Two weeks ago I wrote a bulleted list about people doing research and writing about Tumblr. A week later I had an intense conversation with my adviser (all of our conversations are intense) about doing post-internet research. I’m mulling all this over and thinking about what it means, and all I’ve landed on is lol no one should ever use someone else’s Tumblr for an academic purpose without their explicit consent.
That might seem like an easy conclusion, but I’ve seen it happen over and over—particularly in the past year, and particularly around specific Tumblr users’ blogging about trauma. What’s hard about this particular question of methods is that it’s unclear to me and to many other people whether or not a Tumblr is a human subject. I don’t mean that only in a OOO way—institutional review boards have a hard time coming down on this; they’re often unclear if things like Tumblr and Facebook are truly “public” and if you should get the consent of the user before using their Tumblr even if you plan on citing it. No one can decide if Tumblrs are “just text” or extensions of the people who create them (though to me I feel like that’s pretty obvious).
Part of what is interesting about Tumblr is the inside-outsideness of how community building works here. So yeah there is this public page, but then there is a private web of connections on the back end, one that seems much more important to me; the only way that I interact with people on Tumblr is if they are tapped in as well, since I don’t do Disqus for blog commenting functions and I don’t keep track of stats externally. It makes me think about how when you go to an archive, there are often sealed boxes that can’t be accessed until 50 years after the death of the person; usually these boxes are full of letters and diaries and other life documentation. What if we treated Tumblrs like sealed archives? Ostensibly anyone can access a person’s Tumblr, but that doesn’t mean we have to treat them like they are public.