The decadent memes of peak Tumblr
o shit waddup!
The Onion has a good joke that they’ve run every other month or so for the past two years, whenever the world feels like an unwatchable sitcom crammed with too many plotlines: “Report: Make It Stop.”
That’s our life now! An unending barrage of news, all of it bad. It’s easy to name Election Day, 2016, as the tipping point, but of course things began brewing much earlier. 2014 and 2015 saw the ugly backlash to #BlackLivesMatter, and 2016 itself was a parade of misery from its second week on, with the loss of David Bowie only the first in an overwhelming series of celebrity deaths against the backdrop of a historically horrific American election cycle.
When I look back at the time before we careened into full-on Make-It-Stop hell, I often come back to one specific part of my online life: the peak months of Tumblr memes. Like decadent 1920s partygoers unaware that the Great Crash was right around the corner, those of us on Tumblr from late 2014 through early 2016 reblogged memes with reckless abandon and no idea of what was coming for us.
For those of you who weren’t there, let me give you a brief introduction. Tumblr is a social media platform with a setup that ensures a specific kind of nightmarish chaos. It’s technically a “microblogging” site like Twitter, but it allows for different types of posts with fewer limitations, essentially combining the functionality of most other social media sites rolled into one. The result is that every Tumblr user might be using the site differently, but the reblogging feature on a central dashboard (the Tumblr equivalent of retweeting onto your timeline) could allow for one pre-teen’s sincere post intended for their 40 followers to end up in front of thousands of people. This was compounded by the discussion nature of the reblogging system, which allowed users to add commentary. That feature was available from the start, unlike Twitter’s quote-tweet feature, which didn’t show up until 2015 and which still only displays one response to a post instead of a cascading discussion that can easily go off the rails.
This unique conversation feature was one factor in creating a truly bizarre communal experience. Unlike Facebook or Instagram, Tumblr’s standard of anonymity prevented any real-world ramifications and allowed its user base to go truly wild. Earnest if often insufferable young people worked out their views on social justice with edgelords reacting predictably, fostering parody by the masses in the middle. To that mess, add a tagging system that allowed for easy formation of smaller communities with their own in-language and unlimited metacommentary on each individual post, and finish it off with unifying rebellion against the site’s comically incompetent staff.
The result was a truly unhinged platform, hilarious and terrible in equal measure. Those who could suffer its awful discourse were rewarded with some of the funniest nonsense ever seen on the internet.
Tumblr’s volume of activity peaked in early 2014, but its peak in relevance came a year later. In 2015, the year of The Dress, the Washington Post declared Tumblr “the new front page of the internet” and compiled a timeline of every trending meme on the site for the entire year.
What a golden age for memes it was! Vine was still thriving, contributing memorable blips of content that could be cut into screenshots, dialogue formats, or catchphrases and remixed by the Tumblr hive mind. Older meme tropes continued to thrive — Mr. Sandman got reworked in wildly stupid ways, SpongeBob got aesthetic edits with Halsey lyrics — and Tumblr’s own language of callout posts, kinkshaming, and PSAs provided endless fodder for mockery. In 2015, new memes were appearing so rapidly that a momentary drop in volume at the end of the summer was noticeable to daily users.
Twitter is my main social media site now — Tumblr’s user base largely collapsed under the weight of its own bad decisions, like a monumentally misguided attempt to ban porn that resulted in flagging half the site as violations — and there’s a new meme I’ve seen there recently where people post something significant from the past and say “this was a cultural reset.” If I were to contribute to this meme, I would submit for consideration the next-level Tumblr bullshit that was “Boneghazi,” a callout scandal involving a self-described witch stealing human bones from nearby graveyards and attempting to sell them online. It exploded across the site in December of 2015, and I firmly believe that the deeply bad energy it unleashed tore apart the fabric of the universe.
2016 still had some great meme work, including my all-time favorite, Lucky Luciano, but in retrospect it feels like the wheels were beginning to come off. The chaos of the outside world was seeping into our memes. The spring saw the introduction of the strangest frog meme yet, the delightful Dat Boi, and by summer meme remixing had gotten so advanced as to create the unbelievable amalgam “I said young man, take the breadsticks and run, I said young man, man door hand hook car gun” in the format of loss.jpeg.
But by the end of the year, Vine would shutter, a white supremacist-endorsed reality show host would win the presidency, and Tumblr users, like the rest of the world, were so tired of realizing things. The good times were over, and our memes offered little comfort. We’d all come out to have a good time but ended up feeling so attacked.
Obviously memes still exist (as does, technically, Tumblr), but we’re past those halcyon days and I miss them. Everyone has their own view of when the internet was most fun, and I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that my nostalgia is for a time when I was younger and had fewer responsibilities and more time to devote to being extremely online. But it seems indisputable that the internet is, in fact, not that fun anymore. The 2016 election revealed the numerous failings across social media platforms that left them susceptible to spreading propaganda. News sites are collapsing. The U.S. president tweets barely legible hate speech every hour of every day. Pepe has been taken from us. And of course, every push notification is an update on a real-world disaster, a reminder that life offline is somehow even worse.
Maybe I’m conflating my own experience with the world at large and these Tumblr years weren’t that significant! Maybe the real memes were the memories we made along the way. But I continue to pine for the long-ago days when life felt simpler and the chaos was mostly contained to ridiculous inside jokes spreading in one strange section of the internet.