Date

2017

Department or Program

Sociology

Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Markella Rutherford

Abstract

In its early stages, the Internet was viewed as an open forum for sharing and learning. Now, with a few dominant social media sites mediating most web access and the popular conception of these sites as polarizing filter bubbles, the promise of the open web appears to have been compromised. However, users of the microblogging website Tumblr do not experience this effect, instead encountering new ideas and topics alongside the content with which they intend to engage. Through a survey of over 250 Tumblr users, computational analysis of blogs, and interviews with users, my thesis seeks to uncover why Tumblr has become fertile ground for exposure to new content, expanding users’ information networks rather than reinforcing their preconceptions. I identify the key technical features of the site and social norms that work in combination to create this effect. The technical affordances include Tumblr’s disconnect from users’ offline networks, the site’s less socially focused user experience, reblogs and tags, and the customizability and control given to blog owners. The social understandings that have developed within these affordances include perceived anonymity, low-risk participation, and self-centered blogging. Within the limitations and allowances imposed by these technical constraints and social rules, many users curate personal blogs where they post a diversity of content that reflects their own interests and thoughts. Because of the unsorted nature of the Tumblr dashboard, users that follow personal blogs will encounter all of the content posted on those blogs, and in this way, be exposed to topics and ideas they were not looking for originally.

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