To understand this post you need to look at this other post I just reblogged. So open that in a new tab.
That post is a nested reblog thread. One of the things people really hate about Tumblr is nested reblog threads – they are ugly and clunky and hard to read. What could possibly be good about them?
They are also a form that Tumblr has perfected, and done so in a way unique to the platform. So they’re a brilliant example of social media form generating social media content.
Look at that thread about the keycode. It has multiple authors reblogging and adding to a single post, but it forms a coherent narrative (correction, correction to the correction, then extended theorising on top of the correction, a reaction post, then a punchline post, then an applause post.)
That’s cool, but it’s nothing new in itself – you see funny Facebook threads, messageboard zingers, etc. But Tumblr is particularly good at making these nested threads which work as narratives and as jokes across a bunch of authors. You see them a lot, and now the site’s been running a while, you often see the same post return with new additions. How? The clue is in the notes – almost 400,000 – and in how content works on Tumblr.
On Tumblr, when you reblog something it becomes a post on your own Tumblr – a separate piece of content, either identical to the original or with your own additions. Anyone who follows you can then reblog your post. By default they keep your additions.
This is the key point – nobody else does that. Facebook shares don’t do that. Retweets don’t do that. The Tumblr reblog is a subtly unique mode of sharing because it gives secondary contributions equal weight. It removes control of a post from its poster, and turns it into a pass-the-parcel game. (This is one of the reasons why fandoms and Tumblr go so well together).
Secondary contributions can branch off, though. A post like the keycode one, with 400,000 notes, will have gone through a vast number of reblogs. I can’t go back and check, but I would hypothesise that there will be a lot of different versions on the way to the one I reblogged. There will be versions that fizzle out, and versions where the arguments keep going rather than being elegantly built on. Most intriguingly, there will be versions close to the one I blogged but where the applause post comes to soon or some other vital piece goes missing.
In other words, what’s happening is an evolutionary process. A piece of content mutates, and the best versions of it survive and spread, until ultimately you get something which is so well paced it feels like it was scripted. When that finds its way to you, you tend not to think about all the builds and iterations that brought it to you – it feels seamless, just part of the way Tumblr is. “What You See Is All There Is”, as Daniel Kahneman puts it. You don’t notice the process that created the post.
But really this is incredible. In research terms, what these nested reblogs are doing is a combination of co-creation (multiple authors), optimisation (gradual refinement) and A/B testing (parallel versions exposed to different groups in the wild). If this was a testing tool from a research company it would be amazing.
But it’s not, and it’s not something mandated by Tumblr or (I’m betting) consciously built in. It’s an emergent property of the platform and how its dashboards work, that happens freely and uncontrollably. That is just fantastic. Sometimes I bloody love social media.
(There is a downside, of course – emergent optimisation is value-neutral. This has two consequences. Posts are being optimised only for popularity, not for accuracy. This becomes a real problem in factual threads, where corrections and debunkings may not be the things which ‘succeed’. The other issue is that emergent optimisation treats filter bubbles like ecosystems. The same post about, say, Lena Dunham, might circulate independently in pro-Girls and anti-Girls circles, adapting to fit each of them. That isn’t really a ‘problem’, though.)