Is there something queer about Tumblr?

In December 2016 we presented some of the findings from the Scrolling Beyond Binaries project at the ‘Digital Intimacies’ (#digint16) conference in Brisbane, co-convened by Dr Nic Carah, Dr Amy Dobson, and Dr Brady Robards. In the paper we zoom in on Tumblr as a social media platform to ask, is there something queer about Tumblr? Spoiler alert: yes!

Our abstract/summary and slides from the presentation are below. We are currently working to convert some of this material into a longer piece of writing, so stay tuned for more!

Tumblr as a ‘queer ecosystem’ amongst young LGBTIQ+ people in Australia

Presenting author: Brady Robards (University of Tasmania)
Co-authors: Paul Byron, Brendan Churchill, Sonja Vivienne, Ben Hanckel

For young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) people, the internet has long been considered a valuable resource for finding connections, friendship, and a sense of belonging in heteronormative and sometimes hostile worlds. For young LGBTIQ+ people in regional and rural areas, where access to visibly queer spaces (bars, parades) and services (sexual health clinics, mental health services) is limited, digital social media provide a potentially even more significant resource. In the Scrolling Beyond Binaries survey, we sought to better understand the role of social media in the lives of young LGBTIQ+ people. Our respondents (n=1304), aged 16-35, reported using a range of social media platforms, including Facebook (97%), Instagram (70%), Snapchat (67%), and Tumblr (64%). In other research on social media use among the general population, Tumblr use is three to six times lower (Pew Internet Research, 2015). This suggests that Tumblr plays a significant role as what Cho (2015) calls a ‘queer ecosystem’.

In this paper, we argue that Tumblr provides a space for sourcing information on sex, gender and sexuality identities, sexual health, and LGBTIQ+ cultures. The anonymity of the platform supports this information seeking, providing a feeling of safety for many young people. However, many participants also reported that this anonymity also contributed to what they described as a sometimes ‘toxic environment’. Respondents also report that Tumblr is most used to ‘communicate with people who are like me’, more so than for Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, which tend to be centred around existing local networks. This suggests that Tumblr is not only a space of intimate communications, but is a key space for identity practice and formation, where one’s peers are present, despite geographic limitations, including for young people living in regional and rural locations. Participants who grew dissatisfied with their Tumblr communities and experiences speak of leaving this space, but often clarified its importance for them at a particular time of their lives. For many, Tumblr is cast as a beginning for identity-work around diverse genders and sexualities, where users became exposed to a range of queer and gender diverse identity projects, and could access a range of people offering their experienced based knowledge of these. We draw on Cho’s (2015) formulations of Tumblr as a ‘queer ecosystem’, and the notion of ‘queer reverb’, to contextualise our empirical work.

Keywords: gender diversity, LGBTIQ, queer, sexuality, social media, youth.

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