• Background
  • Breaking It Down
  • Media
  • Sources
 

BACKGROUND

A subculture revolving around mental illness, made up of those dealing with it, has manifested online—most specifically on Tumblr. The site is a hub for those looking to online communities for support with their struggles with mental illness, and the discussions of mental illness exist as an independent subculture of Tumblr, but also seep into the various subcultures throughout the site. Tumblr is a microblogging platform (Short 2016), which is a blogging site that contains mostly short, easily digestible, and widely accessible posts.

 

TUMBLR

A text post from Tumblr that gives various situations (for example, on a "day off," "in class," or "the apocalypse," saying that in all of them, users are on Tumblr.

Text post describing the “always on” nature of Tumblr (that its users clearly identify with, with this post having over 300,000 notes).

Created in 2007, Tumblr is home to 369.8 million blogs and 153.5 billion posts, with users stemming from around the world (Tumblr 2017). The site offers features such as posting (text, quote, video, image, link), liking posts, “reblogging” or reposting, following other blogs, and messaging (anonymously and not anonymously, as well as privately and publicly answering messages). The site is home to various subcultures, with everything from the Doctor Who fandom to furries to punk to pro-ana. Because of Tumblr’s uniqueness, detailed below, it is a hub for the gathering and growth of deviant or stigmatized communities. This may explain why those struggling with mental illness find a home there, and why the site attracts users from various subcultures that may struggle with mental illness. 

The community differs from other social media sites though, as its users experience semi-anonymity and the site circulates and reproduces a lot of content with a much smaller focus on original content. A study shows this disparity between total posts and original posts: “the total number of posts collected over the four-month period is over 10 billion. However, the number of unique posts (i.e., excluding reblog posts) is only about 695 million.” (Xu et al., 2014:15). The emphasis on unoriginal content is noteworthy because users primarily interact with and share text/media that is not their own—meaning that they don’t have to use their own words to express their vulnerabilities, and users can find solace or relationships with those who post similar things to them. An online user study shows that Tumblr is ranked second (after Facebook) for average amount of time US visitors spent on all social media sites in a month. This ranking is significant when considering that Tumblr is much more anonymous than Facebook (all Tumblr members use usernames that don’t have to correlate with their legal identity), and with most Tumblr users interacting with people they do not know in real life, this statistic means that they are spending copious amounts of time on an internet platform that is quite distinct from the “real world.” These numbers emphasize Tumblr’s uniqueness as a site rooted in the exchange and reproduction of information/posts, and a site that consumes much of a user’s time.

 

THE MENTAL ILLNESS CYBER COMMUNITY ON TUMBLR

Within Tumblr’s many communities, a distinct subculture manifests from the mental illness side of Tumblr. When I say mental illness, I will be referring to disorders such as depression, self-injury, and anorexia. Often, the mental illness community overlaps with the other subcultures, because if one is exposed to or a part of one community, they connect with and get information from others (Adler & Adler 2008).

Dr. Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, explains the allure of Tumblr’s “darker side” that consists of a “reverberating ‘echo chamber’ of girls who are sharing these experiences and these thoughts” of depression and self-harm that “potentiate [these] negative feelings” (Bine 2013). Exemplifying and exacerbating this, these communities don’t always emphasize recovery, and instead normalize or even promote issues like self-harm and eating disorders (Franzen & Gottzén 2011). Online platforms with the anonymity and interactive elements of Tumblr have had similar developments, as shown through earlier studies (Adler & Adler 2008, Lewis & Baker 2011Franzen & Gottzén 2011) which looked at similar internet communities and discussion spaces. Online spaces may both help and hurt people by developing this kind of insular community, and the differential association theory of deviance explains how an insular community like this can evoke deviant behavior from anyone who is a part of it.

Most who partake in “cyber communities,” and in this case Tumblr, enjoy being a part of it. They enjoy the ability to be open, with no fear of stigma, no need to conceal, and most importantly, they feel like they can be their “real” selves. In “Tumblr Fandoms, Community & Culture,” many users described Tumblr granting the freedom to be oneself, one saying that “[Tumblr’s] users can be themselves in ways that they would not be able to anywhere else. I participate as ‘me,’ and sometimes as how I would like to be in real life. I feel more

The screenshot of the archive shows various pictures of skinny bodies, sad images, or text posts that encourage a maintenance of a lifestyle to stay very skinny or encourage starvation and eating disorders in text on the images or as text-only posts.

A screenshot of the archive of a Tumblr blog that encourages weight loss, skinniness, and starvation. (Click to enlarge)

confident about myself there” (Hillman, et al 2014:288). They also felt a larger sense of belonging and connectedness with other users through shared jargon, and sheer amount of mutual time that users spent on the site (Hillman, et al 2014). In Dean Short’s investigation of the SuperWhoLock subculture on Tumblr, he finds that on Tumblr, the stigma is less of an issue than in normal life” (Short 2016:34). This confidence and widespread loss of stigma can be partially lent to the “online disinhibition effect,” which explains that people are more likely to self-disclose or feel comfortable in an online setting than in face-to-face interactions (Suler 2004). Additionally, in Baker and Fortune (2008)’s study of self-injury and suicide websites, they concluded that a source of validation for users in the self-injury space laid in being granted “access to ‘positive and socially valued identities’ such as being understood and belonging to a community” (Franzen & Gottzén 2011:286).

From the supportive and openness of Tumblr arises a potentially harmful support, and even endorsement, of behavior such as starvation or self-injury. Adler and Adler explain that self-injury practices are often seen “as a voluntary lifestyle choice and a long-term coping mechanism” by those who partake in them (Adler & Adler 2008:39). Franzen and Gottzén analyze this tension between Tumblr and the larger world, arguing that “members of the studied Web community have to balance between a locally prevalent normalizing discourse on self-injury” that destigmatizes and “a culturally dominant pathologizing discourse that depicts self-injury as repulsive” (Franzen & Gottzén 2011:280). A part of this behavior’s encouragement, they rationalize, is pushing back on stigma. Stigma resistance is a characteristic of the mental illness subculture of Tumblr and many similar sites, where the “socially proscribed and severely sanctioned behavior that was once relegated largely to secrecy among isolated individuals is now at the center of a cyber-community” (Adler & Adler 2008:40).

Because of Tumblr’s centralized acceptance of taboo topics, many who felt ostracized by their struggle now find a place to be their self and not only discuss their struggles, but discuss life as a whole—while uninhibited by the weight of their unique disorder or issue or identity. This is similar to other subcultures, like juggalos, whose struggles often lead to exclusion and isolation but feel incredibly connected and comfortable with those who experience similar issues, without necessarily even having to discuss the issues themselves.

Three images, the one on the left with four razor blades saying "Welcome back, did you miss me?," the one in the middle showing feet on a scale with a measuring tape wrapped around the ankles, and the one on the right is a hand full of pills.

Three images from one of the most popular self-harm blogs on the website, depression-and-disorders.

The discussion and visibility of the mental illness on the site is quite prevalent; images and discussions of self-harm, depression, and eating disorders saturate the mental illness side of Tumblr. Some self-harm posts are graphic images of cuts and blood, others “portray razorblades lying next to, or on, the body part, often in an ‘aesthetic manner’” (Franzen & Gottzén 2011:288). These portrayals add to the normalization of suffering, and the perception as certain images or facets of this culture as beautiful normalizes and even promotes self-destructive behavior. “The ‘normalizing’ discourse on self-injurious behavior is the main discourse that we identified in the Web community, and the one to which the members most often orient,” Franzen explained, signifying that, for the most part, the community is about support and normalization rather than prevention of this behavior.

 

MENTAL ILLNESS COMMUNITIES

Having a sense of belonging, identifying with, and feeling like a part of a community largely defines the mental illness subculture on Tumblr. Adler and Adler found that when users discover a community that they fit into, “it gave them a sense of identity. They experienced this whether or not they were actively” participating in the community activity (such as self-injury) (Adler & Adler 2008:40). However, the Adlers also noted that “their identification with the community might also reinforce their self-injurious behavior,”

A collection of hashtags including #skinny #thin #thinspiration #thigh gap #ribs that are found at the bottom of a Tumblr post.

A collection of hashtags on a user’s post that are common in thinspo and pro-ana communities.

which, of course can push those not engaging in the behavior at the moment to relapse; this is especially concerning with Tumblr specifically, as all aspects of the site intermingle, exposing users to some of this material in communities that they identify with (even though they may not actually identify with the material itself at the moment). De Choudhury explained in her article, “Anorexia on Tumblr: A Characterization Study,” that “Tumblr is used disproportionately more frequently as a support platform on maintenance of anorexic lifestyle,” because of the encouraging of sharing of content that promotes negative perceptions of body image of pro-suicide sentiments (De Choudhury 2015:49).

However, it’s clear these communities offer solace and support, and because of their ability to make their members feel like they’re a part of something, they can decrease social isolation and turn “loner deviants” less lonely (Adler & Adler 2008). When the Adlers originally interviewed people who partook in self-injury, they observed that “they were primarily loner deviants, unconnected to other self-injurers and lacking the social support and information diffusal prevalent in deviant subcultures.” However, with the rise of the internet and disinhibiting, semi-anonymous, non-stigmatized online communities, these loner deviants were no longer isolated in their behavior, lifestyle, and struggles, and instead found a subculture with which they shared (and could openly share) these parts of their life.

 

FURTHER INFORMATION

A laymen’s explanation:

The experience of depression, self-harm, and eating disorders is a lonely one because of stigma, how personal it is, and the social conditions that can produce it and that can be produced by these disorders. This isolation turns into community on Tumblr, a semi-anonymous web platform filled with various communities and subcultures that allow one to feel less lonely in their struggle, or can open up/allow for connections between those that are struggling, all in a place where one can express themselves individually through both creating and sharing content. Online platforms for expression and community-building are changing the way that those who are struggling deal with their struggles, and the community that fits best for those seeking support for their mental illness in the unstigmatized place of Tumblr. 

 

What are the bounds of this community?

Within Tumblr, the mental illness community exists in distinct spaces. However, because a lot of Tumblr is semi-deviant (even in just its breaking down of stigma and its tolerance of taboo topics) the mental illness community/discussion does not just exist in defined spaces but across the platform, as people can and do explore many of their identities simultaneously.

 

How do they recognize one another as sharing this identity?

Because of the openness of the community, people may post what illnesses they struggle with openly on their blog, or keep it in their “about” section for people to reference about them. Other markers can lie in the hashtags on their posts. On the site in general, though, people feel comfortable talking about it, and it’s not uncommon to find other members that deal with mental illness. 

 

What certain set of norms, values, and interactional norms do they share?

Tumblr images’ aesthetics frequently romanticize or value self-harming things like cigarettes, pills, self-harm, skinniness, depression, etc. The site also normalizes self-degrading, self-hating, and self-pitying rhetoric, as explained by Dr. Reinicke (Bine 2013) in the Background tab.  These norms are not all negative, though, as Tumblr also normalizes and values openness in discussing stigmatized issues from BDSM to anorexia to “nerdy” TV shows/entertainment. Additionally, interactional norms play off the online disinhibition effect, normalizing randomly reaching out to other users, forming groups and talking regularly with people they’ve never met, and establishing a certainly high level of trust.

 

Media

romanticization of mental illness | savannah brownCriticism of the normalization and romanticization of mental illness by a popular YouTube personality.

Meet The Girl Behind One Of Tumblr’s Biggest Self-Harm Blogs by Justine Sharrock — An interview with depression-and-disorders, containing very graphic imagery and examples of the posts from her blog.

Examples of different tagged collections of Tumblr posts: Trigger warning: All of these include graphic content of their theme which can be very very triggering, please only look through these pages if you feel comfortable. Tumblr has a PSA about the triggering aspect of all of these pages (thankfully) — if you still wish to view them, you may press “View search results” at the bottom.

https://www.tumblr.com/search/depression

https://www.tumblr.com/search/suicide

https://www.tumblr.com/search/thinspo

https://www.tumblr.com/search/proana

https://www.tumblr.com/search/cutting

https://www.tumblr.com/search/selfharm

Notable Scholarship

Adler, Patricia A. and Peter Adler. 2008. “The Cyber Worlds of Self-Injurers: Deviant Communities, Relationships, and Selves.” Symbolic Interaction 31(1): 33-56.

De Choudhury, Munmun. 2015. “Anorexia on Tumblr: A Characterization Study,” Presented at DH’15: 5th ACM Digital Health Conference, May 18–20, 2015, Florence, Italy. Retrieved October 1 (https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=2750511.2750515).

Franzen, Anna Gradin and Lucas Gottzén. 2011. “The beauty of blood? Self-injury and ambivalence in an Internet community.” Journal of Youth Studies, 14(3): 279-294. 

Seko, Yukari and Stephen P. Lewis. 2016. The self—harmed, visualized, and reblogged: Remaking of self-injury narratives on Tumblr,” New Media & Society. July 28, 2016. 10.1177/1461444816660783.