video. One post always comes to mind when I think of digital writing and audio:

Origin of the American Southern Accent

A disclaimer here: I have no idea how right or wrong this post is, especially since the original poster’s blog has been deleted at some point over the past few years. What interests me about is that it does something that the written word simply cannot do and is highly persuasive – at least, to someone that is not a linguist and knows nothing about the origin of the Southern accent. I imagine that a written essay to describe the same point would either be overly simplistic (the LA accent is a French accent slowed down) or incredibly complicated (with a lot of linguistic jargon and symbols or accent marks of some sort). Less than two minutes of audio convincingly accomplishes what would take paragraphs of text to do to a lesser degree of success. Tumblr as a collection of coffee houses intrigues me because users can easily speak to one another through a variety of forms on one single platform.

This is not to say that the “sides” of Tumblr, the various coffee houses, coexist peacefully. Tumblr users also divide themselves by primary interest – the main division being the “hipster” side and the “fandom” side. Every few months I will see a post by fandom blogs for fandom blogs that remind users not to criticize the hipster side, but to let them reblog pictures of rainbow hair colors and leggings with galaxy patterns in peace.

Related to my post last week about marginalized voices and social justice on Tumblr, there is also a tension between the “social justice” side and the broader site.  Gavia Baker-Whitelaw writes about the friction on the site: “While Tumblr’s userbase tends to skew younger and more politically liberal than, say, Facebook, SJ Tumblr has gotten a bad rep for being reactive and obnoxious. Accusing someone of being an SJ blogger is the Tumblr equivalent of calling someone a hipster: You may fulfill all the necessary criteria to be one, but nobody wants to own the title.” (“Meet the Trolls and Hoaxers of Social Justice Tumblr“).  Her larger piece discusses one Tumblr user, forfuturereferenceonly, that ran a blog for about a year that mocked SJ Tumblr. I followed the blog during its run (it has been deleted) and never could call if it was an overblown social justice user or if it was a troll.

Being on the internet, and being difficult to search through efficiently, Tumblr is difficult to divide into neat sectors, and I don’t think it should be. I do think, however, that the ways in which users discuss the divisions have led to an interesting parallel between the site and Standage’s coffee houses.

(As an aside – I’ve been collecting a bunch of posts that pop up on my personal blog in a separate tumblr dedicated to this class for convenient perusal:


12 thoughts on “The Many Sides of Tumblr: An Internet Coffee House”

  1. Caitlin,

    I agree with you that Standage’s argument about coffee houses has a lot of relevancy for today’s social media. His discussion of their division by topic also reminded me of the many various “subreddits” that comprise reddit.

    I wonder, though, if you also see tumblr as being a type of “penny university” that Standage says the coffee houses were. It sounds like there is a bit of that with “science side,” but I’m curious as to if this is more trivial knowledge rather than serious academic discussions. If such academic sites do exist, are there certain methods that the tumblr community uses to vet the information there?

    1. I would say that the vast majority of tumblrs do not have the “penny university” purpose – and that is an excellent question to ask of the site. There are, however, sites devoted specifically to informational/educational purposes – in a recognizably scholastic way. There is one blog, currently on hiatus, run by a woman in the medical field designed to fill the many many gaps in sex education ( – educational in purpose, but I would give this a “not safe for work” warning” for content). She offers advice/information both in response to questions she receives and on specific topics she’s interested in.

      I do see some kind of penny university on the (dreaded) social justice side of tumblr. It reflects a self-education in issues such as women’s and gender studies that I didn’t get outside of my minor in GLBT studies. Often Tumblr users will offer even more nuanced, certainly more intersectional, discussions of race, class, and gender. I’m not saying that the information is necessarily always “accurate,” or that the discussions don’t move into tangents, but the website offers a useful forum.

      I would also say that the boundaries of trivial/academic can be pushed on the site. Take fandom blogs, for example. While 95% of a fandom blog might be pictures, gifs, videos, praise of a show, there is also usually a serious and sustained close reading of the show, often through various lenses (such as feminist thought). What begins as perhaps a quotation from a show – a moment of pop trivia – can become a serious intellectual discussion.

  2. That audio about southern accents is brilliant! I appreciate you linking to it and explaining so well how it “convincingly accomplishes what would take paragraphs of text to do.”

    I personally don’t like much audio on the sites I visit. I think it was Heather who commented that it feels like an assault to be accosted by sound or music when you open a site. I guess I’m curious about whether the particular example you pulled is representative of how audio files can work on Tumblr, or if it’s a truly exemplary one.

    1. I absolutely agree – an important element of Tumblr etiquette is to not have music automatically playing on your blog. I find it to always be a horrendous experience.

      But to return to the audio posts, all of them on tumblr are set up in the same way in that you can choose to play them when you see them on your dash. Most of them are not such a fantastic example of a digital essay, however. More often than not, tumblr users employ audio for comedic purposes.

      There will also be a lot of posts that will have an audio file along with a picture or gif and the caption will be “JUST PLAY.” And users won’t tag what the audio is from so that 100,000 notes later, you have to click play to find out what the joke is.

  3. Caitlin,

    The more I read and talk to you about Tumblr, the more it reminds of me of the scene in _Mean Girls_ when Cady Heron first walks into the cafeteria and has nowhere to sit: everywhere she turns is just more mean, judgmental faces that non-verbally refuse to let her sit with them. It seems that these “side” Tumblrs operate according to a similar mentality, whereby newcomers aren’t embraced with open arms but rather with snarky comments and misplaced superiority.

    1. I can see what you mean here, and there are probably a lot of cases where that’s the case. I’m not sure though that the sides work on such an individualized basis. For instance, I can say “the science side of tumblr,” but would be unable to name a particular blog that would exemplify that side (with the exception of the blogs that have grabbed that title for a url). I think that there is tension among some areas on the site, but generally speaking that the tension manifests itself in controversial text posts that get really popular about one side of tumblr as a whole, as opposed to the exclusion of specific individuals. Most tumblrs aren’t all that popular – aren’t “tumblr famous” as the term goes on the site – so most users are never part of any ruckus.

  4. I don’t care how unsure you are about the validity of that audio argument–I will never believe anything else. My mind followed the gif and was blown.

  5. Caitlin,

    I think I made a skeptical comment about Tumblr as a “brand” last week, but you are beginning to wear me down! I thought this was a fascinating development of the metaphor of Tumblr as a digital coffeehouse. Indeed I’m now wondering if Tumblr might in some way provide an interesting focus for you digital essay.

    The southern accents piece is indeed amazing. It reminds me a bit of Amy Walker’s 21 Accents.


    1. Joe,

      Yes – I thought about your comment after last week and found that I did represent Tumblr as too one-dimensional in my post. This week gave my an opportunity to break that apart to a certain extent.

      I was unfamiliar with Amy Walker – but I like the clip. It reminds me of the many videos with “100 impressions” or when people perform a one-person disney medley a capella playing a variety of parts.

      And I am strongly considering different ways I can approach a digital essay about/through Tumblr.


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