THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEMES: A PERSONAL REFLECTION ON TUMBLR BRAINROT

A few nights ago I woke up with a start remembering that I had posted something extremely cringe to Tumblr around 2014 and that it had to be destroyed. I’ve been a Tumblr user since 2010, and in that time Tumblr has never developed a functional advanced search, so finding the offending post meant manually scrolling through my post archive month by month. It contains some 30,000 artifacts in total, and took days. In my browsing, I found many hundreds more cringe posts that the internet never needed, but also an intact, exceedingly detailed time capsule of my aesthetics and ideals from my late teens onward.

Many odes have been written for pre-2018 Tumblr, 2018 being the year a ban on explicit content was instituted in response to FOSTA-SESTA. The site had previously been a bastion for independent auteurs in this arena: Tumblr’s walled garden was less walled than others, and the site was permissive in part due to its shitty design and low levels of interference from its staff. The thing ran itself. Users were free to do what they pleased. I don’t think it even had a report feature. In banning explicit content, Tumblr wiped its slate of creators perniciously clean. You can still see it in the landscape of the site today: many surviving accounts have their user icons blurred because Tumblr declared their content too mature in theme, slapping them with a strange sort of scarlet letter that to this day cannot be appealed. Logging on the day after the ban was like wandering through the fairgrounds after the fair has packed up; the landscape is recognizable in some implicit way, but everyone you know is gone.

I dodged this particular fate. I dabbled in NSFW content creation but did not produce enough of it to get noticed. The thing is, I dearly wanted to. Tumblr was an unfortunate place to explore gender and sexuality, especially through the lens of independent porn, yet somehow this is what I did, and I could see it in the progression of my posts. When people talk about ‘Tumblr brainrot’ today, they’re usually referring to 20 year-olds who have been too poisoned on moralizing fandom content to navigate real-world ethics. In my 2010-flavored variant, I found that as a naif embarking on a dramatic social journey to make myself marketable vis-à-vis desirability politics, Tumblr was the perfect place to induce a a prolonged mental breakdown, blog about it, and come out the other side looking something like empowered. At the time, I wasn’t aware of how much I was spiraling; I only noticed it in 2021, going through my old posts and physically recoiling each time I opened a new one.

I think I’ve always had an adversarial relationship with the concept of beauty, and a lot of that was built up as a response to my own nascent gender-nonconformity at the time. I felt, deeply, like I could never quite participate in feminine behaviors as they were expected of me, and this made me resentful. This response was reinforced by a social group I belonged to at the time which was highly misogynistic. Ultimately I gained the vocabulary to describe this sensation around 2015, divorced myself from the group and came out, yet there were indications that I was clearly in conflict about my gender as far back as 2011.

I spent most of the period between 2011 and 2014 revering and vilifying the female nude in the same breath. I deeply admired the self-portrait artists and independent porn creators of Tumblr, who had constructed a sort of pre-OnlyFans and pre-Patreon collaborative ecosystem. The aesthetics of sex work were something I seized on early as a status symbol and sought to emulate. While I was arguably creating comparable content I was convinced that my work was deficient in a noticeable way (it was not). I wanted their lack of compunction. I wanted the thinness of their bodies and the precise application of their eyeshadow. I wanted to be wanted. Yet I lashed out at anyone who praised me for my work, and also lashed out at those who castigated it. I begged for attention and then posted about how miserable I was, all the time, without a hint of irony. I literally cannot believe the frequency of my doomposting now: there were multiple entries per day, always, like they built in pressure at intervals and needed to be vented. I perceived myself as a fundamentally othered figure before I ever realized that I was, in fact, othered: I was never a woman at all, and therefore could never treat myself as one without guaranteeing my own collapse.

My poor mental health during this period was extremely well-documented, but I wasn’t posting like this in a vacuum. I had templates. I distinctly recall following a Tumblr blog in 2010 called “Fuck Yeah Sadness” helmed by someone very beautiful and very suicidal. She blogged from her bedroom, as captured via iMac Photo Booth in grainy images that were always taken at night, about how she wanted to die and about how sex made her feel nothing. I got the feeling she still lived with her parents. Her hair was long and enviably straight. She was unconscionably popular and had many imitators, and she herself was only an imitation of the Felice Fawn blueprint that was prevalent during this period. I recently read N.B., a compilation of blog posts from around this era by sex worker Charlotte Shane, and it gave me this same feeling. The nihilism is palpable. There was something in this particular slice of online strata conducive to beautiful, desired women with an almost Cotard’s-esque desensitization to their social surroundings: they desperately want to be loved but once they have it, they’re convinced they can’t feel it. It doesn’t seem connected to the 2008 recession, but I suspect it may be nonetheless. In any case, I watched them; they taught me how to feel; I felt. Sometimes I see this persist still in people who were active in these circles; they’re codependent, but agoraphobic; they put their bodies through public rituals of denials and tribulations even though they’ve moved on from overt self-harming rhetoric. In another time I think they might have been nuns. I may elaborate on this at a later date, but the theory needs work. In any case, it’s noticeable.

A lot of the Tumblr elegies I see are about the grassroots community, the beauty of the work that came out of it; all the little things I cut myself on. I’m still on Tumblr. I post mostly about architecture. My walled garden is tidy and boring. But I think this website did something interesting in teaching us to suffer beautifully for an audience. It was a manner of performance art that can’t really exist anymore, not as the internet grows more restrictive with regard to NSFW content: what worth is there in seeing you, it says, if I can’t see all of you?