Tumblr Youth Subcultures and Media Engagement
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Tumblr Youth Subcultures and Media Engagement

The meme shown in Figure 1 is one of the most reblogged posts from the popular blog Savedbythe-bellhooks, which is largely devoted to juxtaposing stills from the popular US television teen program Saved by the Bell (NBC, 1989–1992) with the words of black feminist scholar bell hooks in order to create awareness of intersectionality.1 This is how a typical Tumblr post looks, with "notes" in the bottom left-hand corner indicating the number of "likes" and "reblogs" and several "tags" to identify the creator's or reblogger's intent. Savedbythe-bellhooks was created by white millennial Liz Laribee, a childhood fan of the show, to "do the work of an ally" by educating other white users of the site, and it exemplifies this platform's convergence of popular culture, socially critical discourse, and peer education (Figure 1).2

For several years, the social media and microblogging platform Tumblr has been central to fannish passions and creative production among youth, especially girls, people of color, and LGBTQ-identified fans, who have found a home on the platform. Tumblr has been most widely known, however, for enabling the formation of counterpublic spaces for marginalized millennial communities and progressives ("social justice warriors"), which have long been openly supported by Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp.3 Scholars have long argued [End Page 151] for the progressive political potential of fandom's "participatory cultures," and Tumblr's design and user base facilitates this integration.4 Young people's experience of media on Tumblr is one of acculturation; their engagement is inevitably affected, to varying degrees, by socially critical users—often self-identified as both progressives and fans—speaking from their own lived experience and through shared popular discourses of feminism, antiracism, queer or gender studies, and postcolonialism. For many youth, Tumblr has become an alternative, tuition-free classroom, a powerful site of youth media literacy, identity formation, and political awareness that often reproduces cultural studies methods of media analysis. Tumblr's design makes today's progressive youth subcultures "on the ground" visible to us; the platform's interface collapses the boundaries between affect and social critique, leveling cultural hierarchies of "quality" regarding media products and instead keeping the political stakes of media investments upfront. As teachers of young people, it is vital that we understand how these new youth subcultures are engaging with media in order to contextualize these current practices for them (historically, politically, culturally) in informed ways. In my discussion, I describe Tumblr's specific appeals for young people, especially marginalized or devalued groups, and demonstrate the intersection of popular culture, cultural critique, and public education for youth on the platform.

Figure 1. Tumblr post featuring a meme by creator Liz Laribee for her popular blog .
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Figure 1.

Tumblr post featuring a meme by creator Liz Laribee for her popular blog http://savedbythe-bellhooks.tumblr.com/.

These Tumblr "Youth."

In recent decades, young people have increasingly turned to the Internet and social media for personal expression, to hang out with their friends, and to engage in the broader public sphere. As danah boyd has pointed out, teen adoption of "public" social media as personal or "private" spaces is not as contradictory as it may seem. Access to the public sphere in traditional ways has decreased substantially [End Page 152] for youth during the past two decades, while surveillance by parents and institutional authorities has greatly increased. Teens' use of social media is a reflection of their need to find new ways to achieve privacy and assert some control over their personal space.5 Social media platforms provide teens with both personal and social spaces that are not easily policed by their parents, and they employ a variety of platforms to achieve different kinds of private spaces. While texting and Snapchat allow teens easy ways to continue to socialize with the friends they see every day, many teens use Tumblr as an individualized personal space and/or as a space to connect with a wider public beyond their immediate environment, one in which they adopt pseudonyms to interact (or not) with other online users. The authors of a recent major study of youth in the digital age, The Class...


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