When I was 15 years old, I joined an Internet community. My friends and I were starting our obsessions with One Direction, the British boyband who, at the time, had one album and a huge social media following. We listened to their music, watched all the videos on their YouTube channel, and followed their Twitter accounts. In an effort to learn more about the group we slowly began to delve into niche sections of Tumblr and Twitter—the nesting grounds for the most deeply obsessed.
On these forums, I interacted with people other than my friends from home. I met fans from places around the world, like Canada, France, and Singapore. We talked about things beyond just Harry Styles. The Internet gave all of us the opportunity to learn about the daily lives of people outside our countries and our cultures, and the struggles that everyone faced around the world. We were engaging in new conversations, but that dialogue wasn’t always reaching the audience that needed to hear these things the most.
Tumblr is where I learned the basics of what it means to question institutional oppression and acknowledge the injustices in our society. There’s a sort of groupthink there that forces you to check your own privilege and understand your biases.
While this is a community that prides itself on its educational value (and also rampant fanworks and pseudo-stalking of celebrities), the learning only goes so far. Posts about systematic inequalities with pure and well-thought-out intentions are seen and reblogged by people who don’t fully understand the issues, and the message becomes diluted. Instead of fostering deep discussions on how to make change, the same ideas of lipstick-centric white feminism and shallow understandings of racism are being recycled. People do discuss in detail these deeper issues online, but it doesn’t reach the same audience as the watered-down mainstream ideas of social justice. We should not be content with the level of education that is being spread on Tumblr and in the mainstream media.
The discussions of the injustices oppressed people could face were shocking to me, and I began to realize how small my world really was. I grew up in Goffstown, New Hampshire—a place that felt untouched by discussions of power or privilege. In our town of 17,651, there were 17,053 who identified as white, according to the 2010 census, and the median household income was higher than the national average. We didn’t have to acknowledge sexism or classism because we didn’t face it in our middle-class neighborhood. Having conversations on Tumblr with people around the world opened my eyes to what things were like outside my small New England town.
But the jealousy of fandom begot a sexism that was simple to uphold: In those early years, members of my fandom on Tumblr and Twitter would tear down women who got close to the One Direction boys. It was easy for me to say “she’s not worthy of him” and “she’s not even pretty” to justify my irrational dislike.
That same fan community—mired in high school pettiness and ignorant sexism—doesn’t exist anymore, or at least not as I first experienced it. Eventually we all grew up, and started to question what we had against these women. Ours is a community supportive of most women and non-binary bloggers, after all. My friends and I began conversations to think about why we thought we had to hate whatever woman was holding Harry Styles’ hand. Half of our network was exploring sexuality and gender identities, and we realized that it was contradictory to hate Louis Tomlinson’s girlfriend for no real reason when she was as human and vulnerable as we were.
The Tumblr community I was involved with has become more socially aware. By the time I was 17, voices emerged who knew what they were talking about. Posts about being subjected to sexism and racism emerged. Instead of just learning about each other’s lives and cultures, users started to learn about each other’s hardships.
With my basic knowledge of my own privilege that I learned from Tumblr, I chose to attend a college where I could take classes on these systems of power. I’ve learned that these issues go deeper than what one website could teach me. Instead of being shocked by long posts discussing experiences with slut-shaming or homophobia, I can work to understand the complicated systems of of privileges and inequalities that enable these wrongs through news and academia. Tumblr introduced me to these ideas, and these days, my far-less-frequent visits to my dashboard consist of admiring photos of Styles’ man bun and checking in with old online friends.
The Internet has become a great place for people all over the world to be introduced to these important problems, but there needs to be a deeper knowledge of the intersectionality of these issues in order to invoke major social change. For young people without access to information on social justice, a “Tumblr phase” provides rudimentary lessons that can be totally eye-opening. This education, however, needs to come with an understanding that these issues are more complex and institutionalized than the mainstream suggests.