A Space for Dark Academia: Where Tumblr Has Faltered, Instagram Excels

Curator's Note

     In 2015, Tumblr saw a surge in interest in the dark academia (DA) aesthetic, which celebrates intellect, liberal education, star-crossed love, and all things secret or mysterious.1

     Its popularity carried over to other platforms and outlets, but none caught on quite as feverishly as Instagram. Instagram has successfully created a space for DA in ways that Tumblr attempted to but could not sustain. It seems there are many instances in which DA Instagram content is actually derived from Tumblr content that has been mildly enhanced with a background representing some of the popular color palettes, subjects, and tones of the aesthetic (see slides for examples). To what can we attribute Instagram’s triumph over Tumblr? 

     I argue that this phenomenon is the result of two major distinctions between the platforms. First, Instagram (IG) has a greater focus on—and functionality that suits—visual content, which is inherently critical for the communication of an aesthetic. Though Tumblr can and does technically support visual material, it still retains a lot of its original blog-type content consisting of written posts accompanied by hashtags; even when those text posts are republished on Instagram, IG feeds are often interspersed with DA aesthetic pictures to give the eye a break from text-heavy content. Second, Tumblr’s struggle with declining usership as a result of its 2018 ban on NSFW content2 and other algorithmic failures have made it difficult for its remaining users to keep up with current trends. For some, the NSFW ban sparked protests3 against the censorship that ultimately resulted in a "digital exodus”4 from the platform, including DA content creators whose aesthetic pictures of Renaissance sculptures or artistic renderings of even mildly erotic or sensual scenes were being flagged.

     Understanding these platform distinctions and other nuances that have made the DA aesthetic community on Instagram a thriving one (as compared to DA Tumblr spaces) is a part of understanding the appeal of social media aesthetics at large and how they flow over into other platforms like TikTok or not. It will be interesting to see where dark academia finds its next home.


1. Zirngast, L. (2021, June 17). Everything you need to know about the “Dark Academia Aesthetic” trend. L’Officiel. https://www.lofficiel.at/en/pop-culture/dark-academia-aesthetic

2. Cuthbertson, A. (2019, March 11). Tumblr porn ban: One-fifth of users have deserted site since it removed adult content. The Independenthttps://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/tumblr-po...

3. Sybert, J. (2021). The demise of #NSFW: Contested platform governance and Tumblr’s 2018 adult content ban. New Media & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444821996715

4. Edwards, J. & Boellstorff, T. (2021). Migration, non-use, and the ‘Tumblrpocalypse’: Towards a unified theory of digital exodus. Media, Culture & Society, 43(3), 582-592. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443720968461

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