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Web Summit 2020 Talk: 'Has Social Media Found its Soul?'



CEO of Tumblr, Jeff D'Onofrio, reflects on how social media has found its soul in the events of 2020, with a particular focus on Tumblr's role in all of it. 2020 has been a year of key-board warriors and strong online opinions on topics like COVID-19, the US election, and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Tumblr has offered an escape from such intense energy, through their particular trends, their response to activism, their "founding principals," engagement and their users' trust in safety. 

D'Onofrio talked through Tumblr's 2020 trends, which have had a huge focus on users seeking comfort in this, particularly isolated and lonely year. For instance, the trend of 'Cottagecore,' a Romanticised interpretation or aesthetic of countryside life has spiked since March. The trend 'yesteryear' also made a comeback, demonstrating people gravitating toward things that were important to them in their youth, like Glee, Narnia, and The Sims. With these trends, Tumblr launched a blog called 'Cosy Blog,' which gives people more of an opportunity for deeper connection and a feeling of comfort during the lockdown. This blog consists of autumnal scenes, cute animals, and comfort food. These scenes demonstrate users' needs to escape, rather than scroll endlessly through a barrage of intense discussion surrounding whatever chaos had ensued that day. 

How is Tumblr addressing/ responding to the opinionated topics of today?  

D'Onofrio went on to discuss how in Tumblr's community of 150 million monthly users, "activism has always been strong," but has shown differently compared to other social media platforms: "users are not just stirring up conversations and debates, they are expressing their inner fears and anxieties with the stories about these things." Tumblr seems to be a platform allowing free-speech and expression but in a more proper, controlled, and regulated manner. The network's users are "creating art to support the underrepresented marginalized communities that thrive [on Tumblr]." While debates can be a positive outlet for society, sometimes voices can get lost in them, but Tumblr is letting individuals communicate their individual thoughts through creative mediums. He added that the "combination of creativity and anonymity and makes [Tumblr] tick." On this topic, D'Onofrio reassured viewers that "activism is alive, and well, and strong on this platform."

Arguably, "creativity and anonymity" heightens the risk of extreme and immoral opinions, so how does Tumblr ensure their users' trust in safety? With 48% of active users being Gen Z and 60% of new registrations also being Gen Z, Tumblr has a network of easily influenced users, so they have to make sure they are filtering out the material that is not appropriate for anyone to see. D'Onofrio explained that users' safety is ensured through a combination of machine classifiers, human review, and user reports; with an in-house team who "take a great deal of acre in grafting out community guidelines and policies, and the consistent application of those policies is critical." It must be incredibly difficult to ensure the trust in the safety of all large social networks, and here it feels like Tumblr's safety algorithms are fairly generic, but it is the most they can do. By this, I mean that the unpredictability and black-hole of social media create an impossibility to guarantee constant safety for users, but Tumblr is doing letting people express their thoughts in perhaps the safest way. In D'Onofrio's words, "we are living in a world where there is division and political discourse is broken down and is see Tumblr as a respite from that." 

I found this talk so insightful, current, and important. This year we have been focusing on the negatives of social media and the conflicts it can bring, but this talk brought to light the comfort social media can bring to people, particularly those who have been solely reliant on social media for their communication to the outside world. Tumblr lets one into a global community, where you can share your thoughts with an audience that wants to see it, rather than criticize it. 

By Abigail Gamble 
A recent BA English graduate, who loves to travel and the theatre.      
Web Summit 2020 Talk: 'Has Social Media Found its Soul?' Reviewed by Abigail Gamble on Wednesday, December 02, 2020 Rating: 5
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