Elspeth Reeve’s “The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens” published on Newrepublic details the strange world of Tumblr, and the lives of the equally strange teens that reside within. Reeve places emphasis on the social dynamics surrounding user interaction, the monetization element tied therewithin.
What came off as immediately strange to me was the element of monetization. While I am not a user of social media, I’ve seen various Tumblr sites and they’ve predominantly been ad-free. This falls in line with the statement Reeve pulls from founder David Karp who stated, “We’re pretty opposed to advertising”. The idea of a bunch of kids pulling in thousands of dollars in days off of AdSense ads then becomes somewhat confusing when approached in this context.
However, things start to become understandable when taking into account the greater theme of Reeve’s narrative- the intersection between Tumblr as a social sphere and Tumblr as financial tool. The ill-fated diet pill scheme makes a great deal of sense when it became immersed in a world of humour and sadness. As Zach Lilley suggested, the ads he created for these pills worked better when they seemed more “genuine”, or as Reeve suggests “more relatable”, referencing the popular class of memetic content Greensfield and Lilley practiced- or exploited?- in which the comedic content tied in with real world connections that resonated with the audience, usually in regards to something negative, such as the bra strap joke Reeve cites.
What I’m most intrigued about is the way that content production is being affected by the fact that many of these social media platforms have elements that can cause select users to profit off of content that would otherwise be produced for reasons other than financial need. Reeve’s quotes from Jason Wong pertaining to how Tumblr is where “teens go to confess sadness” while they “perform joy” on Instagram. From this and the type of jokes that Reeve cites in the first section of her report, it becomes clear that that the dimensions of the content coming from Tumblr are tied to perceptions of what the site is for; as a place for sadness and negative content, “relatable” jokes and the potential improvement coming from “life hacks” are welcome. Lilley and his companion cleverly exploited this in an attempt to tap into the desires of the users for the sake of financial gain, creating relatable diet pill posts that were ostensibly lies.
My concern is not with the morality, legality or ethics of what Lilley did, but rather the interesting precedent that this and other examples could have on the culture surrounding different types of social media. My mind is immediately drawn to the Youtube “Let’s Play” community where commentary provided over gameplay footage is the name of the game. The profitability, or the illusion of profitability indirectly maintained by those who stand at the top of ladder, of the Youtube view positions it similarly to the phenomena Reeve observe with Tumblr. For example, horror game playthroughs are popular due to the reactions presented by many players when they become scared by elements of the game. Some of the best examples of…powerful…reactions come from some of the most popular horror game players, such as PewdiePie and Markiplier. In a similar fashion to the ways upon which the diet pill ads could be molded into meaningful posts on Tumblr blogs, powerful reactions to horror videos became a reasonable thing to expect from the sort of videos you’d find on Youtube- people screaming when they’re scared is nothing unreasonable and nothing terribly new.
At this point however, some argue that the culture surrounding those types of Youtube videos have been heavily influenced by those at the top, implying that faked, overblown reactions to the average jumpscare not only have become the norm, but are also required for one to get any traction in regards to views. It’s already fairly difficult to spawn a successful Youtube career in regards to gaming videos, and so adapting to the competition is an unfortunate necessity.
While the dimensions of Youtube and Tumblr are quite different, we have two cases through which the socially-oriented and profit-oriented types of content production can mix (albeit the Youtube case is a much more explicit example). Even when taking profit out of the argument, one must consider that social media is a space through which one presents themselves. As Reeve and her interviewees allude, different spaces confer themselves to different personalities and different performances. In a space where there could be thousands of blogs vying for attention, a competitive element surfaces, which once again presents an opportunity for content manipulation based on perceived desirability. I’m reminded, in this regard, of Felicity Duncan and her observations regarding the shift away from Facebook and Twitter. The move to more narrowcast tools may still be influenced by extrinsic motivators in regards to what teens expect not only the tools are to be used for, but also what users expect to see there.
Nor Reeve or I have truly began to crack the nut that is Tumblr- we haven’t even jumped into the world of “otherkin” and fanfic yet- and so perhaps an analysis of why Tumblr users write what the write was an inappropriate direction to take the response. Still, however, I have to wonder. The “So-Relatable” stuff was so relatable because it harkens to the experiences these kids have been having in a space that is, apparently, designed for vulnerability, depression and weakness. The memes produced by creators like Pizza were humorous because they appeal to the comedic sensability of the denizens of the internet. Where does the reality lie in the production?
I’m left a question. If varying social media tools have different “personalities” and can be used to express different parts of one’s persona, to what extent are these means of self-expression tying into expectations of these new public and private spheres? Are we at a point where we create, intentionally or not, to greater or lesser extents, digital characterizations of ourselves based upon our lives but molded to fit into the narrative contexts prescribed by the cultures surrounding the types of social media available to us?
This question seems overly philosophical to me but I ask because I just don’t know what social media is like for the average person, and so a deep reflection just kind of makes sense to me. I will say that I’m not expecting everyone operating in every social sphere online to be attempting to manipulate a system of expectations to craft the perfect narratives as they see fit. Some will, such as those who manipulate social media to craft illusory lives that seem better or worse than they may be; people are egotistical and we exist in a time where one can could put their personalities out into view to an extent unknown to humans before now.
At the same time, social media at its core is, well, social. This social element just ties into the way that people wish to interact should be actively participating in social media. And it’s important to note that not every element of social media is tied to monetization; we’re not playing a zero sum game where everyone who looks at your blog or your tweet is a potential customer or anything crazy. The Lilley example is unique in regards to the fact that the financial potential overlapped directly with the content he and Greensfield produced.
Either way, it can be said that Tumblr and its culture is radically different in regards to context and content than other social media platforms, and the new generation understands this. Reeve offers us a glimpse into the strange world these kids live in- its ups, its downs, and its references to Italian cuisine. Ad revenue, ad block, content creation, clicks and AdSense are entwined with moping, venting and hope. Money and culture have collided in a strange way, and it’s only going to get weirder as the internet grows older.