Tumblr and Economy of Privilege

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Tumblr has a sizable community that treats the concept of privilege as a currency to be bartered. This economy colors a huge number of interactions Tumblr users have, and, as such, it's critical to document this phenomenon for the sake of those not familiar.

Overview

The overpowering majority of Tumblr's userbase is in their late teens to mid twenties. As such, there's a huge number of users who are just getting the grasp of socializing outside of a school setting. They enter the waters of the social networking maelstrom that is Tumblr, and looking around, it's not hard to see that there's a prevailing dynamic on Tumblr where everything is measured.

Readers familiar with video games might recognize this dynamic immediately, as status on Tumblr essentially works as an inverted version of a health meter. This particular meter represents the one currency a huge number of Tumblr users leverage on a daily basis, and a user specifically gains social recognition from other Tumblr users the closer this meter is to zero.

What this meter represents is the concept of privilege.

This concept of privilege can be privilege in absolutely anything: race, religion, gender, sexuality, place of birth, favorite board game, and even age. To people not familiar with Tumblr or the privilege economy thereof, this dichotomy might be easily dismissed as being exceptionally pretentious and one-dimensional, since people genuinely cannot be categorized in such a fashion. For Tumblr users who espouse this ethos, however, everything is much simpler - everything is good or bad, right or wrong, and the only time they'll even acknowledge that more than two sides exist on something is when they have to justify this viewpoint's legitimacy.

To individuals who live in a complex world (as young adults are want to find themselves in), this mindset is very appealing. It simplifies things dramatically in their eyes, and is highly comforting for them as a result. It also makes it very easy to make one feel morally superior, since this mindset tends to establish clear guidelines for what is and is not good.

Analysis

For our example, User A feels dejected and unsatisfied with life, and wants to fit in. User A joins Tumblr, and sees User B discuss say.... Classism (as in, discussion of social strata), and sees that, because User B is from a lower strata, gets to feel "special", gets moral support from others, and is allowed to demonize her opponents for being monstrous, purely because she comes from a lower social class. It's entirely possible for someone, justified by this mindset, to use it to be exceptionally callous and get away with it, but for the sake of this example, we will ignore such conjecture.

Suffice to say, User A wants acceptance, as most teenagers are, again, want to possess. So to do so, User A looks at the many ways that they can prove to be "disadvantaged" - in the world of the Tumblr users who leverage the privilege economy, straight people are more privileged (and thus lower in status on Tumblr) than gays, whites more privileged than non-whites, people born their correct gender more privileged than those who aren't, people without psychiatric problems more privileged than those with, and people who aren't disabled more privileged than those who are. One may quickly note that virtually none of these circumstances are things that someone can control, but the economy of privilege cares not for such facts.

Analysis on User A, in this circumstance, reveals a critical flaw in User A for the purposes of Tumblr's privilege economy: User A already fails most, if not all, of Tumblr's most notable qualifiers out the gate. User A is male, straight, completely comfortable in their birth gender, and is not disabled. As such, User A is considered privileged. An individual who is privileged on Tumblr is considered not sufficiently oppressed by proponents of the Tumblr privilege economy and are thus automatically wrong in all things and must forever be shunned.

User A can, however, do something about this. They want to achieve acceptance, and they are willing to take steps to ensure they have it. And since this is the internet, it's safe to say that one can lie. And so, in this particular case, User A does. A lot. User A can claim online that he is a race or gender he isn't, or, indeed, one that does not exist. User A can even claim to be a species he isn't. He can self-diagnose himself with medical or especially mental health conditions, claim to have multiple personalities, claim to be disabled, or claim to be gay or transgendered. The sky is the limit, and because Tumblr's economy of privilege ensures one is higher in status the lower their status, only those who push beyond the normal boundaries - and into the realm of outright parodic - can reach the highest echelons of social status.

User A can now claim that he is a genderless alien puppy from Mars, or something equally ridiculous.

Welcome to Tumblr.

Further Analysis

It actually manages to get even more bizarre. There are actually layers to Tumblr's economy of privilege, which make this subject even more complicated than it already is. A user, for example, who claims to be asexual will be considered more disadvantaged than one who is sexually-active, but less than one who is apparently aromantic. Indeed, even whether or not someone's various issues are medically recognized is part of Tumblr's disadvantage economy - someone who self-diagnoses is more disadvanted than someone who has a legitimate medical diagnosis. Thusly, a transgendered person with honest-to-god medically-recognized Gender Dysphoria has more privilege than a self-diagnosed person claiming to be transgendered whilst exhibiting no transgender traits whatsoever. Those with actual Gender Dysphoria are quick to point out that this means that there is a vested interest in claiming transgenderism falsely and/or to be trendy; for this, they are labelled "Truscum" by the community who wishes to exploit them for lack-of-privilege purposes.

Any reasoned analysis quickly shows this to make no sense, but to those who espouse this mindset on Tumblr, such is the way to power. And because the concept of lack of privilege makes one more powerful socially on Tumblr, this directly incentivizes people making up the most patently ridiculous things one can imagine, specifically because it gives them the highest possible amount of acceptance from other users who buy into this mindset. It's important to note, however, that claiming to be disadvantaged on Tumblr is a double-edged sword - for if a user fails to toe the line, is proven to be faking a condition, or so on, they will alienate their current followers, who will likely attack them directly in response.

This bizarre mindset also functions as a defensive mechanism. A Tumblr user buying into the concept of the disadvantage economy is likely to have made up dozens of conditions and issues about themselves, which function as convenient shields to duck behind when avoiding criticism. Suddenly, you can't criticize a Tumblr user buying into the disadvantage economy - they're oh-so-oppressed and you are not, what with being a gay transgendered black acrobat with multiple headmates, so they win arguments by default and you need to check your privilege.

The commonality of people either outright making things up to gain acceptance on Tumblr and leveraging their lack of privilege as a weapon has become so outright ridiculous that there are now hundreds of parodies outright making fun of the practice.[1]

References

  1. ShoeOnHead - Oppression Olympics.mp4