The Internet story of the year — perhaps of many years — began with a breezy, under-punctuated blog post on the Tumblr of some 21-year-old no one had previously heard of.
“Guys please help me,” the blogger wrote, ignorant of the fact that her words would echo in eternity. “Is this dress white and gold, or blue and black?”
“The dress,” of course, has since become a Web phenomenon of unparalleled virality: 73 million page views on the post itself within its first week, 550 tweets a minute at its peak, and a veritable Everest of takes and think pieces. Buzzfeed, the outlet that first broke the story (insofar as it was a “story,” and swiping it from Tumblr counts as “breaking”), published 30 follow-ups within a week. They had, per the “viral guru” Neetzan Zimmerman, reached “Viral Singularity.”
But while the dress may have been singularly popular, the path it took to get there was increasingly commonplace. From the depths of Tumblr, it conquered the entire viral Web: Buzzfeed, Twitter, Facebook eventually.
It’s impossible to conclusively quantify the meta trends of the viral Web, of course, even given the host of tools and consultants dedicated to that pursuit. But when Pricenomics’s data team scraped Buzzfeed to see where the viral powerhouse finds its stories, it found that Tumblr came out on top — over YouTube, Reddit and Imgur.
Translation? Tumblr might just be the new ground zero of the viral Internet.
“Tumblr is definitely spawning serious discussion,” said Aisling McMahon, who tracks viral Web content for the analytics site NewsWhip. “… I think its influence in the case of memes and viral images is starting to rival more established image-based sites” — image-based sites you may be more familiar with, such as Instagram and Reddit.
Tumblr is a bit of a standout in that space: It doesn’t belong to any one genre conclusively. The site began as a multimedia blogging platform — a place where users could share text, photos, songs and links. But since Tumblr is structured heavily around “following” other bloggers and sharing their work, it quickly evolved into a vast, unmapped network of niche communities.
That has made the site unattractive to some business analysts, who say it’s a little too artsy for marketers to make inroads. But Tumblr’s unusually young userbase was attractive to Yahoo, which shelled out almost $1 billion for Tumblr in June 2013.
Since then, the number of blogs on the network has more than doubled, from 105 million to 269.7 million. More than 63 million posts are made to the site each day, as of December 2015.
Despite that growth, Tumblr never entirely shed its reputation as something of an insular platform, a space for artists and advocates and kids. Instead, Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, in particular, have long been considered the go-to sources for soon-to-be-viral content. In 2012, Farhad Manjoo, then writing for Slate, basically accused Buzzfeed of swiping all its most popular posts from Reddit, frequently without sourcing them.
From there, “repackaging funny things found on Reddit” became “just how the internet works these days” — to such a degree, in fact, that the site published official guidelines for media in August, demanding that writers request permission before churning Reddit memes or photos into #viral #content. (Examples of such content, which you’ve likely encountered in your travels: Bad Luck Brian, Ehmahgerd, pretty much every macro image ever.)
But at some point in the past year, Reddit’s meme-making dominance seems to have slipped. Pricenomics ranks it 10th in its list of Buzzfeed sources; Imgur is seventh. In the place of Reddit meme-grabs, there are a whole lot of listicles culled from single-serving blogs, like “Celebrities as Drag Queens,” or posts on trending Tumblr topics, such as Walmart.horse. (It is, for the unfamiliar, a “piece of postmodern Dadaism” that was recently served a cease-and-desist by Wal-Mart.)
“Based on our coverage of memes from Tumblr, it’s been one of the most consistently growing sources of memes out of all the major social media hubs,” summed Brad Kim, the editor of Know Your Meme.
To be clear, Tumblr’s users — or “creators,” as the site tellingly likes to call them — are not doing anything different than what they’ve been doing for the past eight years. The site’s quixotic founder, David Karp, has idealized it as a platform for creativity since it launched in 2007. In 2012, when mainstream media began to pay attention, they repeatedly described it, in contrast to Twitter and Facebook, as the network where people “expressed themselves” publicly. Tumblr gave us “the 99 percent,” McKayla is Not Impressed, Texts from Hillary, and Feminist Ryan Gosling.
“Tumblr is the pipeline to youth culture online,” said Ryan Broderick, a Buzzfeed reporter who frequently surfaces Tumblr memes. “I think the reason for that is that it’s kind of a tough site to navigate, no hashtags, etc. A lot of the teenagers and college students on there have a feeling of privacy.”
But critically, that privacy — or the perception of it — is changing. After years without a central hub on which users could view popular content, Tumblr launched its answer to Reddit’s front page and Twitter’s trending topics last December: a page called “Explore” where anyone — registered on the site or not — can see the Tumblr blogs, search terms and posts that are currently most popular.
There were other, smaller changes, too: an expanded “spotlight” section to highlight good posts, more official blogs, a drop-down that invites readers to share posts on other platforms and embed them on other sites. If Tumblr was once built for virality, as Matt Buchanan put it in 2013, it’s now built for viral influence on the mainstream Internet — for the kind of influence that breaks Web sites and permanently enshrines memes.
Broderick has long found viral stuff on Tumblr by “following the cool kids,” as he puts it. And Cates Holderness, who wrote Buzzfeed’s dress post, came across the photo when its original poster sent it to Buzzfeed’s Tumblr. But truth be told, that discovery process is no longer necessary: In theory, at least, anyone could have spotted “The Dress” trending on Tumblr’s Explore tab, even if they’d never used the site before. It was a meme that could only come out of Tumblr’s weird depths. And rest assured that where that came from, there’s more.
“The majority of what I see [on Tumblr] is an excitement you really don’t get anywhere else,” Broderick said. “… And let’s face it: The days of finding something really exciting and real on Twitter are kind of over.”