Fandom’s Fate Is Not Tied to Tumblr’s

If Tumblr doesn’t learn from history, it will be headed for the same fate as LiveJournal.

Moving boxes in front of the Tumblr logo
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Grassetto/iStock/Getty Images Plus

What happens when (a) the user base of a social platform includes a large number of fan creators, LGBTQ people, and support communities; and (b) that platform starts banning content it deems inappropriate? After Tumblr’s recent announcement that it will no longer allow “adult content” (defined, in part, as “female-presenting nipples“) on the platform, many have been asking this exact question. However, we don’t need to peer into the future to answer it—we can just rewind to 10 years in the past.

Earlier this year, Slate covered a research study we recently conducted about the migration of fan communities across platforms over time, asking, “Why did fans leave LiveJournal, and where will they go after Tumblr?” Suddenly, this question seems relevant, because Tumblr’s announcement on Monday may have kicked off a very similar chain of events. That’s bad news for Tumblr, because the end result for LiveJournal was a mass exodus of users.

Like Tumblr is now, in the mid-2000s LiveJournal was a social hub for transformative fandom—communities of people who create and share fan works, from stories about the continuing adventures of Spock and Kirk to artwork depicting romantic relationships between Dragon Age nonplayable characters to the creation of alternate universes in which Severus Snape is a barista instead of a potions professor. However, following a policy change in which LiveJournal mass-deleted without warning a swath of fandom journals, that platform eventually became a ghost town for users seeking that community.

Like Tumblr, LiveJournal cracked down with new definitions of “adult” or “obscene” content, and like Tumblr, its methods for identifying that content were hopelessly flawed. For example, in addition to fandom journals, LiveJournal deleted support communities for victims of sexual assault. While Tumblr’s algorithm tries to distinguish between a “male-presenting” and a “female-presenting” nipple (perhaps even a gender-nonconforming nipple?), it’s still struggling to get the difference between pornography and cartoon cats. It really should master the latter before tackling the former.

An important characteristic of fandom is that it is largely a female space and, like much of the rest of Tumblr, an extremely queer-friendly one. Fandom can also serve as a critical source of support for LGBTQ people. Fandom, and the platforms it thrives on, is a safe place to explore identity, which, yes, can involve “adult” content. But for both LiveJournal and Tumblr, this is about far more than specific content itself—it’s about making a community feel unwelcome. And when fandom felt unwelcome on LiveJournal, one of the places they fled to was Tumblr.

When we conducted our research about fandom migration, fans were already asking, “Where will we go next?” There is certainly an inevitability of time. Usenet, a major online space for interaction in the late ’90s, is no longer popular not because it was inherently bad but because new technology will always replace the old. Though in the case of fandom and Tumblr, discontent with the platform did not start with Monday’s policy change. The lack of granular privacy settings and delineated subcommunities had already pushed some fandom participants away. We saw the same thing with LiveJournal: Discontent over design changes and changes in management was already alive by the time the mass deletions drove the final nail into the coffin. If history is repeating itself, this move could be Tumblr’s final nail.

So what will become of fandom if Tumblr falls? First, we know that it is resilient. Fan communities will move to new platforms. They will reform. Tumblr’s “female-presenting nipples” policy will become another page in the Fanlore wiki, and fandom will once again find new space. Fandom’s fate is not tied to Tumblr’s.

There has been a lot of discussion of potential alternative platforms, and those that rise to the top come with their own challenges. Many Tumblr users are encouraging friends to follow them on Twitter. Others are rallying around Pillowfort.io, where a small, independent development team has already launched a Tumblr-like platform in beta. While it’s designed with fandom in mind, it may have difficulty scaling quickly if there is an influx of users. Other pockets of fandom will likely converge on Discord. However, Discord communities have no way to interconnect, meaning that fandom could become more siloed and important communities could be less discoverable.

Regardless of where fandom lands, we are confident that it will find a new home and continue to thrive. The story of fandom’s mass exodus from LiveJournal has a happy ending (though not for LiveJournal). It was part of the catalyst for the creation of Archive of Our Own, a fan fiction archive conceived, developed, and maintained entirely by fans (and under the umbrella of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works).

However, our research also predicts the likely negative consequences of another mass migration. People will lose contact with friends, sometimes even whole communities, which can be particularly harmful for marginalized people unable to connect with support groups elsewhere. Not only will communities fragment, but content will inevitably be permanently lost as well. The most helpful thing that any new potential platform for fandom could do is provide ways to import both content and network data, particularly if they can make use of the format that Tumblr provides for content exports (and the kindest thing Tumblr could do is make this process even easier). When you are told to pack your bags, you should at least be able to fill your luggage with your own content and resettle elsewhere.

As they say in Battlestar Galactica, all of this has happened before and it will all happen again. Even if Tumblr survives, the community that remains will likely become different than what we see today. Of course, all online platforms rise and fall, and fandom will outlive them all. In 20 years, we will giggle about Tumblr (and even Facebook) in the same way we giggle about Friendster now. Fandom, however, has burned brightly since long before the internet, and no single platform will even get close to snuffing it out.