It’s true! It was me, me, a teenage outcast, an underqualified linguistics research assistant, a student journalist. I was up in the very early hours and thought it might be a good idea. Now it’s becoming a phenomenon. We had around four million pageviews in January 2021, according to this Atlantic article about us, which I also only found out about today. I checked my email a few hours ago and found an information request from American Vogue, which I managed to totally overlook for nearly two weeks.
The truth is, I can go for months without ever organically thinking about the website, which has morphed from something full of slightly ironic familiarity into something completely foreign to me. I spent New Year’s Eve on Tumblr in 2013 and 2014, and lived my life on the site up until 2020; I saw Cottagecore and Lovecore and Dark Academia and Pastel Grunge erupt in real time. I even participated in that really strange and totally memory-holed ‘gypsy’ aesthetic where people went on Polyvore and cut typographic letters out of photos of oil spills. At 19, I’m obsessed with being behind the times and feel far too old for any of this; I get my aesthetic fix from old Italian and Czech films, currently refuse to use any social media or watch movies made after 1979, and have disabled my YouTube recommendations so the only ‘new’ material I see is Nina Hagen archival footage. I feel more technologically skilled than the users of the Aesthetics Wiki (while they are stuck in an algorithmic Tik Tok cycle, I often provide my classmates with textbook downloads and have employed MI5-level tactics to successfully locate my crush’s LiveJournal from 2006) but have literally no idea what any of them are on about, ever. Perhaps this is the real generational gap.
My hero from the age of 11 onwards was Tavi Gevinson, the child-prodigy blogger and editor of Rookie magazine. It was at her beckoning that I listened to my first Hole album, read and watched The Virgin Suicides, and learnt to make moodboards, to identify some visual element from some bygone period that I liked and stick with it. My pre-adolescence was built of homemade shrines, suburban impalement fantasies and Courtney Love’s screams. It was sensational – I had so much fun! I suppose I could have been considered precocious, except I spent too much time writing out Lana Del Rey lyrics and making my own zines to actually concentrate or do well at school. The Aesthetics Wiki was an attempt to stick to the Gevinson tradition, to identify things I saw every day and turn them into something coherent and special.
I am sad to say that many of the articles today do not go along with this scheme whatsoever. Some are ramblings from twelve-year-olds who have been allowed to spend too much time online; some are by older people who should know better. Instead of categorising things that already exist, our website is full of imaginary figments. It also exists as a fashion advice repository, because our users love to define themselves by what they buy. Thousands flock to our forum and comment section, listing totally irrelevant information in a bid to discover what ‘their aesthetic’ is. Gone are the days of free exploration or experimentation, or even very basic cultural context!
The aesthetic subcultures of Tumblr have been politicised by people with a five-year-old’s understanding of politics. Cottagecore is for Nazis, they shout, unaware that rural living has been romanticised for millennia by everyone from Tibullus to Mao to the second-wave feminists. No, it’s very special to lesbians, others reply, having no concept of what a lesbian actually is beyond someone who is annoying on Tik Tok. Lesbians are very protective of their aesthetic, they say, as if we are all Tumblr users who are under sixteen years old (for the record, I am a lesbian who exists in the cultural sphere of Old Hollywood actresses and fin de siècle painters; I have never felt any desire to work on a farm and I can’t listen to Girl in Red, their gold standard of cultural lesbianism, without wanting to vomit). Young people are probably about to go into debt because of Dark Academia: they like the idea of studying and being eccentric more than they are actually willing to devote themselves to academic interests or develop any real eccentricities. In a few decades, our university professors will know practically nothing, but will at least dress well and have some suitable music playing in the background.
I have created a monster – a database for people who want to be exactly the same. Tumblr aesthetics barely provide visual pleasure anymore; they are merely a way to categorise yourself in relation to others. Teenagers on the site who want to pick one and stick to it should stop being so silly. Watch films from periods that aren’t your own! Read books! Learn about art history! Be original for once! This would never have happened back in my day.