October 21, 2014

Power Tumbl’ng: Why Tumblr Is a Great Way to Reach Teen Patrons

From

Illustration by Regan Dunnick

In his video “Tumblr: The Musical,” Youtube celebrity Hank Green mocks how Tumblr aficionados get lost in a loop of scrolling, liking, and reblogging to the point of neglecting everything else in their lives, including sleep. The addictive Tumblr scroll has indeed become the preferred Internet rabbit hole, as Green, brother of the author John Green, hilariously shows.

Should libraries and librarians use Tumblr? Is it wise to wade into this alluring sea of wacky photos, pop-culture commentary, and gifs—snippets of moving images—in order to virtually chat about best book lists, library events, title recommendations, and our favorite quotes?

Yes, and here’s why. The key to a useful social network is to strategically use communication tools, understand each network’s reach, and guarantee ease of use for all involved. Tumblr can be a successful way to connect to new and diverse audiences, provided you understand who you’ll be attracting to your site and how to use Tumblr to your advantage.

Why Tumblr works

In my job as a teen librarian, I’ve been running social networks since 2006. As anyone using social media knows, it’s vital to meet your patrons where they are, rather than try to get them to visit a new, unknown site. My colleagues in the reference section maintain lively accounts representing the library as a whole on both Facebook and Twitter. But the Twitter account I maintained for my teens fell dormant, since none of them seemed to be using that platform. So I decided to concentrate my efforts on where I thought my teens were: Facebook.

In the past year, though, it became clear that my teens were no longer on Facebook—or if they were, they weren’t using it to connect with the library. During that time, I searched for ways to invigorate the teen section of our library’s website—to post more content daily and engage more readers. I sought a streamlined, visually exciting site. But the traditional blogging options were hampered by clunky interfaces and an outdated look; I knew that the posts weren’t reaching many patrons, let alone teens.

Enter Tumblr. I had been using a personal Tumblr account for a few months and found its mix of art, photos, gifs, quotes, and videos to be far more engaging than my library’s traditional text-dominated website. Hank Green was on to something.

Tumblr’s interface is easy to use, and each post looks professional the instant it uploads. There’s no need to know code, wrangle with images, or get complicated with fonts. The site can easily take the place of a traditional website or blog.

Depending on the theme you choose for your Tumblr, you can include static information—like phone numbers or hours of operation—in a sidebar, while keeping the main part of your page fresh and visually exciting with an ever-changing stream of posts. Updating is incredibly easy, and you can save drafts and schedule posts to appear at future dates and times—useful for event reminders and time-sensitive content.

As with Twitter, your goals while using Tumblr are to engage with your public and gather followers. The more you post, the more users will find you through your content, especially by searching your tags. As on Facebook, people can “like” your posts. They can also reblog them on their own Tumblrs—similar to retweeting on Twitter or sharing on Facebook. Liking and reblogging are how your Tumblr audience shows its appreciation and where they may add their own notes. While the flow of information is mostly one-way, you can track your followers as well as the number of times an individual post has been liked and reblogged to gauge your impact.

Most important for youth librarians, though, is that young people are active on Tumblr. When I checked with my teens, many said they were Tumblr users and were excited by the idea of connecting to the library this way. That’s why I made the leap to Tumblr for our teen site.

Eight tips for successful tumbling

If you’re considering starting a Tumblr, either as a supplement to your established Web presence or as a replacement for a blog, it’s important to think through your needs and those of your patrons before making the switch. Below, some pointers.

1. Think visually. The most popular Tumblr posts tend to be images, photos, or gifs. In the past, there was no easy way to quote a TV show, film, or video game without posting a video. But with Tumblr’s magic combination of gifs and blogging, media quotes are now everywhere. Take advantage of this. If you’re recommending books, don’t just post a list: Include images of all of the covers. Promoting an event? “Tumbl” your poster and a selection of photos.

2. Tag your posts. Tagging is incredibly important on Tumblr because searching tags is how users discover content and people to follow. Remember, though, that only the first five tags on any post are searchable, so choose your tags wisely. After those five, people use tags to add commentary to their posts in the same way that savvy Twitter users deploy hashtags as asides or jokes. So these additional tags can be humorous reading.

3. Be professional but playful. Be mindful of what you post. It should be in keeping with what you would highlight on any part of your library website. At the same time, be aware that your Tumblr should be fun to follow. Share favorite quotes; topical, pop culture images; and favorite artists.

4. And…be mindful of mature language. One of the truths of Tumblr is that there is no oversight regarding mature content or language. When you first sign up, your Tumblr will be automatically set in safe mode, meaning that you will not see any content deemed “not safe for work” (NSFW) on your dashboard. The Tumblr community counts on users to flag their own blogs and posts as NSFW in order to keep safe mode working properly. There’s definitely 18+ material out there, and you won’t necessarily be forewarned by tagging or a user’s customary posting habits. Many Tumblr names are variations on the appreciative phrase f**kyeah___ (example: “f**kyeahbooks”). While you may be inclined to like or reblog those items, you should consider the profanity in the source site before doing so.

5. Schedule your posts. It’s especially enjoyable to schedule themed posts, perhaps once a week, that highlight a particular topic or service. For example, the New York Public Library celebrates “Caturday” every week on their Tumblr by posting cat-related images and items from their collections. School Library Journal runs a regular feature, “Where I Work?” with photos, sharing a glimpse or two of authors’ writing spaces. Who doesn’t want to see where their favorite novels are created?

6. Check your sources. A lot of unsourced images gets passed around Tumblr, especially when it comes to art and photography. If you’re not certain of a work’s provenance, use Google’s image source search by clicking on the camera icon that allows you to search via an image URL and see if you can locate the source reliably. Artists and image makers will thank you, and you’ll set a strong example of giving creators credit for their work.

7. Remember, it’s (basically) one-way. Tumblr is not the place to gather comments, start discussions, or debate favorite books. People can send in questions, or “asks,” through the Tumblr interface. You can also pose a question and invite your followers to answer it. That’s about it for the platform’s capacity for discussion.

Tumblr is built to be used through its dashboard, the main control panel where you scroll through posts and investigate whatever keyword searches you like. On your dashboard, there’s no easy way to comment. You can reblog a post and add a comment, but replying gets increasingly cumbersome. Unless Tumblr revamps its question system, at this point you’ll be announcing or sharing information, but only occasionally responding to a question.

8. Make it easy and fun to maintain. Check in daily and take advantage of Tumblr’s tools. Use the J, K, and L keys to navigate your dashboard quickly. Hitting the L key “likes” a post, and typing shift+R (on a PC) reblogs that post instantly. Remember the current limits: You can send 10 “asks” an hour and “friend” up to 250 people per day. For more Tumblr tricks and tips, check out this helpful list over at the Daily Dot: http://ow.ly/nVTvc.

Checking in on my Tumblr account has become the most relaxing and enjoyable part of my daily routine, keeping me abreast of new books, targeted book lists, library news, and the grand world of art and images from various media. One of my teens recently proclaimed how much she enjoyed my Tumblr—a gratifying signal that I’m heading in the right direction. As long as that enjoyment continues, and my own messages are getting out, I’ll keep on tumbling.

A few of my favorite Tumblrs:

General Tumblrs 

Book Riot
LIFE
National Public Radio
The New York Times’s The Lively Morgue 
PBS’s This Day in History
WYNC’s Radiolab

Library Tumblrs

Public Library of Brookline (MA) Teen Services (my Tumblr)
Cape May County (NJ) Library Teen Zone
Grand Rapids (MI) Public Library Tumblr for Teens
Library Advocates
Library Journal
The Lifeguard Librarian
Librarian Wardrobe
New York Public Library
School Library Journal
Teenlandia: Lewis & Clark (Helena, MT) Library Teen Services Department

Tumblarians list from

The Lifeguard Librarian
Young Adults and Teens at Oak Lawn (IL) Public Library

Teen Lit Tumblrs

Public Library of Brookline teen title recommendations (mine again)
Diversity in YA
The YA Cover
YA! Flash
YA Highway

Teen Authors who Tumble

Cassandra Clare
John Green
Shannon Hale
Karen Healey
Malinda Lo
Maureen Johnson
Rainbow Rowell

Brenner-RobinRobin Brenner is the reference and teen librarian at the Public Library of Brookline (MA). She is also the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights and know all too well the allure of the late-night Tumblr scroll.

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Comments

  1. Linda Mitchell says:

    Sadly, my husband and I are having a nightmare experience with the negative side of Tumblr and our teen daughter. Yes, it can be a GREAT tool. However, some teens can get drawn into the negatives–which are more than “simply negative”. Tumblr asks that those who join be 17 because of mature content. Just because younger teens lie about their age doesn’t mean I’m ready to endorse that by communicating with younger teens on a site that they shouldn’t be on.

    • Actually, according to Tumblr’s TOS, you have to be 13 or older to join, not 17. It’s just like Facebook that way.

      “No individual under the age of thirteen (13) may use the Services or provide any information to Tumblr or otherwise through the Services (including, for example, a name, address, telephone number, or email address). You otherwise may only use the Services if you can form a binding contract with Tumblr and are not legally prohibited from using the Services. ”

      Source: http://www.tumblr.com/policy/en/terms_of_service

    • Robin Brenner says:

      Linda,

      I certainly understand your concerns, and it sounds like you’re struggling with the negative side of the internet in general. As with any of these tools, online life can be a double-edged sword and complicated for any user to navigate.

      As Lari said, you have to be 13 or older to join tumblr, not 17. Thus, teens are welcome to join once they hit 13, and I certainly have found a robust community of teens posting and enjoying tumblr without running afoul of any major content concerns.

      Just like any other platform on the internet, there is inappropriate content for my library work, and I do my utmost to set an example as a responsible user of tumblr. I hold with the idea that I can at least be the model of what I hope to see, and promote those users who also set that example.

  2. Hi Robin – how did you first market your Tumblr to your teens? It’s nice to get worldwide interest, of course, but our own communities are our first priority. Do you have any recommendations there? Particularly for libraries where our teen population is still budding?

    • Robin Brenner says:

      Hello Liz!

      I asked our teens about their presence on tumblr and discovered a few of them were already there. When I asked if they’d like to connect to the library that way, they gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. I advertised it since then as the main site for all teen contact — it’s listed on bookmarks, flyers, and is the site which you will be brought to when you click on the teen section of our library’s website.

      I can’t know for sure how many of my followers are teens — but then again, I also have the tumblr set up as the main Teen part of the website, so you don’t have to be on tumblr to see the content or its connections to the library. It’s hard to say which accounts are my local teens unless they declare it in their profiles. That being said, I certainly hear at programs and in speaking to the teens that they follow me on tumblr and that they hear about events via tumblr.

      You’re very correct that our own communities are our first priority, so I might poll those teens you do see, or can get in touch with, to see which virtual platform they would prefer to hear from you. It may be tumblr, but it also may still be Facebook, or it may be via text on phones, or Twitter. No one platform will fit for every community.

  3. Linda Mitchell says:

    I stand corrected. Tumbr’s service agreement can be found here. http://www.tumblr.com/policy/en/terms_of_service
    Still, after my experiences as a parent, I will not work with teens & tumblr until I’m more than comfortable. I am not yet. I do have a Tumlr page that I am learning on “This intrepid mom”. I will use this article as a resource to learn more. Who knows, maybe I’ll become comfortable enough to work with teens. When that day arrives, I’ll be sure to write in ;)

  4. Linda Mitchell says:

    I knew I wasn’t crazy about the 17 y.o. age idea….see this article about how ipod considers Tumblr content for 17+.
    http://www.preternaturalpost.com/2013/vine-tumblr-apps-get-mobile-17-rating/

    Very happy to see discussion about this….can you tell :)

  5. Linda Mitchell says:

    Last comment I promise! Please see this article in 9/11/13 Washington Post that relates to content on Tumblr. Tumblr is very aware that they have a mess on their hands.

    I am not anti-tumlr. As I said, I have a page. I want all of us to have eyes wide open in the best interest of kids.

    Self-harm blogs pose problems and opportunities (Posted 2013-09-11 13:50:12)

    Dewey, Caitlin. The Washington Post [Washington, D.C] 11 Sep 2013.

  6. linda is right.
    safelibraries.org

  7. Robin–one small quibble–I think tumblr actually is evolving into a place for extended book discussion, even though it’s not well-designed for that purpose. For example, their new Reblog Book Club has had a number of fascinating exchanges about Rainbow Rowell’s new book, FANGIRL, which I have been following avidly. Here’s an example: http://thecommonlibrarian.tumblr.com/post/61526204960/reblog-book-club-thebooklands-today-im-now-a-little

    And I’ve also been interested to see libraries specifically posting to ask people to submit RA and reference questions, because that seems to work fairly well. So I think it’s possible to make it a little more two-way. But overall, I agree and love this article!

    • Robin Brenner says:

      Hello Stephanie!

      I did want to agree that the new Reblog Book Club has been a great test of discussion via tumblr, and I think has worked very well. I’ll be curious to see how it continues with different titles — Fangirl seemed like the perfect fit, as did Rainbow Rowell as an avid user of tumblr. I sincerely hope it keeps going, and that it keeps going strong.

      I also hope that as tumblr shifts its usability and features, it might well be come a less awkward place for discussion — I would love to see that aspect of discussion become better.

  8. @Linda Mitchell, while I understand your concern over the dark corners of tumblr, I think that it is vastly more beneficial for users like Robin to model constructive and positive use that to shy away from it. Tumblr is where a large percentage of teens spent a huge amount of time, regardless of if you personally feel that is good or bad. Not only are initiatives like this meeting patrons where they are comfortable, but they could potentially provide an alternative (socializing at a local teen event, access to information about counselling, etc) to negative coping mechanisms.

    The only additional recommendation I would add to this list is to make sure that you get a good feel for the tumblr culture before beginning to post (playing around on a personal account for a while first is a good start). Teens on tumblr are very protective of what they consider their space and are quick to ridicule those who flout the unwritten conventions. There are few “adults” who are as embraced on tumblr as the Green brothers, but they are proof that it can be done well and very effectively. And you won’t get far with a series of informational posts on library services – it’s essential to inject a healthy dose of your own personality into your online presence.

    • Hi Chelsea, perhaps you can help me here: how did you first market your Tumblr to your teens? I know copious tagging can get you followers from the worldwide Tumblr population, but how do you focus it on your own community? Particularly for libraries where our teen population is still budding?

  9. Hi, Liz. Unfortunately, I may have misrepresentated myself. I don’t actually run a library tumblr or do teen outreach (I’m in an academic library). I was merely speaking as a very active and interested user of the site. As for my not-terribly-informed opinion, I would say focus on promoting your tumblr via the library website, other social media platforms, and physical signage. Unfortunately (though its global nature is really part of its beauty), there is not a particularly good way to target a specific geographic area beyond perhaps tagging your town/city for the few curious individuals who might track that. Generally, I think tumblr is better suited for retaining and engaging teens who happen across your website, for example, than as an alternative point of discovery. Getting your blog or a post featured someplace that teens would see it (maybe a school website or newspaper?), perhaps getting some teens involved in writing posts, or hosting some kind of tumblr-themed coding how-to night (using the customization feature as an easy/fun sandbox), could possibly work as well. Best of luck!

    • No problem! I appreciate any feedback on marketing, it’s not always my forte. I love my personal tumblr, but haven’t convinced my superiors to try it yet, and I’m hoping if I can give them some good ideas/reasons for using it, we can add it!

  10. Robin Brenner says:

    I apologize for the lateness in my replies!

    To chime in on a few of the points after I replied to a few above:

    @Linda As I said above, and thanks to Chelsea for also jumping in on the discussion, I think the best way to combat the negative side is to be the positive side. Tumblr is a tool, like any other internet service, and as the WSJ articles states, they are working to do what they can to address important concerns like self-harm communities. Tumblr is just one of many platforms, and over the years companies have had to contend with just this kind of issue in their terms of service, from the behemoths like Youtube to Facebook to Livejournal, and I think it’s important to keep track of how each does deal with these concerns.

    I understand your worries — and that’s why I included the caution about tumblr’s current policy of not policing mature content. You may choose to not use tumblr for that reason. I have chosen to try to be a model where my teens are.

    @Liz I hope you saw my comment above, but I also agree with what Chelsea advises. Getting the word out to your local community through flyers and signs is a great start. Also, there may be more teens out there using tumblr than you know — we just had a Welcome to Night Vale party here at my library and had over 50 attendees, both teens and adults, and the majority of the attendees heard about it through tumblr or via word of mouth from tumblr users.

  11. Great overview — I’ve been trying to explain the benefits of Tumblr for about 6 months to other YA writers as I get more and more comfortable. By the time adults get on board, of course, teens will be somewhere else! they’re a crafty bunch.

    As for the self-harm related concerns, I think those communities can do more GOOD than HARM. I have a number of followers who struggle with mental health issues and self-harm behaviors (my novel deals with both), but the outreach amongst the self-harmers seems to be more about creating a dialogue than encouraging or celebrating the behavior.(There certainly is a level of fetishizing, and that’s why open communication between parents and teens is crucial; but there’s also the fact that some things can’t be talked about, though they can be written about. Some things can’t be addressed by friends/family even though online friends can.

    With Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr, the dividing line between mature content (mostly pornography) and so-called “safe” content will likely become more pronounced. Yahoo said as much when they bought the site. While I don’t think teenagers who want to see mature content will suddenly be prevented from seeing it, I think the best path for writers and librarians is, as Robin says, to create the positive. It’s not going to replace anything — teens will go to what they want or need in that moment.

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