Tumblr is one of the most fascinating, frustrating, confusing media platforms I’ve ever used — and it regularly seems to defy any kind of known logic and understanding for others, too. Ostensibly, Tumblr is a microblogging platform, intended for brief posts, and really ideally situated for sharing art although you can also distribute videos, text, and other media on Tumblr too. Users can choose to follow each other, with all posts from the people they follow displayed on a central dashboard, and they engage with each other by liking and reblogging posts — to reblog, users click a button on the post.
Reblogging allows a user to bring a post, along with any extant credits and commentary, over to their own sites. Their followers in turn can do the same. Tumblr can quickly create sprawling, confusing, messy conversations — B might reblog A at the same time C does, creating two new threads, and they can quickly tumble across hundreds or thousands of users, adding commentary to one thread or more. This is, in part, the function of Tumblr: The site was built very much as a sharing culture, which is why sharing is so easily enabled.
It’s not, however, built as a credit culture, which is one of the reasons Tumblr is so fascinating and frustrating to me. Although the site has mechanisms in place for crediting, it’s not necessarily encouraged, or required — and users reblogging posts can easily strip attributions, allowing images, text, and other media to appear in a vacuum, with no information about their origins, context, and creators. Many users go out of their way to do just that, sometimes in direct opposition to the will of creators, and it becomes even more complicated when users bring in material from outside the site.
Tumblr allows people to freely post offsite images, quotes, and other material — all you need to do is cut and paste, right click and save. These offsite media are quickly abstracted from their creators, who are often totally unaware that their work is being posted on Tumblr (usually without attribution), and it’s effectively impossible to take action, even for those with Tumblr accounts. Following the thread to the original poster doesn’t resolve the problem when thousands of people have reblogged a post, and, with good reason, changes made to one post in the chain don’t change other posts in the chain.
One could, of course, file repeated DMCA takedowns, and Tumblr is often disturbingly quick to honour them, but that has a chilling and suppressive effect on what should be a culture of free discussion and commentary. The point isn’t that users are engaging in copyright violations, but that users have no respect for creators, and don’t seem to understand that their actions are wrong, or that they might cause active harm for creators — for example, the popular trend of reprinting pieces by writers people like in full to ‘avoid sending traffic’ to websites means that writers don’t receive credit for those pageviews, and that the websites they work for don’t get the message that these writers are valued and liked. Likewise, reprints in full for other reasons and in other contexts can deprive writers of pageviews, necessary context, or other necessities — which is about more than just ‘building a career,’ although there’s nothing wrong with wanting to build a career and survive on what you love.
It’s just as easy to post a quote with attribution and a link to the original post, but many people don’t do this, and intriguingly, when I conducted a little experiment on Tumblr, I found that when I posted the exact same quote (one of my own) with attribution and without, the unattributed quote went viral, while the attributed one did not. Furthermore, some reblogs of the attributed quote actively stripped the attribution — and those, in turn, went viral. This suggests that Tumblr’s creditless culture is so deeply engrained that people actively reject attribution and prefer a culture in which work is presented without any information or context.
And that they also believe in a world where creators should not be credited for their work, which is deeply disturbing. On a website where many people claim to be deeply invested in social justice and a culture of community and solidarity, concerns about credit should be significant, because of the long history of exploiting marginalised groups for their free labour. Internet culture as it is already relies heavily on free labour in exchange for credit — ‘we’ll post this, but we can’t pay you…except in exposure.’ Tumblr’s culture takes it a step further, stripping creators of their humanity and any control over their work.
Creators cannot and should not control conversations about their work, parodies of their work, and fair use. But they do have a right to be credited, whether people like their work or not, whether people like them or not. Because work matters, and intellectual labour is a form of work, whether people are willing to admit that or not. Every time Tumblr users post something without consideration for the creator’s wishes — and without consideration for the creator — they underscore the common social belief that marginalised groups owe people something, and should be happily willing to give up their work for free. Especially given that so many people DO work for free or at very low wages, not violating copyrights, ensuring that people are credited, and driving traffic towards original sources shouldn’t be too much to ask.
When users are depriving people of their humanity in the name of sharing ‘pretty pictures’ or ‘inspiring quotes’ it’s irritating and disrespectful. When they’re doing it in the name of ‘social justice,’ it’s downright disturbing.