As my once-beloved Twitterverse crumbles around me—even the name “Twitter” lopped down to “er” before finishing its metamorphosis into the nondescript X—the push to new platforms continues. Personally, I’ve joined the throngs of users seeking a new social media home. While Meta’s Threads left me confused, no one I know has yet to migrate to Mastodon, and when it comes to Bluesky, well … I’m still waiting to be let in.
Through the shifting social media landscape, I’ve found the renewed interest in older platforms—platforms that I’d relegated to my own digital past—to be strangely comforting. I’m not the only one. Writing for Yahoo! Finance, for instance, journalist Samantha Delouya observed that there’s a correlation between Musk’s Twitter takeover and user growth for the microblogging service Tumblr. Erin Griffith noted similar trends for the photo and video-sharing platform Snapchat in an article for the New York Times.
The really interesting thing about this growth is that it’s largely a result of young users joining these platforms even while older ones are aging out and moving on. According to a Pew Research Center study, 59 percent of teens commonly use Snapchat. Tumblr reported similar numbers, stating that 48 percent of its currently active users are Gen Z.
Why, as so many platforms reach for larger and larger audiences, do these apps continue to attract the same window of users—resisting the move to age up with their user base? Queer theory offers one answer, as it seems that some social media sites grow up while others grow sideways.
“Growing sideways” is a term that Kathryn Bond Stockton, a scholar of gender and sexuality, coined in her 2009 book The Queer Child. According to her, the societal pressure to regard children as innocent forces them to “grow sideways as well as up.” We tend to recognize a child’s agency and their ability to advance to adulthood only when adults deem it appropriate. In other words, a child is expected to hit a series of societally constructed markers before they progress upward toward adulthood, but many of these markers are steeped in heteronormativity—marriage, reproduction, a loss of childishness. Growing sideways, then, acknowledges how queer folks are kept from growing at our own pace and in our own way, but the act of growing sideways can also be a subversive one. As Xtra contributor Avneet Sharma writes, “it’s queer to go against the grain of growing up.”
A return to social media apps like Snapchat and Tumblr might be seen as a type of growing sideways in multiple ways. For older users, it represents a kind of arrested development (a refusal to jump ship or move on to new platforms). Meanwhile, for new, younger users, these apps—rather than aging up with their user base—grow sideways with and through them.
Still, what is it about these sites that continues to attract young users? Perhaps it’s that while so many sites attempt to find us out through engagement algorithms that erase the user’s privacy and agency, alternatives like Snapchat and Tumblr still afford a sense of anonymity, discovery and play. A group of Gen Z Snapchat users told the L.A. Times, for instance, that the app feels “unfiltered,” “authentic” and “honest” in a broader digital environment where such descriptors often seem rare. “I don’t think it really matters how many friends you have on Snapchat,” said one interviewee. “There’s no way to publicly tell.” This aspect can certainly appeal to social media users who have grown tired of seeing metrics like follower counts and likes as they navigate alternative platforms, but there are other ways in which Snapchat’s anonymity can benefit its users. The fact that messages disappear shortly after they’re viewed, for example, is a welcome reprieve for anyone who fears an over-the-shoulder glance from overly curious parents.
Tumblr, too, offers users a means to disappear back into a nostalgic version of the web. As Elaine Moore observes in an article published in the Financial Times, Tumblr users “tend not to show themselves.” Certainly, they can present a side—or even multiple sides—of their personality on the site, but the expectation is different than with other sites. On Instagram, we find selfies. LinkedIn plugs our professional headshots. But on Tumblr, Moore writes, “Creators tend not to show themselves, meaning the focus is less on appearance.”
This isn’t to say that these platforms aren’t without their flaws. Snapchat and Tumblr, like their contemporaries, continue to raise ethical concerns. While they might offer a nostalgic return to a simpler version of the internet, both sites remain invested in questionable data collection practices. The Common Sense Privacy Program, a non-profit organization that reviews the trustworthiness of various digital platforms, flagged both sites as potentially dangerous. Snapchat, they warn, lacks transparency around what information they’re collecting from their users while Tumblr, with its own rocky history of censorship and user dissatisfaction, receives an even lower rating on their privacy evaluation.
Still, despite their flaws, the things that appealed to the original users of these platforms tend to be the same things that appeal to users today. Back in 2011, Tumblr’s founder and former CEO David Karp told Inc. Magazine, “The drive to innovate can overencumber and destroy a product. My goal is to keep Tumblr very focused.” Through this claim, Karp set Tumblr directly in contrast with Twitter and Facebook, which, he observed, had grown too complex, attempting to accomplish too much. While Tumblr’s sideways growth meant that Karp removed a feature for each feature he added to the site (something that his contemporaries weren’t doing), this isn’t quite the same thing as what Stockton was thinking about when describing queer childhood.
For queer folks, growing sideways is rarely a means of simply separating oneself from the pack; it’s often the only way to exist. Historically, Western society has resisted any recognition of the lesbian child, the bi child, the trans child and so on. The so-called “blank slate” becomes a straight, cis slate as well.
It’s for this reason that queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote in her pivotal 1991 essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” “It’s always open season on gay kids.” Just look to the sweep of recently proposed legislation targeting drag shows and books with LGBTQ2S+ themes. In the name of “protecting” the child, conservative rhetoric not only forgets to protect the rights of the queer child, it erases this demographic and their experiences altogether.
Acknowledging sideways growth is one means of making these kids—and perhaps our own past experiences—visible. But it might also be a call to better serve queer youth for the apps that are growing sideways alongside them.