Tumblr, Teens, and Identity

When Britt Julious was in high school, the internet was a place of self-discovery; now she sees an entirely new generation gravitating to Tumblr for the same reason.


The Tumblr publishing platform includes 50,048,951 personal blogs (and growing) with a total number of posts somewhere around 19 billion. These posts range from streaming Lizzy Mercier Descloux b-sides to Glenn Ligon light sculptures to bell hooks quotes on femininity and power. Tumblr works best as a publishing platform based on its premise of sharing and social media. Users can follow each other to create a streamlined personal dashboard that includes content tailored to their interests and curiosities. My own personal dashboard is largely consumed with commentary and media from artists, writers, and other cultural producers. Their posts touch upon my interests and I can facilitate and maintain a content-based world that provides an alternative to my daily nine-to-five existence.

As my blog has grown, I’ve begun to notice the large numbers of young teens following my site. One of the pleasures of using Tumblr is that it allows the user to interact with others while also indulging in their specific interests. I began using the site as a means of expressing myself, and it only became enjoyable when I found other people who thought and posted about the things I loved or didn’t realize I loved. For the poster, as images, music, essays and other forms of media are quickly posted on Tumblr connections are fostered, however tenuous. For the viewer, Tumblr provides an outlet for expression and exploration.

“I like using Tumblr because I’m able to explore my interests and be part of a community that doesn’t judge me in my everyday life,” Isabel, a teen and Tumblr user, said. “I get to connect (mentally!) with people on the other side of the world just through the films and music they like!”

Other teen Tumblr users offered similar points of view.

Sarah, age 16, said, “Most of the blogs I follow have to do with feminism, current events, my friends, music or things I find funny. I use it to connect with friends and people all around the world. I also learn so much from the articles posted here. I also enjoy having my opinion read by many and learning about new things.”

Although I consider myself an adult, I’ve realized that the way I use and interact with others on Tumblr is in the same vein as many of it’s teenage users. I don’t consider my use of it as juvenile, but rather, an extension of the exploration of self that begins as a teen and continues for years later. Paying for an apartment and working at a job provides money, but I am still figuring out what I want to be and who I actually am. The process is ongoing.

I wish that Tumblr existed ten years ago. I believe it would have made this decade I am currently in easier to navigate. Tumblr provides a constant source of stimulant and for a teen, it is a means of shaping and attuning one’s sense of self.

“It’s a multifaceted tool for expression,” George, another teenage Tumblr user succinctly offered.

I have been an active Tumblr user for nearly five years, and my interest has not dissipated. The way I use it now as a 24-year-old woman working a day job is the same way I used it as a 20-year-old college student. I want to connect with others. I want to share my thoughts. I want to know that there is more out there besides the life I currently maintain.

There was little difference between the working class neighborhood of Austin I was born and briefly raised in and our family’s cramped apartment in Oak Park when I was a young girl. I spent time in both environments. Each felt distinct, yet familiar. But as I grew older, my relationship to the city changed. I became firmly rooted in my life in Oak Park.

I first discovered the internet during my junior year of high school. Before that, I went online for class projects and papers, read celebrity news on burgeoning gossip websites, and idly chatted with classmates using instant messaging programs. It was not until those two years leading up to the next chapter of my post-Oak Park life that I began to use the internet as I (and others) still use it today: to explore, to discover, and to immerse myself in another world.

The Misshapes, a DJ collective based in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, began posting photographs of their weekly parties at Don Hill’s. I can not remember the first time I went to their site, but if I think about my time before viewing their images of diverse, weird, yet lovely young things and my time afterward, I recognize two distinct selves. I didn’t become a different person, but I began to evolve into the person I am now.

Their images of party guests photographed against black or white brick walls were captivating because they were new and constant. Each week, I spent time looking at their site. In my head, I imagined them saying, “This is who we are. This is our life. This is our different little world.” It became a ritual, something I could rely on while realizing that I felt different, but was afraid to articulate that differentness to the peers I had known for nearly a decade. What I knew for certain was that I was unlike most of the other black girls at my school. I knew that there were expectations of my clothing (tight), and hair (weaved), and friends (also black), and I knew that I was failing. This was a reality beginning during my transfer to public school in second grade, but this growing tension between expectation and individuality took root and grew from year to year.

The Misshapes became an early obsession. I began to feed off those faces: young, gaunt, and beautiful. I didn’t know them (and never would), but I admired their visage, the narrative of their faces examined through black eyeliner, red lips, cutting jaw lines. They were familiar in the sense that they represented a particular aspect of my personality that I had yet to identify.

In my freshman and sophomore year of high school, I was determined to find a way to fit in, to be considered beautiful in a school where tall black girls who weren’t on the basketball team were ignored. I wore full skirts and the wrong types of makeup and heels to perform an identity that felt like it would translate to my peers. But the cool kids wore jeans and Abercrombie sweaters. My style was off-point (if not ahead of its time).

Eventually, my choices changed. Establishing oneself among peers who have seen growth and tears was and is difficult because every change, even the most minuscule, feels like artifice. I knew who I was and what I liked, but I spent years establishing an identity that challenged the things (the post-punk music, the black hair, the attitude) that I grew to admire.

The Misshapes and their party photography were a gateway drug to other musical, fashion, and cultural outlets. They became an escape, a community, and an environment of acceptance and exploration. Their images allowed me to have instant or quicker access to these alternative forms of culture than before and I cherished their weekly updates as if they were personal gifts from the cool gods.

For myself, the allure of the Misshapes stemmed from the impenetrable layer their parties and photographs exuded. The rotating yet recognizable faces became an ideal. My young teenage self saw in them something that I had yet to articulate fully, yet craved immediately and then constantly: the glamour of nightlife, the grit of the city, the freedom to play with my appearance — the first indication of my true self. I knew that with some effort, I could at least emulate the apparent freedom of choice and control of the self that thus far eluded me in the suburbs.

Looking at photos from Misshapes parties, particularly white wall photos, reiterated the supposed importance of young figures whose personal style (fashion, makeup, hair) were singular in place and time. That much was clear to me, and that made the ache to escape my life that much greater, the allure of the party that more exciting, and my pull to a city I had never been feel at times overwhelming.

The images were enough. The ritual of going to the site was enough. I lacked the courage to explore or experiment with personal aesthetics concerning the texture of my hair or the fit of my clothes, but having an archive of source images sustained my energy throughout school. The Misshapes website, much like the Tumblr platform, became a reference book of all of the things I wanted to try, but couldn’t. A glimpse of all of the places I wanted to go, but hadn’t. It was a place of discovery and a resource for future reference. Soon, I thought, this can all be mine. I recognized the party as a place and time, a specific setting completely unlike my own. It was unique, I felt, this beautiful idea I never knew I craved at sixteen, at seventeen, at eighteen.

Photo courtesy of Eszter Bottka

Britt Julious is the senior editor at This Recording, and a freelance writer and essayist based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Time Out Chicago, Rhizome, and Dossier, among others. She blogs at BRITTICISMS.