Content note: mental health, eating disorders, body image.
Before there were Instagram influencers, there were the Tumblr Famous. Unsuspecting teens and young adults who stood out from the crowds after accumulating a mass following. Sometimes it was the product of careful curation, but for most others, stardom crept up or was suddenly sprung upon them.
Most had no discernible talents—just a good eye, a good sense of humour or a good face. They knew trends better than any marketing team, and defined a Tumblr aesthetic that influenced what people wore, listened to and talked about. All from the comfort of their bedrooms.
Success on Tumblr wasn’t necessarily as numerical as it was interpersonal. A user could have tens of thousands of followers but a disproportionately small amount of notes on their posts. Fame stemmed from knowing the person and wanting to engage with them via messages, reblogs, likes, and if they were particularly lucky, through submissions and tags on content made in their honour.
Many were self-taught tech whizzes with slick HTML themes, production value gif-making skills and a scary ability to remediate original content straight after it was first broadcast. Others literally shared aesthetic photos or funny text posts that made the dashboard scream: “GPOY!!!!!”. Yet all knew how to manipulate the cultural zeitgeist in their favour.
The buzz from reblogs, likes and a flooded inbox was addicting for Tumblr users. In return for all-nighters and page refreshes, they gained social gratification, popularity and a ‘cool’ status in cyber reality.
Die-hard users describe the polar opposite shift from being on Tumblr for an exhausting amount of time everyday, to losing interest or slowly drifting away. What drew people to the Tumblr Famous was their effortless relatability, but ‘being themselves’ required time, energy and a responsibility not only to their image but to people they’d never met.
Tumblr helped famous users ‘find themselves’ during the most awkward and confusing years of their lives, albeit under the watchful gaze of thousands of others. The hours, thought and criticism they faced were nothing in comparison to the relationships formed and influence given. They were in it for the long haul.
In 2017, Peyton Lee logged onto her blog only to discover it had been deleted. The reasons for the disappearance of her online world was unclear, as she hadn’t broken any policies or guidelines. The move followed the “great termination” of 2014, when Tumblr deleted around 10 blogs, which together had an estimated 30 million followers, for contravening its ad policy.
“I felt nostalgic because it was my superpower. Going to school can be discouraging … but then you find the one thing you’re good at and it makes you really happy,” she said.
Peyton, otherwise known as thatsmoderatelyraven, is known for her pronounced sense of humour and a viral bird. In her senior year of high school, she made a post saying her mum would buy her a fluffy chicken if she got 500,000 notes.
“I just thought it was funny, but all of a sudden, within a day, I got 25,000 notes. I was like ‘woah … wait a second…’” she said.
Through peaks and troughs in popularity, the post kept resurfacing in memes and petitions. Soon Peyton was 100,000 likes and reblogs away from reaching her goal. On February 13th 2013, she hit 500K and also gained 40,000 new followers. For personal reasons, she couldn’t get the chicken, but each year, people continue to message her on the unofficial ‘fluffy chicken day’. Peyton was called a “poser” and a “fake” by anons, for not purchasing the fluffy chicken.
Peyton believes Tumblr is a safe space where users can discover what they like and who they are. She says no-one should act differently on the internet, even when gaining followers is a motivation.
Her blog was her diary; her posts as much for her enjoyment as they were for her followers.
“People would wait until I got home from school or practice, so they could hear what funny stories had happened during the day,” she said.
Her fans adored her. Peyton set up a P.O. Box for mail and gifts which fans sent to accompany their virtual messages. She once helped set up a long-term relationship by advising a shy girl to ask her now-boyfriend out for milkshakes.
“They’re STILL dating … [people wanted] to hear my stupid advice and I was very humbled by that.”
Being in the spotlight from such a young age also led Peyton to her current career. With years worth of experience dealing with criticism towards her online presence, she decided to study PR.
While she still doesn’t know why her Tumblr got deleted, she’s made the conscious decision to move on even after the Help Centre revived her account. Her fans, many of whom had been following her from the start, were devastated. Some followers even pledged to boycott the site in solidarity.
As he popped to the bathroom at an ice skating rink, a group of girls took the opportunity to swarm his friends. “Is that Luke Gallagher?” they excitedly asked—one of Australia’s most prolific One Direction bloggers. Much like the boyband, Luke’s fan demographic was also teenage girls, and he stood out as one of the few guys willing to admit he liked One Direction.
At the time, Luke hadn’t publicised his sexuality. He was a commodity that girls fawned over, and even though he was a “closet case” in love with now solo singer Zayn Malik, his fans didn’t need to know that.
His minority status within the ‘directioner’ fanbase propelled him instantly into spotlight. A few members of One Direction followed him on Twitter, while former-vlogger-now-singer Troye Sivan regularly talked to Luke on Tumblr’s chat function.
Offshooting fame from 1D also inspired some followers to create fan blogs in Luke’s honour where they reblogged all of his posts, made edits of his pictures, gif’d his YouTube videos and even wrote fanfiction about him.
“Looking back, my blog was objectively nothing to swoon over in comparison to the work that other fans put into their own blogs,” said Luke.
Despite this, he’d still go to great lengths to ensure his Tumblr was presentable to the people who checked in everyday. If he had other commitments, he would set up a queue for weeks in advance, to ensure his blog was active and fans were entertained.
Each week, he’d host a #phototime session, where fans would ask questions, and he’d respond with a selfie of him holding random items in his house.
Like all high traction blogs at the time, Luke made the choice to earn profit by placing ads on his blog. It was a win-win situation: his followers didn’t have to click on anything and Luke could earn an easy buck simply through page visits.
At any given point, over a hundred people would be scrolling through his feed, so he thought it was “dumb not to capitalise on that”.
All the attention “definitely gave me a bit of an ego,” said Luke, but he assured that he has since calmed down. His time on Tumblr nurtured a high level of confidence that not only helped him come out, but assists in his everyday interactions.
“The welcoming nature of Tumblr, and the One Direction fandom, let me bloom into the person I am today,” said Luke.
aesthetic: health and veganism
Ally Sheehan doesn’t describe herself as famous. Tumblr was a place for her to be herself when she “didn’t have the confidence to do so in the real world yet”.
But she’s humble. Nearly every second post is a message from a fan asking for advice, catching up on her life and fangirling over the latest episode of one show or another.
In her first ever text post, Ally wrote about not really knowing what to expect from the site, but assured her new blog would “include Harry Potter and fashion so look forward to that, wew”. And that she did, along with pics of Taylor Swift, 90s movie stars and hipster daisies.
Soon, her blog started to reflect her passions and became an avenue for her to discover and explore a vegan diet, along with daily updates about her life more generally. She slowly started building up a following of loyal teenage girls who would share in her embarrassment, her triumphs, her heartaches and daily updates.
“I was probably just a teen with too much time on my hands, but being an only child, I loved having the opportunity to talk to [other] girls about things they were going through.”
On Tumblr, she made lifelong friends and connected “with some of the most beautiful people alive”, organising face-to-face Tumblr meetups and chatting back-and-forth in the inbox.
At first, it was exhilarating when people reached out. Sometimes her answers to people seeking advice would be over a thousand words.
“I took the time to research, to respond and give people the best help that I could,” she said.
At the top of her blog are tabs for ‘life tips’ and links to resources for mental health, eating disorders, body image and low self-esteem. However, it’s a great burden for any teenager to go through those issues, and more so to be the first port-of-call for thousands of others when unqualified.
Her inbox would fill with over 30,000 messages, not all of which were good. Many people would demand answers, and then become aggressively interrogative when she didn’t respond.
“It really wore me down and I experienced a lot of compassion fatigue. I had to remind myself to take the time for my own mental wellbeing.
“Wherever possible, my number one recommendation is always for people to seek actual professional help in the real world.”
She also received constant abuse from a serial sender who pinned their own wellbeing on the adequacy and speed of Ally’s responses. Ally acknowledges that these ‘obsessive’ experiences have impacted her life in more ways than she’s publically spoken about and she still processes the emotional effect through to this day.
Post-uni, Ally travels the world and continues to share her experiences on YouTube and Instagram stories. Her main ambitions are to “have fun, be creative, expand my knowledge and express my interests”.
Nonetheless, she acknowledges in this day and age people crave a high follower count.
“If you’re looking to grow an audience, just take the time to care about people,” she said.
There is no one-size-fits-all criteria for Tumblr fame, nor any real way to ascertain who is Tumblr Famous. People from all backgrounds and niches could become one of the greats. Even when users began to tailor content to their audiences’ needs, they were still themselves, and still retained an unfiltered authenticity not seen since on the internet.
The website is unique in that each user’s follower count is hidden from the public. But somehow a user’s success was made blatantly obvious in other ways: an Urban Dictionary listing or two in their name, notorious stories spreading beyond the walls of Tumblr to Facebook or Reddit, repeated sightings of a URL on posts on the dashboard, or simply that the user was the only person ever talked about between you and your friends.
Prior to its acquisition by Yahoo, Tumblr boasted 300 million monthly unique visitors. Now, the numbers have dropped down and with it, the power and authority of the Kings and Queens that ruled the domain. Despite an all-time high of registered blogs, the number of consistent, active users are low in comparison.
Some of the Tumblr Famous were able to transition to other social media platforms, but evolving their image was necessary to keep up with the times. Most of these folk retain an impressive presence on Instagram, but usually fail to carry their numbers across to Twitter, where like the olden days, a personal voice and stream of consciousness is encouraged.
Even more strange is how we’ve diverted away from the personality behind a URL back to the use of our everyday names. But in a curious paradox, we lap up stylised photos of luxurious lives on Stories and photo posts without much thought for inside jokes or daily recounts.
Tumblr, the site of churning and circulation, craved the original content and insight produced by microcelebrities. Not everyone had the charisma, wit or even luck to kickstart viral posts. And so average users settled for watching from afar, participating in the reblog cycle with a click of a button.
As Ally points out, even the title of ‘Tumblr Famous’ “feels very reminiscent of the 2012 Tumblr era”. It’s archaic, but nostalgic. The blogs left behind, remnants of a neglected past that sit untouched or deactivated, are artefacts frozen in time and memorials of former lives idolised.