Tumblr vs. Social Media Algorithms

Listen fam, I know we all like to hate Tumblr, but let me tell you about Twitter.

After Nintendo gave its presentation at E3, I spent some time on Twitter to see what everyone’s reaction was. All I do on Twitter is post, like, and retweet cute video game art, so you’d think Twitter’s algorithms would shove all the sweet Nintendo E3 content right to the top of my feed. I know Nintendo pays Twitter to promote its content, and I know that Twitter knows that video game preorder announcements are irresistible clickbait for me, so it’s like I’m paying Nintendo to pay Twitter to show me Nintendo-related content.

But that’s not what happened. Instead of showing me cute pictures of Zelda and Daisy, my Twitter feed exhibited a constant ratio of five Nintendo-related tweets to one super-upsetting tweet about current events and identity politics, like “three people were attacked and injured at a local pride march” and “it’s racist to say that someone draws in an anime style.” These were generally tweets that someone I follow had liked hours (and sometimes days) in the past, and Twitter’s algorithms were putting them on my feed because that’s just what they do.

The algorithms that control your feed on Twitter and Facebook have calculated that people, on average, are more likely to engage with the platform (or to exit the platform to buy something) if they’re upset. This is why, for example, it can sometimes seem like everyone you know on Facebook is always happy and successful all the time – Facebook’s algorithms know this bothers people. Meanwhile, Twitter’s algorithms know that discussions related to issues such as gender, race, religion, sexuality, disability, body shape, and so on tend to trigger intense emotional responses, even if you’re presented with views and opinions you generally agree with. By “know” I mean that, over the course of billions of data points gathered during the past decade, these algorithms have found patterns that they attempt to replicate by manipulating the content feeds of individual users. (Jaron Lanier has written a great deal about how this works, if you’re interested.) These algorithms make the owners of these supposedly free social media platforms a ton of money, which is why they’re probably not going anywhere anytime soon.

This is why I appreciate Tumblr so much as a platform for online fandom. You can block ads, you can block sponsored content, you can block an unlimited number of tags, and your feed consists of nothing more and nothing less than the posts of people you follow in reverse chronological order. There are algorithmic shenanigans concerning which users and posts are promoted and which posts disappear from tag archives, but this is something that most users will never have to worry about. The important thing is that, if someone brings bad mojo to my Nintendo party, I can just unfollow or block them without constantly having to click on drop-down menus to inform the platform that “this is not relevant.” In other words, I have almost effortless control over my engagement with Tumblr. This level of control is crucial to the experience of people who use fandom as a safe space where they don’t have to worry about things like, for example, whether they’ll be attacked if they go to a pride march.

Tumblr isn’t perfect, but it’s what we’ve got. If you live in a country where laws regulating internet access are currently in dispute, I think it’s a platform worth fighting for. Even if you’re unable to take political action, I hope you’ll take care of your fandom communities. The world is awful, but kindness and joy can go a long way.