Malala Yousafzai

How Tumblr is shaping the next generation of teenagers

It feels inappropriate to talk about a post-Brexit “fallout,” but the results of June 23rd’s referendum in the UK—in which 52 percent of the voting population urged for us to leave the EU—have pushed the term into usage. The fallout isn’t nuclear, as most writers adopting the term mean to imply, but generational—as the voting statistics prove (and, as always with Britain, it’s also entrenched in class divide). The Saturday morning after the day the results were counted, I went for my weekly shopping trip accompanied by my parents, who inevitably asked what I had voted. Upon saying the word “Remain” I witnessed it for the first time. My mother couldn’t control the childish glee of a loud “HA, HA!” that escaped her throat in that moment. She immediately mocked my loss. I had to bite my tongue and was surprised I didn’t taste blood.

Later that day, as I sat with a friend of my age and watched the news on TV, a woman of clearly very late age said that she voted to “Leave” because she “remembers the old days.” You have to understand that this is annoying to us because the old days are gone and aren’t coming back, and the referendum was to determine our future—which should comprise many more years than what this elderly woman had left in her. And so the sentiment we both blurted out without hesitation as she said her line was “but you’re gonna be dead soon.” It was a horrid and vicious retort, and yet it couldn’t be controlled, not unlike my mother’s more childlike tease earlier in the day. It’s these two snaps of the mouth that showed to me what these two generations truly feel and what we will attempt to bury within ourselves at every family meal from now on.

our homeland is online

I’ve been thinking what might have caused such huge generational divide as this. It has clearly always been there but has now surfaced its vile head off the back of this Brexit referendum. And I suspect, America, that when it comes to the sharp end of your presidential election in November this year, you will see and feel the same enormous chasm strike between your own people (Trump’s motto of “Make America Great Again” smacks of the same backwards-looking rhetoric after all). Gaps in generations are routine, of course, as we’ve witnessed with the emergence of the counterculture in the 1960s especially, when teenagers rebelled against the suburbia their parents had created for them after World War II, and dived into the Civil Rights movement and later protesting the Vietnam War. What played a large part in informing this rebellious youth culture was the rise of television, which “contributed to a heightened recognition of the disconnect between ideals and realities,” as Theresa Richardson writes in her paper “The Rise of Youth Counter Culture after World War II and the Popularization of Historical Knowledge: Then and Now.”

Flower Power

Photo from the Bernie Boston Collection, RIT Archive Collections, via Walker Art Center

If we can point to the spread of television as the piece of technology that affected the baby boomers and accelerated their views towards the counterculture (for it showed them the world in truer, more naked images than before), then we can say that the internet has served the same purpose for the youth of today. In both cases, children and teenagers have become much more aware of global concerns and are able to make friends with people in other countries more easily due to the latest technology (commercial aviation became common in the 1950s and ’60s). Millennials, as we are referred to, and the generation after my own, Generation Z (so-called “screenagers”), have been raised with the internet and social networks. Sometimes we are called “digital natives,” which is a term that makes the point I’m getting to: we may not feel as tied to a country and feel the same national pride as the generations before us because our homeland is online.

We are generations who are able to travel and work around the world and always return to the internet; a place where we can connect with others and educate ourselves no matter where we are in the world. Having this in our lives seems to have made us less nationalistic and more globally thinking on average than our parents. It’s why I have friends in Europe (and many other foreign countries) and do not wish to sever ties with them while my parents do not have that and can only argue for their “Leave” vote through what, in my eyes, seems to be unjustified and misinformed xenophobia—their main argument is that there are too many immigrants in Britain and they’re ruining our job market. They, of course, also believed the lies that the money Britain sends to the EU as part of the membership deal could be taken back and directly invested in our national services should we leave.

A few weeks ago, I was able to interview Danielle Strle, former director of community and content at Tumblr, after she spoke at the Kill Screen Festival. Looking back at it now, Strle’s answers provide a refreshing point-of-view from the emerging antagonism between parents and children I’ve seen around me and been part of myself recently. Speaking to Strle, it was immediately obvious to me why she had held her position at Tumblr for so many years. She has an unrelenting enthusiasm for what teenagers are doing with the internet and how it is pulling their attitudes and actions towards connecting with each other, exploring their identities, and tackling the greater turmoil of the world at large. It is this that many parents don’t see; they instead see a generation staring blankly at screens, thinking them isolated in a bubble when in fact it is the opposite.

Kill Screen Festival

Left to right: Nina Freeman, Danielle Strle, Jamin Warren, on stage at Kill Screen Festival, via @Jrnicus

Strle spoke with Nina Freeman, creator of Cibele (2015) and how do you Do It (2014), while on the stage, and as she did her eyes were lit with the passion a lover shows towards their life partner. “I really love that this is what videogames have evolved into,” Strle said to me immediately after she stepped off the stage. She told me that she grew up playing Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog as many people of our age did. “I just love that now there’s stories of meeting online and losing your virginity,” Strle said. I could tell that she really meant it. She’s a champion of the teenager and seems to live vicariously through them as they discover themselves through tools and communities like those offered by Tumblr. For the past five-and-a-half years, Strle has been at the forefront of supporting the new cultures that have originated online and made themselves physical through the kids and teenagers of today. It is, I would argue, what has set them apart from their parents more than anything else.

As you read my interview with Strle below, try to absorb her passion for the youth, and take it with you as you grow older yourself. The ancient Greek proverb goes: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” In this post-Brexit “fallout,” the evidence we’re seeing is that many of the older generations of our present have forgotten that. Popular opinion among the youth is that we must now suffer for it as they slowly die out. We must try to do better.

KS: When did you first get into the internet and what were the websites you frequented? You mentioned AOL, but did you get into GeoCities where you could actually create your own website, for instance?

I got into AOL, I actually did get into GeoCities, but I was really into message boards as an exchange student in Japan in high school. Interestingly, this is 1995, 1996, Japan didn’t really have much dial-up internet, people weren’t connecting yet. But having a place to a) share my own stuff—I mean this was also pre-digital cameras—but like just share updates, not even photos really, but just like a “what’s up with Danielle” newsletter, from Japan.

KS: Did you have an audience in mind for those kind of things?

My family, you know, other exchange students, because I had connected with a bunch of people who either were currently exchange students or who were gonna be exchange students at the same time on this message board. So it was like a really scary thing, you know? I didn’t speak Japanese, I was going for a year, and it’s not a thing a lot of people do right? So it was an early experience of being able to find my crew online and learn from them and share with them, you know? So I remember the first time I saw Friendster, oh Friendster…

KS: Tell me about Friendster, I’m not really familiar with that one.

So, Friendster, I think it came out about nine months before MySpace, and it was pretty much the first social network, and you go on, you connect with all your friends, and you post status updates. It kinda looked a lot like Facebook, and it was amazing. It was the first time wide-scale internet stalking was really possible, because you could see your friends’ friends, which was like “oh, who’s that?” you know? But it was so slow, it got so popular so fast, and it just chugged, the site was impossible to use, and then MySpace came along and it was very zippy and everyone was like sharing music and stuff.

I remember I got an email, or a MySpace message, because I had listed a band I liked on the section for bands that you like. So I get a note from the guy from the band who’s like “Hey, I saw that you listed our band as a thing you like. We’re thinking about using MySpace to market our band, if you write me back and tell me if you’d be cool with that as a fan I’ll send you a CD.” And I was like “um, yes, also of course your fans want to hear from you, they put your band on their MySpace page they’ll be elated, as I am.” So then, of course, MySpace became this music marketing juggernaut, right? It was cool and special to be there and to watch all these mediums unfold and evolve into the communities that they are. MySpace got crazy man.

MySpace 2006

via Forever Twenty Somethings

KS: It was crazy, I remember MySpace. At what point did you start to see differences between the different social networks and how you could tweak them to encourage different types of interactions with people?

Do you mean personally or at the platform level?

KS: Both.

Totally. I mean, I think Friendster was pretty simple, and also so freaking slow, it was like a tragedy. Like at the beginning it was mostly just seeing who your friends are friends with and having friends online. And MySpace was much more expressive, right? You can do all kinds of stuff with your MySpace page. People started learning HTML to add pictures to their MySpace page. It was just like a fun, kinda hacky time, and you have your [top 8]. But I think very quickly, especially at the beginning of all these things, behaviors evolve with the platform and with the group of friends you accumulate there, it’s easy to become… you become self conscious of the stuff you’re putting out online. That’s a thing that started at that time.

no matter what you’re into there are people getting really into it on Tumblr

When Facebook came along it was just so clean. MySpace looked insane, most pages, and also if you weren’t the type of person who was really thirsty for friends and then you land on the page of a person who was like that, it was like “ugh, this is weird, I don’t know you, why do you want to be my friend?” It started to get this seedy vibe to it at the end of MySpace times, and then Facebook was so clean and fresh. But my first true online community love was Flickr, I think, and the thing that really appealed to me so much about that is like, it was the beginning of web 2.0, everybody’s tagging stuff, metadata is a thing, by tagging your photos you’re contributing to this larger, searchable database of stuff, about whatever you’re taking pictures of, kinda adding that content layer to the stuff you’re publishing, and participating in a community that was ordered around content for the first time, as opposed to personal connections.

KS: Exactly, it’s a culture that forms.

Yeah. So I really really loved Flickr, and then Tumblr came along and it was the first thing… it just brought everything together. You could make a website for yourself super easy, you could mess with HTML if you wanted to, but you didn’t have to. That was super empowering. Then they added the dashboard feed where you could have all the blogs coming straight to you after you follow them, and that was a revolution for me, because previously I was going on a daily tour of my personal internet, “oh, what’s on, what’s on, what’s on” And doing those in rotation, probably eight times a day, in my cubicle desk. So having all the blogs come to me, it was just like “woah this thing is amazing,” and it’s just been so magical to have watched the various communities grow and evolve there, like truly no matter what you’re into there are people getting really into it on Tumblr, which is cool.

KS: I think you touched on the one thing that Tumblr really embodies there. With MySpace, you could customize your page a lot if you knew what you were doing, so there was a lack of accessibility. Facebook was and still is impersonal. While Tumblr gave you a way to cultivate your own interests and also express yourself with the website design of your own blog. I haven’t done that, but I think if I was like 14 when I was first discovering Tumblr I would have been really excited about doing that.

The teenagers are like… I love them so much.

KS: What is it about teenagers?

They’re just so cool, they’re really smart, really funny, really encouraging to each other, at least most of the ones I run into online, they’re curious, they want to connect with other people. There’s a real desire to connect with other humanity about interests and they have the power to do that in a way teenagers have not had before. Young people tend to be the most politically progressive, their minds are open, their hearts are open, they’re being thoughtful about things.

This young generation of feminists who are like high-school age, they are driving feminism to the top of people’s lips. Yes, it’s celebrities, but mostly young female celebrities talking about stuff like the wage gap, but all of these young women online are talking to each other and empowering each other and encouraging each other to be woke, and demand equality. I don’t think that my generation of teenage women was thinking about it at all, and we weren’t really talking about it nearly as much, because you’d have to do that out loud, and you’d have to have a ringleader, but on the internet…


KS: You’ve got that safety of the screen.

You’ve got the safety of the screen, and you can go find each other and, if you want to be a ring leader, you can ring lead a global army that you don’t have to meet. It gives me goosebumps, it’s so cool. How quickly transgender rights and transgender issues have come to the top of discussion is amazing.  

KS: It is phenomenal.

It hasn’t been that many years, that people started talking about that at all, in the mainstream media, but now the president is issuing decrees about bathrooms. I don’t think that happens without young people organizing online and talking to each and waking everyone up.

KS: I feel like a lot of social issues, especially feminism and trans issues, is located on Tumblr. Do you think there’s a reason, perhaps something about the format of Tumblr, which encourages people towards that?

I mean the Reblog is incredibly powerful. You can take something from someone else’s blog to all of your followers and onto your blog with one click. It allows information to spread in a way that no other platform quite does. Yes, you can Retweet, but it’s different on Tumblr, because the media chunks tend to be bigger and more powerful and more visual. So I think it’s really architected for content and ideas to spread, and for people to bump into new ideas they might not otherwise, because they’re following a bunch of people who are Reblogging a bunch of stuff from all kinds of different places, and it comes into your media stream and it’s just this magical river of internet awesome, of new ideas.

I think that we live in an age when so many algorithms and so many platforms are just trying to serve up more of what the computer thinks we might want, based on what we’ve clicked on in the past, but because of the human element of Tumblr, your dashboard is just full of things people have Reblogged that you might not have bumped into on your own. You’re following this blog because you’re really into retrofuturist aesthetic and they post a lot of that good stuff, but then they also Reblog some politics thing because they care and are passionate about it and you’re bumped into that idea.

There’s this screen mediated internet friendship that I think is really special

I think that just in terms of even outside of social issue stuff, how much you can see people’s aesthetic evolve from exposure to Tumblr. I always enjoy doing this thing if I find a cool teen, like a really cool teen, I go on their archive and just scroll back over the years, and you can see these kid’s aesthetic evolving right before your very eyes, and it’s true of my own too. I have an animated gif blog, it’s just all Reblogs, it’s called Teen Girl Enthusiast, and I can see the evolution of my own aesthetic over time from exposure to the Tumblrsphere, it’s cool.

And I think the closest thing to that that I’ve experienced before, again, is on Flickr. I got really into this plant called coleus from randomly going down a rabbit hole and I feel like I’m kinda internet friends with this guy Joey’s planting, who I learnt so much about coleus from. We’ve just followed each other on all social media since we became friends on Flickr, we’ve never met. I mostly know how much he loves plants, and how good he is at doing plant stuff, but when his dog died I really cared, I sent him a note. There’s this screen mediated internet friendship that I think is really special.

Teen Girl Enthusiast

via Teen Girl Enthusiast

KS: I presume you have met quite a few people you know online due to your former job. Do you feel more connected to them because you’ve met them online?

You know it’s funny, I always considered my role, and my team’s roles at Tumblr… we were not particularly well-known as individuals, right? We kinda stayed behind the curtain. Part of that was an early decision I made about my own safety because I know other people who have had high-profile community roles who have had terrible things happen, you know, like weird stalking stuff, creepy things, and you know it’s not really about us, it’s about the platform and the people doing stuff, we’re just there to show the world what great things people are doing.

So yeah, I never really considered that people might know me out and about in industry things, but I realize now that they do. And it’s been pretty cool to know that those people who know me, or those people I know because I’ve been following their career and I think that they’re cool and their work seems awesome, that some of those people also think that about me, which is great and then we meet and then we’re like “we already kinda know each other, this is cool.”

But there’s also that thing of a friend whose just online, you only see them on Facebook, you only see them on Instagram or whatever, and then you run into them and it’s like “oh my gosh it’s great to see you… but I know everything you’ve been doing,” you know? “Those pictures of Antarctica are amazing!” That person doesn’t get to be like “I just got back from Antarctica it was amazing.” You can go deeper, you know?

KS: Yeah. You mentioned there how you tried to keep out of the spotlight, but how much did you let yourselves get involved with things like harassment? Because you don’t hear about any of that at Tumblr. But you do hear about it when it happens on Twitter…

Tumblr is a nice place, people who hang out on Tumblr tend to be nice. Our like button has always been a heart.

KS: Do you think those little decisions make big impacts like that?

Definitely. You can reply now because the internet is a different place, and comments and replies are I think different now than they were in Tumblr’s foundational time, but in the beginning you couldn’t have comments. If you wanted to say something about someone’s post you had to take it to your own blog and own whatever it is you’re going to say, and I think that did a really good job of discouraging trollish behavior because you’re revealing yourself to be a troll on your own thing, and not being a troll under someone else’s work. Also Tumblr has an incredible trust and safety team that deals with any less nice issues that come with running a global platform that’ll allow you to post whatever you want on the internet. But yeah, there’s a whole team.

KS: Doing the invisible work of monitoring a huge platform?

I mean just answering, looking through any complaints that we get, that kind of thing. But I really do feel that Tumblr has been a very responsible actor when it comes to stuff like that. And just like the people are nice, you know?

KS: That’s good to hear. I’ve always wanted to know how Tumblr policed the porn that it hosts. But by the sounds of it you kind of just let it flow and people police it themselves.

Yeah, Tumblr’s a place for free speech, there is stuff that Tumblr will take down, content that’s harmful to minors, gore kind of stuff, but otherwise Tumblr is happy to have you post what you want. Not all countries are as cool with that as America, which… we’re lucky to be in America. But yeah, it’s a place of great freedom of expression and largely people abide by good behaviors.

KS: It’s great that you can give people that freedom on Tumblr and they seem to cherish it enough not to take it too far. It seems if you put barriers up people will try to break them deliberately and you see that on other platforms quite a lot I think.

It was really interesting to watch the ups and downs of Reddit over the past few years around all of this stuff, and to see other people come up and try and make new platforms that either don’t have to deal with those issues or establish new norms that don’t allow for it. It’ll be interesting to see. I really love, love, love Snapchat, but you know who even knows what’s going on inside there, because it’s all disappearing and it’s all mostly private to your group of your people that you’re following. So I imagine they have some crazy algorithm that I can’t even imagine.


via Tech Insider

KS: It’s pretty wild, I wouldn’t want to see it, I don’t think.

Oh Snapchat, so cool, so fun. Do you Snapchat?

KS: I don’t actually, no. I feel like I should.

It’s a really fun creative medium. There’s some people, I always want to watch their stories, usually friends who are far away. I feel like I’ve stayed better connected to friends who live in Austin or friends who live in Iceland, or friends who live in New Zealand, because we can communicate through Snapchat and it’s just a little bit more rich and a little bit more personal and connected than following on Instagram, you know? I know what’s going on with them.

KS: It’s personal, isn’t it?

Yeah, and you can do really fun stuff with it, the face filters…

KS: Oh yeah, I’ve seen those. Just to wrap this up, now that you’ve left Tumblr, what are you up to next?

I’m hoping to do an incubator in the fall. I’m investing in some stuff and advising on some things.

KS: You mentioned on stage you’re interested in how Tumblr and these communities help kids learn certain skills they can use in life an in jobs, is that something you’re interested in pursuing, it seemed like it might be?

I’m definitely not done with the online community space, it’s very near and dear to my heart.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Header image: Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, via PopSugar