It was the post about tags, an innocuous, one-sentence affair that had got tens of thousands of notes, that finally did it for me.
'People who put their comments in tags instead of in the comment section are my heroes,' the post proclaimed.
It confirmed to me, once and for all, that Tumblr is not for me, its culture is baffling, and its platform ill-suited for the kind of communication that I want to have. Lest anyone misunderstand me, I want to state unequivocally that what I am talking about relates to me only, my problems and issues are my own, and I'm not seeking any kind of universality in this post. If Tumblr works for you, if you enjoy it, I'm very happy for you, and keep doing what you're doing! I'm talking about myself alone (and whingeing about Tumblr as a platform, to a certain extent).
Although I've been using the internet since the mid-'90s, I don't consider myself to have 'been online' until 2007, when I was 22. My main online hangouts, since then, have been three forums, Dreamwidth/Livejournal, the comments sections of various off-LJ/Dreamwidth blogs, and my own Wordpress blogs. The off-LJ/Dreamwidth blogs (my own included) are entirely public, tend to have a narrow thematic focus (books, pop culture, publishing, feminism, author blogs). Interaction there is entirely based on having a conversation in the comments section about whatever the blogger has been discussing.
The first forum I joined is a (relatively) small fansite for a closed canon (although the author has claimed to have been writing a spin-off book for the past ten years or so). Because it's a closed canon, there is very little discussion of the source material, and the more active threads tend to be about the other interests of the posters. There is also a section of the forum that is invite-only, and hidden to those not invited. The people I know from that forum (about 45 people) are also Facebook friends of mine, I've met most of them in 'real life', and when they have blogs, I also follow those blogs. We also have a dedicated IRC channel, where we talk about anything and everything.
The second forum is also a small fansite, but its canon isn't closed. Because the source material is Australian, and for a variety of other reasons, the membership skews very heavily Australian, and female. Unlike on the first forum, where people are much more open about their lives and identities, the boards on this second forum tend to be much more focused on its source material and other texts, and the mods are very opposed to people revealing anything to do with their 'real life' identities in the public sections of the forum. It also has a hidden, invite-only section. Again, I'm friends with a lot of people from this forum on Facebook and other social media, and have met many of them in 'real life'.
The third forum is concerned with fundamentalist religion, especially US-based isolationist, fundamentalist Christian patriarchy. Because of the sensitive nature of its subject-matter, most of it is hidden unless you're a registered member, but it also has off-topic sections. Because I'm a lurker here, my participation is much more superficial, and I don't know any of the posters in any other context, but I know that it has much the same culture as my other two forums - that is, people are friends off-site, and have had 'real life' meet-ups and stuff.
I joined the LJ/Dreamwidth world as a uni student, initially because all my high school friends were doing the same as a way to stay in touch. Over the years, my LJ/Dreamwidth friendship group expanded with the addition of the aforementioned forum friends, and later with people I'd met through specific communities, friending memes, or just by searching through interests and introducing myself to people who shared similar obscure interests. LJ/Dreamwidth culture makes a lot of sense to me, because it distinguishes between locked and open posts, conversations unfold in a logical manner in comment sections, communities can define their scope as broadly or as narrowly as they like (e.g. they can deal with a whole canon, or just one ship within it, or they can deal with, say, a whole city, or one subculture within it).
The point I'm making with outlining all these different communities that (pre-Tumblr) together made up my online world is that they were set up for conversations. It was up to you to choose how you wanted to converse - whether you wanted everything to be public or not, or whether you had a mixture of public and non-public conversations. If you wanted a more private or ephemeral conversation, you took it to IMs (IRC, I love you forever). It was perfectly possible to lurk and not participate, but if you wanted to say something, it was expected that you participate, to whatever degree you felt comfortable with. To participate in threads on a forum, you had to say something. To participate in a blogging platform, you had to post something, or comment on something.
To do so on Tumblr, you have to work a lot harder, and, to my mind, use the site counterintuitively. This is, in part, due to how poorly designed the site is as a platform for communication and conversation. You cannot reply to replies (which are essentially comments). Instead, you must reblog someone's post and add your response to it. This quickly leads to popular posts being reblogged with comments by multiple people, leading to multiple reblogs, each with their own separate series of comments, rather than one original post with all the responses unfolding underneath it. If you submit an ask to someone, that cannot be replied to or reblogged at all, leading to a discussion that is essentially limited to one question and one response. (People find ingenious ways to work around this, usually by taking screen shots of replies or asks and reposting them as pictures.) I cannot imagine, for example, hosting a friending meme on Tumblr - how could you, when by its very nature, a friending meme requires people to reply to replies?
Secondly, Tumblr is entirely public. I think this has led people to be much more cautious about what they post. (There's nothing wrong with this. This is a sensible reaction.) And because of the lack of facilitation of conversations, you end up in a situation where you barely know most people with whom you interact. My Tumblr friends (excluding those whom I know 'in real life' or from elsewhere online), are people who I followed because their interests/the theme of their Tumblrs align with my own, or because people I know kept reblogging them and they seemed interesting. But beyond reblogging their posts, I don't interact with them at all, and I don't know how to even begin doing so.
I feel that on forums and the pre-Tumblr blogging platforms, the 'rules' which governed communication were much clearer. You talked to people about whatever was being discussed, you didn't link to or quote locked posts, and it was up to you how much you participated. Participation was entirely within your control - you either made posts and comments, or you didn't, and you either locked/filtered your posts or you didn't.
And then you come to Tumblr, where apparently it's not okay to add your thoughts to the body of a reblogged post, but instead you should confine them to your tags, where only you and your followers can see them, unless the original poster or some later reblogger should click through to your post and read it, and in any case they wouldn't be in a position to respond because no one can reply to replies anyway. If that's not killing communication, I don't know what is.
And I know this is the fault of Tumblr as a platform, but platforms shape the culture of a community, and I can't help but feel that something is being lost. I know Tumblr works for some people, but for me, what the internet meant, what it means, is communication, an ongoing conversation, a way to deepen friendships and engage with people with whom I share interests. And I just cannot see how posting reaction gifs and replying to asks which swiftly disappear in a tide of REBLOGGING FOREVER is a way to do that.