From What Lab Did ‘Cancel Culture’ Leak?

In its wisdom, the Biden White House apparently has decided it is now permissible to speculate COVID-19 might have been deliberately leaked by the Chinese government from a lab intended for developing biological weapons. Even the Ministry of Truth that is Facebook has ceased censoring posts making this case, now that the Biden White House has realized the story can no longer be swept under the rug. 

So much the better. Any victory against the criminalization of noticing things is worth celebrating. 

While we may be closer to understanding where the most dangerous recent physical pathogen originated, however, we are not so lucky when it comes to the most dangerous recent intellectual pathogen. I refer to wokeness, and its most infamous applied practice, cancel culture. 

When it comes to this particular virus, the Right has been far more confused than they were about COVID-19, and the opposition to wokeness/cancel culture/social justice/whatever you want to call it has suffered for it. Much of our analysis of cancel culture has fixated on its intellectual roots: say, in faculty lounges during the 1970s’ “deconstruction” boom. 

There is merit to this understanding. Just because the ideas percolated there, however, it does not follow that the practices associated with cancel culture sprang, fully formed, from Zeus’s (or Hera’s) head in 2014 to colonize the internet, and civil society thereafter, any more than it makes sense to speak of the alt-Right solely with references to intellectual antecedents like Sam Francis, Joseph Sobran, or Francis Parker Yockey. Just because the alt-Right popularized ideas from those people, doesn’t mean those people are responsible for creating that culture. It is equally possible—indeed likely—that the alt-Right figured out what they believed before they even picked up a book, and then simply went back to establish their intellectual heritage ex post facto once they realized they needed one. 

Far more important than the people who happened to prefigure alt-Right talking points, in other words, is the fact that the alt-right developed its distinctive culture, and thereafter ideas supporting that culture, on the gleefully nihilistic, freewheeling environs of 4chan. 

The Left understood this and used it as an attack during the Trump years. You’d think the Right would learn from the success of that attack. Yet despite having more than enough reason to look for a similar account of cancel culture as the expansion of the attitudes of a particular online community, conservatives have failed conspicuously. 

There is no good reason, other than technological ineptitude, for this to be the case. Indeed, most conservatives under the age of 35 know that a parallel account exists, even if the movement’s intellectual organs have yet to catch up. This piece aims to rectify that silence. You see, as it is with the trolls of the alt-Right, woke cancel culture is not just a set of ideas. It is, as its name implies, a culture. And that culture comes from a place, even if that place exists only in cyberspace. 

So no, cancel culture did not simply explode onto the internet, onto campus, and onto everywhere else because Kimberle Crenshaw published an obscure legal essay in the 80s. It started someplace, germinated there free from the scrutiny of outsiders, and then exploded onto the scene so dramatically that it colonized an entire political party. 

And it all really began to take off on a once-obscure blogging and multimedia platform called Tumblr.

From ‘Fuck Yeah’ to ‘Your Problematic Fave’

First, a little background: Tumblr was founded in 2007, long before the word “woke” was even intelligible except as a verb in the past tense, before Trayvon Martin, the Ferguson riots, or Black Lives Matter were even a twinkle in Jesse Jackson’s eye, and when Harvey Weinstein still ruled his assets in Hollywood with all the might of an Italian Doge (and, coincidentally, when no one would mistake that word for a reference to cryptocurrency, or to Shiba Inus, because neither cryptocurrency nor the Shiba Inu meme existed). 

Like many startups of the time, Tumblr aimed to become the dominant force in one particular arena of the internet by borrowing features liberally (pun intended) from other sites and in so doing, to outcompete those sites by offering all their best features. But where Facebook took the Myspace and Friendster models and grafted them onto college-exclusive networks, and Twitter took the Facebook status and made it SRS friendly, Tumblr took the blogging capabilities of Livejournal, the hashtag from Twitter, and the multimedia-friendly world of Myspace, and created an alternative to all three. One of the most prominent innovations of Tumblr—the use of reaction GIFs from an established keyboard—has now become de rigueur on Twitter and Facebook due to its success as a communications tool. 

Another, nontechnical element that Tumblr borrowed from other sites, meanwhile, was making itself a welcoming home for creative, mostly female millennial “fan culture” of the kind that proliferated on fanfiction.net, DeviantArt, and yes, Livejournal. This was probably less an intentional design choice than an inevitable outgrowth of how the platform worked. Whereas all the original sites required clunky amounts of searching and sifting through search results to find good art/fanfiction about one’s chosen fan community (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, etc), Tumblr enabled people to simply click on a “tag” (IE a hashtag) at the bottom of a post and instantly be transported to all the posts that shared that tag, whether they were fanfiction, fan art, blogs, or just collections of GIFs from a recent movie/episode. 

In other words, there was no need to go to multiple different sites to get your fix on fan-related media; it was all on Tumblr and could be curated at the click of a button. This was catnip for young creatives looking to get exposure for their derivative works, which they could then use to build a fanbase for future original work, as well. Tumblr also became famous due to its initially lax policy on posting pornographic material, which meant that a simple click on, say, the “Harry Potter” tag could expose one to both long blogs about the book’s themes, and to pornographic fan art of the characters that catered to every imaginable fetish. And, indeed, one could click on the “tag” for a particular fetish and find all the porn for it in one easily accessible place, too. This meant that, along with being a home for creatives, Tumblr was also a deeply welcoming place for basically anyone with an “alternative” sexuality, no matter how niche its appeal (though mercifully, Tumblr put its foot down when it came to hosting actual child porn, as opposed to merely racy fanart of underage characters). 

Because of Tumblr’s initial explosion as a fan community, it’s probably no surprise that its initial culture was more focused on blind enthusiasm for anything and everything than it was on criticism. A popular format for Tumblr blogs in its early stages was the creation of blogs with the title “Fuck Yeah [X],” where the [X] could be anything from a particular fandom that the blogger particularly loved. For instance, in the Tumblr “Game of Thrones” community, “Fuck Yeah” blogs existed for literally every noble house in the show’s universe, including even the widely despised House Bolton (not to be confused with “Fuck Yeah Michael Bolton,” which also existed). These “Fuck Yeah” blogs often served as pro bono content aggregation services, with the bloggers finding all the best fanart/fanfiction/etc. related to their blog’s chosen obsession. 

Similarly, one of the most popular (and widely mocked) early examples of so-called “Tumblrspeak” was the rhetorical question “What is air,” meant to imply that a particular post was so beautiful and joy-inducing in the eyes of the poster that it literally took their breath away. Conversely, things that induced extreme sadness got responses like “This post is not okay,” “Who said this was okay,” etc. For anything that induced such extreme emotion in the poster that they lost the ability to function, there were phrases like, “I can’t,” “unable to can,” and “I have lost the ability to can.” And, of course, pervasive throughout all of this was a reference to what really kept Tumblr users posting even after they had “lost the ability to can,” the all-important “feels,” shorthand for “feelings.”   

Now, harmless as this early phase of Tumblr looks in retrospect, that last point suggests something worth noting: that even in its most enthusiastic and least critical form, Tumblr was a site that ran on emotivism, and what’s more, one that privileged extreme emotivism. It wasn’t sufficient to merely like something. It had to drive the air from your lungs. It wasn’t enough to merely find something sad or upsetting; you had to question its right to exist. Coping with emotion and having perspective on it was not rewarded; instead, being rendered nonfunctional by one’s emotions (even metaphorically) had to be advertised and celebrated. 

This was the polar opposite of the culture on 4chan, where caring about anything, let alone liking it, was considered a weakness that could be exploited by trolls in order to make you act stupid. And just as 4chan fostered an extreme ironic detachment that often shaded into callous nihilism, Tumblr cultivated a wide-eyed, emotionally unrestrained earnestness that just as often became indistinguishable from histrionic fragility. 

This alone would have been cause for concern, but two other factors ultimately turned this relatively harmless, if slightly embarrassing emotionalism into a toxic and dangerous force. 

First, Tumblr became known as a site that was most enthusiastically embraced by teenage girls. In fact, equal percentages of men and women use Tumblr in the United States as of last year, but the site’s culture arguably privileges traditionally feminine traits over male ones. 

The “teenage” part, by contrast, was inarguable in the site’s early years. The site’s users skew disproportionately toward young Millennials, with a full 69 percent of its users coming from the Millennial generation, most of whom were in high school or college at the time when Tumblr’s popularity started to explode (around May 2011, the site had 5 billion posts, which ballooned to 166 billion by 2018). This teenage and feminine culture was prone, as teenage girls are generally, to huge amounts of relational aggression—i.e., attacking people through their friends and communities, rather than directly. 

Second, as established above, Tumblr was a haven for budding artists in fan communities. While you’d think this would be a welcoming environment due to its non-monetizable interests, the reality of jockeying for status within fan communities can reach levels of brutality and absurdity commensurate with the professional art world. This was true even before Tumblr, as one can easily discover by looking at adult Harry Potter fanfiction communities from the early 2000s, or more specifically, the infamous case of a user called MsScribe. 

The actual story of MsScribe is too long and complicated to explain in detail (though this video is worth watching for anyone curious), but to simplify it, MsScribe was a particularly zealous fan of early Harry Potter fanfiction authors, mostly drawn from the “Harry Potter for Grownups” Yahoo Group. In order to enter the social circle of the most popular of these authors, MsScribe promoted her own fanfiction by constructing an elaborate collection of fake accounts (“sockpuppets,” in internet parlance), which she used to post cruel, and often bigoted comments on her own stories, in order to make it look like she was the victim of hate campaigns by users of rival fanfiction sites. This behavior sparked actual internet wars between various fanfiction communities before it all came to an end when MsScribe’s fraudulent behavior was finally revealed due to obsessive internet sleuthing. And again, she did all this just so she could hang out with people who wrote popular Harry Potter fanfiction. No money changed hands. Status in an extremely niche fan community was enough to motivate this woman to engage in machinations worthy of Eve Harrington. And that was before Tumblr. 

These two elements—teenage relational aggression and the desire for status—transformed Tumblr’s benign “fuck yeah” attitude into one of ruthlessly unattainable perfectionism, where anything and everything could be used as an excuse to attack someone, particularly a potential rival in a fan community. Any fundamentalist religion could have worked to rationalize this, but remember, Tumblr was a site where many people went to find niche porn. They needed an ideology that simultaneously celebrated obscure sexualities and made it possible to judge anyone and everyone for being a bad person. Only one ideology fits this bill—critical theory. 

If one wants to see how this ideology was weaponized to permit cruelty against other users for nothing more offensive than liking the wrong celebrities, one has only to look at the comically humorless Tumblr blog “Your Fave is Problematic,” a blog so influential on Tumblr fan culture that it spawned the meme of referring to an un-P.C. artist as one’s “problematic fave.” To give you an idea of how ridiculously nitpicky this site could get, its entry on Jennifer Lawrence includes everything from naming her cat Chaz Bono for having “masculine energy” to her not getting attacked for giving a photographer a middle finger at the Oscars, not because it’s rude, but because a black woman got attacked for doing the same thing, and this somehow reflects badly on Lawrence. Even the infamously leftist Lena Dunham doesn’t escape shaming. 

Stalin and Mao would likely look at this kind of behavior and tell the blog’s authors to tone it down. Actually, it’s a good thing the blog exists, because any conservative who reads through it immediately will have a perfect reductio ad absurdum to point to when discussing how totalitarian the Left’s idea of what “problematic” is when taken to its conclusion. 

That being said, one post from six years ago on the blog does rather give away the game, as it says “Reblog if u a little problematic,” with reblogs being the Tumblr equivalent of retweets. This is either the most twee way of creating an enemy’s list ever or, more likely, it reveals that the blog was only ever about getting the maximum number of “reblogs,” and not about social justice or fighting “problematic” behavior, at all. In other words, this, like so much else, was all about popularity games and relational aggression. The political ideology was chosen because it permitted this kind of cruelty, but on one level, as one hysterical anti-Trump writer might say, the cruelty was the point.  

To be fair, Tumblr was not the first blogging site to fall to this kind of vicious internal policing by other users. Livejournal had suffered the same fate, particularly in its “Oh No They Didn’t” (ONTD) communities. These were communities of users who were focused on spotlighting cringeworthy/outrageous behavior (almost always from an extreme Left perspective) on the part of celebrities, politicians, etc. Mercifully, Livejournal’s technical clunkiness relative to Tumblr rendered this politics-as-cover-for-bullying subculture too difficult to spread to the rest of the internet. 

But Tumblr had no such limitations. When a site with hundreds of millions of users suddenly started acting as a global, inescapable high school girl’s locker room, complete with the cyber equivalent of all their worst behaviors, it is small wonder that the use of leftist ideas of what was “problematic” was ultimately nothing but a rationalization for a much more universal sentiment among teenage girls: “You can’t sit with us.” 

Noam Galai/Getty Images

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Pretends
To Have AIDS to Tell Your Story

In reality, while cruelty was a point on Tumblr, it was not the only point. The broadly teenage and female skew of the site’s culture might have made its love affair with an ideology that permitted a “Mean Girls” level of bitchiness, but at bottom, Tumblr was not just the internet’s girls’ locker room. Its primary value to users was still, arguably, as a creative platform for fan communities. And as we’ve established, fan communities can become competitive to the point of sociopathy, even despite the fact that they won’t make any money from their infatuation. With user numbers swelling into the tens, and then hundreds of billions, however, the competition among fan artists for attention and “reblogs” rapidly must have become almost impossibly fierce, even in the most niche subcultures. 

Which meant that, along with avoiding bullying (especially for being “problematic”), creative users had another equally compelling incentive: to try to limit or excise competition for their creative endeavors. 

Now, as it happens, there was (and is) an easily noticed loophole in critical theory that permitted budding Tumblr artists to solve both these problems: namely, so long as you were part of a “marginalized” group, you could not be problematic. Moreover, as a member of a “marginalized” group, you were allowed to persecute anyone who “appropriated” your culture for themselves, particularly if they were not “marginalized” themselves. This led to two related tendencies among Tumblr users. 

First, an ever-increasing number of “marginalized” identity groups from the relatively mainstream (transgender people) to the utterly incomprehensible (fictionkin, i.e. sexually identifying as fictional characters) began to proliferate on Tumblr, simply to give people with otherwise “oppressive” identities a way to avoid being bullied and dogpiled by other users. 

One of the more toxic examples of this was the way in which Tumblr turned Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)—the actual, dangerous mental disorder of having multiple personalities due to unresolved trauma—into the quaint, attention-seeking and completely psychologically inaccurate idea of having “headmates,” and being a “multiple system.” Needless to say, the less debilitating mental illnesses were similarly watered down to the point of meaninglessness. One amusing satirical YouTube video described the Tumblrization of mental illnesses this way: 

Do you worry about tests sometimes? Then you have anxiety disorder! Do you always touch the doorknob before opening doors? Then you’ve got crippling OCD! Do you sometimes itch yourself in public? Then it looks like you’re turning into a wolf! These are all serious medical problems (as diagnosed by a first-year psychology major and WebMD)!

Again, this form of “identity laundering” could have been (relatively) harmless, had it not been for the second tendency: that of using one’s (dubious) marginalized identity as a way of persecuting anyone who wasn’t part of said marginalized group for making art about “your characters,” or telling “your story,” or just generally appropriating “your culture.” Again, the point of this was obvious to anyone with a brain: it was purely to remove potential competitors for attention. Actual concern for social justice was never part of the equation. 

Why? Because if this had been about concern for social justice, then some of the biggest supporters of this kind of behavior would likely have been more conscientious about bullying and fraud, two practices that generally cut against the ideals of social justice. In fact, the opposite was true. 

To give one example, Vice, of all outlets, reported in November 2015 about the case of Tumblr user Zamii070, a 20-year-old Tumblr artist who was bullied to the point of suicide by other Tumblr users. Her crime? Well, the most prominent one seems to have been drawing “Steven Universe characters who had previously been portrayed as overweight as less overweight, which was spun out into being “fatphobic.” 

When Zamii070 posted a video explaining that she had been put in the hospital after a suicide attempt, her persecutors accused her of faking it, with one writing: 

I hope you fucking die[.] Like, seriously. This attentionwhoring [sic] is getting really fucking old. LOOK EVERYONE! A PRIVILEGED LITTLE WHITE GIRL PRETENDED SHE WAS GONNA KILL HERSELF! LET’S ALL FUCKING RUSH TO DEFEND HER LIKE SHE’S NOT AN OPPRESSOR! [D]o you not know what white privilege is fucking responsible for? You’re the reason blacks are being gunned down in the streets.

Worse, when one concerned user reported the people sending Zamii070 death threats like this to the police, the whistleblower also became a target, with one target of prosecution telling her: “I HOPE YOU GET KILLED BITCH YOU ARE WORTHLESS WHAT I DID WAS NOT ILEGAL [sic] IF I GET GUILTY I FUCKING GO TO JAIL FOR 6 MONTHS ASSHOLE WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU TELLING PEOPLE TO GO DIE IS NOT ILEGAL [sic].” (Death threats are, in fact, illegal). 

Again, this is from people claiming to want to make the world kinder and more equal. Needless to say, that motivation is suspect after reading these messages. But to really expose this mindset as the attention-obsessed, intellectually protectionist nonsense that it is, we have to now turn to arguably the most bizarre story ever to come out of Tumblr, and that is really saying something. That story is the case of a user known only as “hivliving.” 

Before proceeding with this tale, I should give the reader fair warning: This story is so insane that it makes Rachel Dolezal’s attempt to pass as black look positively benign by comparison. If you think you know how crazy wokeness can get, and you don’t know this story, then you’re wrong to think you understand how far down the rabbit hole we have still to go. I wouldn’t call this a trigger warning exactly, but if it were, it would read something like TW: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

In 2016, a Tumblr blog known only as hivliving was started, ostensibly as a resource for people who were HIV positive. It was allegedly run by two different people: “Israa,” a nonbinary Chinese-Pakistani survivor of human trafficking who lived in India, and “Naj,” a lesbian U.S. expatriate also living in India. Both these women claimed to be HIV+, and maintained their own personal blogs. What’s more, they kept the hivliving blog going for over a year, providing advice to sufferers. So far, so good, right? 

Well, hold your horses, because after a year of posting, “Naj” posted a link to a cash.me fundraiser for her “medical expenses.” Another user, Digoxin-purpurpea, who noticed that Naj’s cash.me account was based in the United States despite Naj herself allegedly living in India, smelled a rat. She confronted “Naj” over private messages, and eventually forced the alleged Indian lesbian to admit to a stunning truth: that neither “Naj,” nor “Israa,” had ever existed. The person who ran hivliving was, in fact, a single person: a white college student who was neither HIV positive, nor lived in India, nor (suffice to say) a victim of human trafficking. 

But this is not where the insanity comes in. The insane part is why this young woman did this. Prior to her career pretending to be a Chinese-Pakistani HIV positive human trafficking victim in order to scam people out of money, the person in question had written a 170,000-word fanfiction set in the world of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton, titled “To Scale the Blue Sky” (since removed), about a version of Alexander Hamilton who was a high school student living with HIV in the 1980s (no one tell her how the actual Hamilton felt about “domestic faction and insurrection,” of which this behavior is an extreme example).   

But I digress. Point is, not only was the fanfic in question popular on Tumblr (it even spawned fan art), but it also got regularly featured on lists of recommended fanfiction by “women of color.” When confronted about why she would pretend to the long list of identities she had appropriated, the unnamed culprit behind hivliving admitted that her accuser was right to suggest that she did it “because [she] wanted 600 kudos on [Archive of Our Own, a popular fanfiction hosting site].” In other words, this girl faked two identities and scammed people out of money entirely so that she wouldn’t get attacked for writing a “Hamilton” fanfic on the grounds that it “wasn’t her story to tell,” as one particularly noxious leftist podcast sniffed about the whole event, but would instead get praised for it. 

Now, given the bullying I’ve described in the previous case, this might seem understandable, or even sympathetic. People, especially genuinely talented artists, should have the creative freedom to tell stories about people with lives that are radically different from their own, whatever a collection of resentful, sniveling mediocrities think, after all. But don’t shed your tears for this girl. One unsurprised fellow “Hamilton” fan observed acidly of her that “I’ve seen [her] just add more and more identities to her disprivilege checklist when she wants to win arguments,” and her accuser noted that she had tried to get multiple users to kill themselves. What’s more, the only reason she became a target for that accuser in the first place was that she had previously attacked that accuser for publishing fanfic where Lin-Manuel Miranda (the creator of “Hamilton”) was portrayed as a cannibal mermaid. In other words, this is a story without heroes. The only reason her fraud was exposed is that another small-time fanfic author wanted revenge for having her work attacked, not because of any sense of duty on the part of the accuser. It’s high school bitchery and small-ball malignant narcissism, all the way down. 

This is a perfect microcosm of what social justice politics on Tumblr really amount to: a desperate plea for attention in order to avoid criticism while also using one’s identity as a pretext to silence people whose artistic output might be aesthetically superior to one’s own. 

There is another, less alarming, but much sadder purpose this kind of behavior served for Tumblr’s users. That is, it did not just give them an excuse to be cruel to others, it also allowed them to be cruel to themselves. And in a community that caters to teenage girls, this should also come as no surprise. According to a study by the Medical University of Warsaw, between 40 and 80 percent (!) of adolescents harm themselves physically, particularly between the ages of 12 and 14. Among U.S. adolescents, between 6.4 percent and 14.8 percent of high school-aged boys are admitted to hospitals for self-harm, and between 17.7 percent and 30.8 percent of high school-aged girls are admitted for the same reason, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA). One prominent risk factor for cutting, according to Verywellmind, is if a teen “has trouble controlling her emotions (like if your teen doesn’t know how to handle herself when she feels sad or angry).” Another risk factor, according to the aforementioned APHA study, is sexual minority status. In other words, if someone is prone to “losing the ability to can” due to emotion, and feels compelled to identify as a sexual minority (both of which were obviously encouraged on Tumblr), that person is far more likely to self-harm. 

With this information, we can conclude that while one point of Tumblr’s social justice-oriented proto-cancel culture was obviously to encourage bullying, and another was to silence potential artistic competitors, a third and likely just as potent one was masochism. In other words, a website dominated by the kinds of teens who are most at risk of self-harm would naturally be in the market for an ideology that not only would permit them to hurt themselves, but make them feel morally superior to people who didn’t, and moreover, that would give them an excuse to bully anyone who didn’t hate themselves as much as the Tumblr users did. Is anyone surprised that they found this in critical theory, with its endless, sadistic reframing of self-respect as fragility, and lack of guilt as cruelty? And what a terrible indictment of critical theory it is that it was so attractive to mentally ill teenagers as an enabling ideology in the first place. 

Let us not, however, lose sight of the point: whether Tumblr’s critical theory obsession was designed to enable ressentiment, self-loathing, or bullying, the politics was nothing more than an ex post facto rationalization for what Tumblr’s users already wanted to do. Worse, unlike the trolls of 4chan, whose politics were always steeped in irony and self-awareness, most Tumblr users probably didn’t admit this even to themselves. Rather, the earnestness and emotivism of Tumblr make them actually believe their behavior is heroic, and therefore makes them vanishingly unlikely to question whether what they are doing is right, for them or for others. To their credit, many Tumblr users did recognize how toxic the site had become, as evidenced by the fact that many users still make sardonic references to “The Discourse” on the site, a meme that carries the fatalistic subtext that said “Discourse” will always suck and you should just avoid it. 

The one mercy in all this was that, for a long time, the illiberal cyberbullying of the worst of Tumblr was kept from spreading to the rest of the internet by the far crueler, but also far more liberal (small-l) trolling from the worst of 4chan, whose combination of emotional detachment and unmasked aggression made them Tumblr’s kryptonite. In other words, the worst of the alt-Right literally canceled out the worst of the social justice Left, leaving everyone on the more “normie-friendly” parts of the internet free of both, who were too busy fighting each other (or fighting amongst themselves) to engage with the wider culture. 

And it was good . . . until Tumblr’s userbase entered the workforce. 

Hoch Zwei/Corbis via Getty Images

The Tumblrization of the Media

Those who have read this far surely will have noticed an interesting tension in how Tumblr conducted itself. On the one hand, it was essentially a platform for fan enthusiasm and for creative expression. On the other, those two positive traits ended up creating the conditions for the site to become toxic, due to artistic competitiveness and status jockeying within fan communities. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the academic, media, and entertainment world did not receive the memo. In all likelihood, they only noticed the fact that Tumblr was the home of diehard fans and budding artists, and saw a feeder for the next generation of their own industries. For academics, Tumblr must have looked like a hotbed of hyper-earnest, hyper-literate, and slightly immature radicalism just waiting to be channeled with the right ideological education. For the media, ever conscious of its historic male dominance, the fact that Tumblr hosted so many budding female and minority writers must surely have looked like a bottomless and promising talent pool with which to diversify their newsrooms. And for the entertainment world, the fact that the site hosted so many obsessive and often uncritical fans must have made it far more attractive as a place to cater to than the demanding and cantankerous attitudes of 4chan and historic “nerd” communities who felt ownership over properties like comic books and video games, and who would skewer anything that violated their extremely strict standards. Not to mention the fact that so many artists got their start on Tumblr; it surely must have looked like a recruiting pool for the entertainment world, as well. 

In other words, you can draw a direct line between the institutions that have mostly been taken over by cancel culture today and the career predispositions of Tumblr’s userbase. One can’t entirely blame the industries: they probably thought catering to such emotionally performative, enthusiastic people would bring in both new blood and lower standards for their own products, without bothering to do any research on how toxic the community they were courting actually was

I don’t believe I’m speculating in pointing this out. In fact, just as Hollywood snatched up YouTube stars like Justin Bieber, we already are beginning to see journalists and artists who credit Tumblr with inspiring them. 

Taylor Lorenz, the New York Times’ most inquisitorial tech journalist, credits an early Tumblr addiction with early feelings of belonging. In fact, her Tumblr is still accessible. What’s more, Tumblr’s social norms have come to dominate the market for Young Adult Fiction. One of the genre’s especially nasty and anti-intellectual writers explicitly used the fact that her debut novel “involves Tumblr fan art” as a selling point. As the generation that used Tumblr at its heyday moves further into the workforce, we should expect more such stories and acknowledgments of inspiration.

And that would be fine, if one heard similar stories of former 4chan users becoming equally successful. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Tumblr’s brand of toxicity is much easier to whitewash as cute youthful naivete than 4chan’s, largely because suicidal, blue-haired demisexuals are much less threatening than nihilistic faux-Nazis, and thus a less promising source of moral panic for the media, not to mention a less emotionally satisfying target for the media because the nihilists are the ones most prone to mocking them. What this has led to, however, is an essential asymmetry whereby Tumblr’s former users are capable of social advancement and former 4chan users are not. Indeed, one of the most successful tricks of Tumblr’s old snowflakes has been infiltrating liberal media outlets and using their newfound influence to force social media platforms to become more like Tumblr and to ban anyone who could act as a countervailing influence. The result is that, in many ways, we all live on Tumblr circa 2014 now. And make no mistake, this is only a result of the media’s thumb resting on the scale. Early skirmishes between Tumblr and 4chan, when the two were on an equal footing, were brutally one-sided. Relational aggression is no match for gleeful, real aggression in an open fight, but it is far better at winning political allies. 

But let us not lose sight of the real issue here: namely, that today’s wokeness began someplace, and that it is more about enforcing the norms of that place, and the hierarchies of power in that place, than it is about really reforming anything.

It is not actually necessary for one to believe in the identity-based Marxism of critical theory and to believe in ruthless social authoritarianism: in fact, social authoritarianism is arguably more suspect under that frame, because one cannot know if the people enforcing the new speech codes are not, themselves, infected with the systemic bigotry one hopes to root out. But that consideration is never contemplated because the critical theory is not the point. It is a rationalization, and a rationalization for the will to power of mentally ill teenage girls, who have now become mentally ill adult women, and who are being enabled by bitter legacy leftists who want to tell the rest of the country “you can’t sit with us,” without realizing that the people they are empowering to do so will soon kick them away from the cool kids’ table, too. 

In her tour de force book, Kill All Normies, dissident leftist Angela Nagle notes of Milo Yiannopoulos’s college tours: 

When Milo challenged his protesters to argue with him countless times on his tour, he knew that they not only wouldn’t, but also that they couldn’t. They come from an utterly intellectually shut-down world of Tumblr and trigger warnings, and the purging of dissent in which they have only learned to recite jargon.

While Milo himself imploded, the lesson of this fact is still with us. Wokeness, cancel culture, and the Tumblrization of America are extremely vulnerable not only to counterargument but also to the mere revelation of the essentially broken nature of its advocates. The more people can be made aware of the actual cultural origins of this pack of blue-haired Carrie Nations, the less likely it is that they will take their performative emotional gaslighting seriously. If Tumblr’s former legions, now transformed into our would-be rulers, want so badly to be victims, then our repudiation of their essentially self-serving behavior will no doubt serve to reinforce that idea. But the reality is that they are only victims of one thing: their own hubris and internet-driven indoctrination into cultish terminal adolescence.

Correction (6/5/2021): Tumblr has 475 million blogs as of 2021, not “hundreds of billions.”

About Bill Hurrell

Bill Hurrell is a dissident and digital culture enthusiast writing from behind the Silicon Curtain in California.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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