Sociology of Tumblr

In mid-July, David Karp appeared on The Colbert Report.  I’m going to tease apart Karp’s brief appearance because it came after the announcement of Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr. The interview touches on issues of digital equality, the hijacking of “cool,” and privacy. Colbert is clever and hilarious as ever. His comedy is about making fun of his guests, so unsurprisingly, during the exchange, we see that Tumblr is dismissed as a frivolous waste of time, mostly because of its reputation as a site for porn. A sociological perspective sees that even the most trivial dismissals, even during in a short comedic exchange, carries social messages that need critical exploration.

Tumblr is a fun way to spend one’s time. Yet Tumblr stands for something more: it is a popular way for young people to interact online, particularly those between 18-29 years, and it is especially used by minorities. Data from America also shows that Tumblr is unique in its gender breakdown. Unlike Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, which are more popular among women, and Twitter which is slightly more popular among men, Tumblr has a near equal split between male and female users. There are no data on non-cis gender users, but Tumblr’s transgender and queer tags are popular, suggesting Tumblr is an important blogging platform for LGBTQI youth. Tumblr also draws a slightly higher proportion of urban and educated users.

Given its unique demographics, it’s useful to place Karp and Colbert’s discussion in a broader socio-economic context. Much of their jokes centre on porn use on Tumblr, but underneath, this is a conversation about digital privilege.

Myth of digital meritocracy

When asked jovially by Colbert about being a “high school drop out,” Karp speaks briefly on the need for young kids to take advantage of computer literacy skills while they are at school. He notes that there are many great computer education programs available today that weren’t around in his day, which is why he says he dropped out of school.

This opportunity is not as widely available as Karp seems to think. Not in the USA nor anywhere else in the world for that matter. The digital divide, which sociologists have been discussing for decades, continues to limit the opportunities that minorities and disadvantaged youth might otherwise reap from social media sites like Tumblr.

Wonderful programs like Black Girls Code can provide access to coding skills for some disadvantaged youth in urban areas in the USA. These types of not-for-profit programs have limited scope as not enough funding and attention is paid to the issue of inequitable internet access.

In Australia, while 86% of households with kids under the age of 15 had a home computer, accessibility varies according to socio-economic factors. For example, almost all kids in affluent households have access to the internet (97% of high income families). Less than two-thirds of kids in low income households had internet access (61%). Of these, a higher proportion of wealthy kids have high speed internet connections (95%) compared to low income kids (84%). Children in rural and remote areas have even lower opportunities as the infrastructure does not support good computer or internet access.

Start up entrepreneurs like Karp, whose ingenuity I am grateful for given that I blog, do not talk enough about these issues. It would be wonderful if digital skills were more widely spread and supported via schools, but digital literacy needs to be put into context of access, resources and broader education.

In a six minute segment on a comedy show this complex point may not go down too well. Yet within this same fleeting time frame, Colbert took the time to regale the fact that Karp is a drop out. Karp takes bait, perpetuating the myth that kids should just roll up their proverbial sleeves and get coding. This reflects a lack of awareness about social privilege.

White male privilege and digital entrepreneurship

Karp is a White male from a relatively privileged background. He is also in a heterosexual relationship (as chronicled on his Tumblr). All of these seemingly unimportant personal facts contribute to Karp’s success.

The interest on growing non-White digital entrepreneurship is negligible. At this year’s Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) only 40 participants turned out to hear a panel discussion on “Cultivating the New Minority Entrepreneur.” Similarly the number of high-profile queer identified entrepreneurs is disheartening. The myth of digital entrepreneurship in general is one that makes white, male heterosexual privilege invisible.

Karp grew up with access to technology and systems of support not available to most kids in low income areas. Minority youth have other social barriers, such as whether or not tech communities offer a safe and open space for communication and participation.

One of the things I really love about Tumblr is precisely the activism and critique of minority issues that I do not see on other blogging platforms. There is a big jump, however, between many minority youth owning a blog on Tumblr, writing or creating content that is well received (that invites constructive engagement rather than abuse), and then being able to make that writing/ art/ social critique translate into a viable entrepreneurship pathway or some other supplementary livelihood.

Karp’s maternal grandfather was an announcer on a local news station. His father was a music composer for TV and film. His mother has a degree in music and is now a science teacher at a private school in New York. This educated woman home-schooled Karp after he left school. She says: “I know it sounds very sexy to say he’s a high school dropout… But he had an amazing high school education because he had amazing tutors“ (emphasis added). Karp’s parents had great connections that opened up entrepreneurial opportunities that the talented young Karp used to further his learning and development. In sociology, we call this social capital: the ability to tap into social networks for social and material resources to further your economic standing.

Social capital

Studies show that kids from minority, migrant and poor backgrounds are not able to use their social connections to further their education, income and social status. This is because their personal networks do not have the elite resources needed to get ahead in life.

The myth of the intrepid entrepreneur who drops out of school/ university and makes a mint is a myth of meritocracy. Meritocracy is founded on false ideals that democracy more or less assures equal access of economic opportunities.

The story goes that if you work hard enough, you can be anything you want. This is supposedly the story of Silicon Valley: the world’s smartest kids leaving behind social convention. All you need is a plucky positive attitude and innovative ideas to help you find venture capitalists to fund  your new social media company. “Stay hungry, stay foolish!” says every social media meme in the world. This can work for you if you have the social capital to leverage off.

You can afford to drop out of school if you have a family who can continue to subsidise and contribute to your private learning. You can drop out and up-skill in tech if you had a strong educational and economic base to begin with, and if you have the social connections to keep growing.

Kids who drop out of schools from low income households do so because of economic pressures and family responsibilities. The education system expects little from them, as bell hooks points out. Dropping out is not really an option: it is a tough decision made under inequitable conditions.

Tumblr is used by more minority youth than White kids, and most of them do not yet have more than a high school education. Questions of access, use and opportunity are important. Tumblr in many ways represents the future possibilities and challenges of using social media as an agent of social change.

Karp is intelligent enough not feed into the meritocracy myth of social media. Yes it’s a great story: the kid who dropped out, built an empire and then sold it for $1.1 Billion. All before he turned 27. It does not diminish Karp’s accomplishments to note that he started from a position of privilege. It would be good to see Karp take up the chance to correct the myth, even on a brief TV appearance. If he is serious and passionate about growing technological innovation and nurturing young talent, start by acknowledging the material and social constraints and then work towards a solution. Using a slice of the $1.1 Billion to address digital inequality in entrepreneurship would be a good start.

A brief interlude on porn

Back to the Colbert Report, Karp is asked about porn on Tumblr, one of the most over-hyped elements of blogging on Tumblr as discussed by people who don’t blog on Tumblr. Yes there’s porn. Some of it is interesting in so much as it tries to challenge stereotypes about desire, body size and race. Much of the porn on Tumblr is pretty standard fodder and certainly it’s not the best part of Tumblr. It would be useful to see some statistics on porn consumption on Tumblr versus other types of content.

Read any of the main sites covering Karp’s appearance on Colbert, and they have quite a giggle over the whole porn angle (for example see Mashable, but it’s handled a little better on TechCrunch). For his part, Karp had a laugh, but he steered the conversation back to content creation rather than languor over porn.

Colbert then compared Tumblr to My Space as a way of laughing away Tumblr’s credibility. This is another exercise of privilege, once again by a white heterosexual male; this time an older man elevating his position as a television presenter on a more “traditional” entertainment medium.

Television has greater cultural prestige than blogging, especially amongst older people who feel beguiled by social media. This was not always the case. For many decades, television was ridiculed in much the same way as Tumblr and other forms of social media are today. It is not simply that Tumblr and blogging is new, relative to TV. It is that, like TV before it, Tumblr is used predominantly by younger groups of people. The activities of youth are stigmatised, reviled and dismissed by elite groups with more cultural power.

In this interview, and as he has done in many other interviews, Karp positions Tumblr as a medium of artistic expression. To people who don’t blog and who aren’t on Tumblr, this is not something to be taken seriously. The cultural privilege being exercised here is one of high art versus low art (see my parallel with street art). Interesting, since TV has long been positioned as a form of low art. In this context, Colbert’s age, education, and the medium he’s on (his own TV show), gives him greater privilege. Different forms of privilege expose multiple interlocking social hierarchies.

As Colbert’s jokes go, Tumblr, is “cool” because it’s used by young people, but what those people do on Tumblr is disposable for the same reason: it’s the stuff of young people, who are only interested in porn (as if this in itself is something disgraceful).

Tumblr as a Merchant of Cool

Colbert asks Karp whether Yahoo acquired Tumblr to bask in its “cool” factor. Karp deflects, saying “I hope not.” This made me think about the great PBS documentary The Merchants of Cool. Although made over a decade a go, the issues covered remain relevant. The doco explores how media agencies search for the next big youth trend which they can then commercialise. In so doing, they dilute its coolness by producing a sanitised version. Thanks to marketing, a genuine form of expression becomes mainstream and less interesting due to over saturation. By manufacturing “cool,” media effectively strips the ingenuity of sub-cultures.

The greatest apprehension that has followed Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr has been about how Yahoo’s advertising plan may hinder artistic expression on Tumblr.

Karp starts the interview by saying he is focusing on helping Tumblr become profitable. Art and commerce do not necessarily have to conflict. For centuries, art has required patrons to support creation. The difference of content creation on social media is that people give away their art for free. This is not expected of other professionals starting out their careers. Companies also sell users’ data for revenue to support the “free” platform which enables artistic expression.

In previous interviews, Karp has stressed that Tumblr would never follow the Facebook model of using private information to tailor advertising. Instead, he’s discussed a “native advertising” model where advertisers will be encouraged to create art that fans will want to reblog and interact with in other ways.

One of the most often cited retorts to concerns about advertising and privacy are from people who say, If you don’t like it, stop using this technology. The relationship between creators and social media platforms is not one way. It is, in fact, a collaboration. Users have every right to challenge how the platform they started creating on changes its mode of operation.

Karp is asked whether Tumblr would comply with demands for information by the USA’s National Security Agency, which has been heavily criticised for making information requests from Facebook and other social media companies. Karp shifts and laughs uncomfortably, but he says Tumblr is committed to protecting the rights of users.

Sociology of Tumblr

Despite Colbert and Karp’s friendly and humorous exchange, entertainment, like all other forms of social exchange, is not benign. The sociology of humour is a sub-set of the sociology of the mundane. It shows us how comedic exchanges, even a one line joke, or a short interview like this one, carries with it a history of social relations. What we joke about, what our culture deems appropriate for us to laugh at, and the things that we leave unsaid – all of these moments matter. Even in fleeting minutes of frivolity, the stories we tell about ourselves and the world around us can open up new conversations about the world is. Comedic interactions can also close off alternative discourses about the way things ought to be and what we can do to achieve change.

Tumblr is riotous fun, but how we blog, why we blog, who blogs and the social context in which our blogging platform develops all need ongoing critical reflection. After the laughter, of which there were many in this interview, important questions remain about the future of this blogging platform. What might happen to Tumblr under Yahoo over the long term and what might this change mean for those who create and interact under a new profit model? How will this billion dollar juggernaut address digital inequalities even as it profits from our collaboration and content? Will Tumblr help to elevate the art, discussion and activism of minority youth who dominate this medium, or will a hierarchy of privilege drown out the contribution of these innovative bloggers?

First published on my Tumblr.