The unofficial, beginner’s guide to tumblr

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Table Of Contents

Introduction

§1–What’s the deal with tumblr?

§2–Let’s make a tumblr!

§3–How do we use our tumblr?

§4–What do tumblrs look like?

§5–How to make our tumblr look fancy

§6–Why is the search feature so bad on tumblr?

§7–Tools for managing your tumblr

§8–Going forward with your tumblr

§9–Editing your tumblr’s theme

Introduction

By now you’ve heard of tumblr. The blog building website was sold to Yahoo for $1.1 billion, and is the number one social networking site for people under 25. Clearly it’s important, but it’s a bit mystifying. It’s less a blog than it is an anti-blog.

Do you want to try to understand it? Do you want to figure out how to use it so that you can build your own site on the service? If so, then this is the guide for you! We’ll try to unpack the sociology of tumblr and why it’s so popular. Along the way we’ll look at some famous tumblrs, and help you build your own!

Also, I’ll try to keep this consistent. tumblr spells their name with a lowercase ‘t’, so I will use a lowercase ‘t’ to spell their name throughout the manual.

1. What’s the deal with tumblr?

So, you’ve heard of tumblr, but aren’t sure what it is? Well, tumblr is one of the most popular websites in the US. It’s the top social networking site for people under the age of 25. For many of us, especially if you’re over 25, tumblr just doesn’t quite make sense. It’s bizarre.

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For however bizarre it is, it’s also extremely important. Or, at least, some people think it is. Yahoo bought the site for $1.1 Billion (almost the entire deal was in cash – they paid $1.1 Billion, in cash, for this blogging platform). So it’s clear that tumblr is a big deal, but man of us have found ourselves asking “Why?”

This manual will be divided into two parts, each of which will be woven throughout the manual. The bulk of the manual tries to discuss how to use tumblr and what it is. The second part tries to answer the question above: “Why?”. It’s not an easy question to answer, because tumblr is a very odd platform, and has a lot of quirks that make it unique and awesome.

2. Let’s make a tumblr!

For the most part, tumblr is extremely easy to use. Getting started is one of the easiest things you can do on the Internet. I’ll go through it step by step, but if you are finding it boring and obvious, you can skip ahead to the next bits. We won’t be offended.

Here’s the first thing you’ll see when you go to tumblr.com:

I’ve made a tumblr to help us get started. Now we’ll fill in the boxes:

Whoops, that username is already taken! So I had to pick a different one, and the site even gave me some helpful suggestions:

Next they’ll ask how old you are, and if you agree to the terms of service. You can read them here, but if you want to make a site you have to agree (as with most sites like this).

To start off with, the site wants you to follow some other tumblrs. Choose topics you like – I’ve just gone with the default ones and followed a few at random.

I suggest you take a bit of time to explore this page. It’s important to follow tumblrs that you want to hear from. The site will also ask you if you would like to find your friends on tumblr:

Finally, the site will ask you if you want to download the app for your phone/tablet:

Their app is pretty good, and works exactly like the website. If you want to download it, feel free to do so.

Now you should see this screen:

Congratulations! You now have your very own tumblr!

3. How do we use our tumblr?

Let’s start with that last screen.

This is called your dashboard, and is the home screen for tumblr. You’ll come here when you log in. It’s similar to Facebook’s timeline: you see the recent and popular posts from the blogs you follow. It’s kinda fun to scroll down it, and doing so will quickly become one of your online habits. It’s interesting to see what people are posting, and I frequently reblog things that I see there. (We’ll discuss that in a few moments.)

For now, let’s focus on the top bar:

Those are the various types of posts you can make. tumblr is really big into personalization. They will push you to express yourself and personalize your blog. You’ll see notes, like the one above about the theme garden, until you design your blog yourself. Don’t worry: we’ll talk about how to do that soon.

Clicking on the boxes will bring up whichever kind of post you want to make. Here’s the one for text posts:

Picture posts:

Video posts:

Audio posts:

I’ll be honest, in my own tumblrs, I have never used an audio post. I have only rarely made a video post, opting for gifs instead. But all these different types of posts are here for you, if you want to use them.

These first types of posts are quite obvious in their uses. The rest of them are a bit harder to determine how to use. Quotes are shown in a slightly larger font size, and attribute it to a source:

Chats show a conversation between people. It can be you, it can be random people on the street, it can be Anderson Cooper and a guest.

These options make posting fun and interesting. You have automatic styles that you can choose for the occasion.

Finally, there is the simple link post.

The link post will not make a summary of the link for you, the way you might expect if you use Facebook regularly. Instead, you have to make your own.

Let’s try posting a picture, to explore a few of the options we have open to us.

For some reason we’re going to choose this picture of William Howard Taft, America’s fattest president. We can either drag it there from a folder on our desktop, or put the URL into the URL spot.

I got this picture from the Wikipedia article on Taft. Most people on tumblr, strange as it sounds, don’t really care much for attribution. But, let’s go through how to do it anyway, just in case you feel the need to do so.

In this popup, you can also set a custom URL for the post. This uses the URL from your tumblr, the address of our example is http://makeuseoftutorial.tumblr.com/. The post URLs follow that: /post/post-title. The post title will just be chosen for you if you don’t want to pick it, but usually it doesn’t matter much. You can also set a custom date.

I won’t do that right now, and you’ll find yourself rarely doing it, but it can be nice occasionally. You can also choose to let people reply with pictures. This is a nifty feature, but I won’t enable this time. Sometimes, there are other types of custom reply features. If you ask a question in a text post, it will ask you if you want to allow people to answer your question. These features are simple, sure, but they are the types of things that make tumblr wonderful. The amount of thought put into these little features is what makes using tumblr fun, so keep your eyes peeled.

I had to scroll down, because Taft was too fat to fit on my screen. Typical.

Now, you can add another photo, though the publishing options box is over most of that. A lot of people like putting up multiple photos in one post. You can choose just to publish, or you can click the arrow next to the button, that will allow you to select other options, like adding it to drafts, adding it to your queue or choosing your own time to publish it. If your queue has posts on it, tumblr will add one every day at a set time. It seems to auto-set it to some weird time in the middle of the night, but it’s easy to change that (just click on the queue box on the right hand side of the dashboard to see).

I won’t do any of that, but I will add a tag to the post before I publish it. Just type the tags into the tag box, you can make them more than one word, just put a comma in between them.

And now I’ve posted it! We can see it on our blog:

Let’s go back to our dashboard for a moment, because there’s one last feature of posting that’s probably more important than the others.

Look at the bottom of the post we see on our dashboard, and you should see some arrows that are pointing at each other. That’s the reblog symbol; let’s click on it.

This is what a reblog looks like. Basically, you repost an image or a post to your tumblr. This is probably the majority of things on tumblr. When you follow most people on tumblr, especially your friends, you’ll find that most of their tumblrs aren’t so much original content, but a clearing house for things they’ve found on tumblr that they like.

If you noticed, that image itself was just a reblog from someone else. The reblogging continues…

4. What do tumblrs look like?

As you may have noticed at the end of the last section, our tumblr is pretty barren. We should add to it, but it’s hard to decide what you want your tumblr to look like. As we’ll see, the customization options are nearly infinite.

And, it’s easy to see the full range of options, because literally everyone has a tumblr. This is not a joke from the Onion – the IRS actually has a tumblr: http://internalrevenueservice.tumblr.com/.

It’s nearly impossible to see the full range of tumblrs. I’ll show you a few simple and popular ones. Lots of people have multiple tumblrs. They have a personal one, of some sort, and then they have topic specific ones. For instance, here’s one entitled “Reasons My Son is Crying.”

Comedy Central has one as well.

Here’s one that literally just posts pictures of the most depressing apartments that they’ve seen on NYC Craigslist: http://www.worstroom.com/

These are all relatively simple themes. The more complex ones are much, much harder to build. This guide won’t cover building those, but you’ll inevitably encounter them in your voyages around tumblr.

Here’s one more example: http://whatshouldwecallme.tumblr.com/

That one is just tumblr taken to the limit, almost the entire thing is funny gifs. It’s fun to have on your dashboard, though the ads are a bit annoying.

Finally, you can look at my tumblr.

I’ve taken the minimalist aesthetic, which is popular on tumblr, to nearly the limit. I like it, but others choose other options. I suggest just checking out lots and lots of tumblrs and seeing what you like. This is just a small introduction to the wide world of tumblr design.

5. How to make our tumblr look fancy

Now that you’ve had an introduction to what tumblrs look like, we’ll see how you go about adding a tumblr theme. If you’ve ever used WordPress, this will be somewhat familiar.

Remember that Theme Garden link?

Let’s click on it now.

This shows many of the Premium themes page. You have to pay for those. I’d suggest looking at the free ones.

Themes are made by a variety of people: some are made by tumblr, some are made by people who like using tumblr.

I’m going to pick this one:

Install it and we’ll see our blog with it.

See that button in the upper right hand corner? “Customize.” We’re going to click on that now.

There are a lot of options here, so it’s best to explore them yourself. You can see other themes on this page, and you’ll see their preview to the right. You can also click on “Edit HTML.”

Editing this requires a working knowledge of HTML and CSS. I’m not going to cover that here, because it would go into way more depth than we are prepared to go into today. tumblr has a great beginner’s guide, though, so check that out. And there are plenty of great places online to learn how to edit this. If you want to do it, I’d suggest picking a theme and then editing that theme, rather than building one from scratch.

If you’re a total beginner, I’d suggest going to Code Academy and learning HTML and CSS there. It’s a great resource. MakeUseOf also has two great guides on learning HTML and learning HTML5 that you can use to teach you a little bit about the basics of HTML.

6. Why is the search feature so bad on tumblr?

I’m going to attempt to answer the sociological question of why tumblr is so popular.

When you start most blogs, you have to do a lot of work in building an audience. You have to get people to find your blog. You have to get people to read it. tumblr is popular because it’s the antiblog.

The search feature doesn’t work very well. It’s hard to find posts on tumblr, it’s hard to find individual blogs on there. A lot of people don’t even put their names on theirs.

This isn’t a bug: it’s a feature. People using tumblr don’t care if others read it. They don’t want to spend time cultivating an audience. They just want to post. Their friends will see their posts once in a while, but most users don’t really care.

TechCrunch put it better than anyone I’ve seen yet: a “large percentage of tumblr users actually don’t WANT an audience. They do not want to be found, except by a few close friends who they explicitly share one of their tumblogs with. Therefore tumblr’s notoriously weak search functionality is A-OK with most of its user base.

These aspects of tumblr seem like a bug, but it’s in fact a feature. This is all in response to the issues people have with Facebook. You don’t need strong privacy features if no one can find you in the first place, and if you can post from a position of total anonymity, anyway.

In these ways, tumblr is very odd, but it actually increases honesty. Looking down someone’s tumblr posts is a bit more like looking at a stream of consciousness abstract piece of artwork than looking at a traditional blog. This bizarrely allows people to be more honest on tumblr than they are on other blogging sites – and that’s pretty awesome. It’s one of the main reasons, in my opinion, that people love using tumblr so much.

People just don’t worry too much about what they post on tumblr – and that’s pretty much the point.

7. Tools for managing your tumblr

Downloading the phone app is something I’d encourage, and the phone app is relatively easy to use. Here’s my Android app:

It looks pretty familiar, eh? Clicking on the button on the bottom fans out the posting options.

The iPhone app is essentially identical – I’ve used it as well. I’ve never used the other apps, but I assume they are similar as well. By this point in the guide, you should be familiar enough with the features of tumblr that using the phone app should be just as easy as using the website.

There are a variety of browser apps and addons that you can install on Chrome. My personal experience: they all suck. tumblr does not have an official one, and I’d strongly recommend against using the other ones. Using tumblr itself is far easier.

8. Going forward with your tumblr

There are a lot of things you can do with your tumblr, and a lot of ways to use it. Any single guide will never cover all of them, there are too many. You’ll have to explore and read more to learn everything.

There is one big thing you should know going forward. You aren’t stuck with one blog. You can have secondary blogs, too. If you look on the right side of the dashboard, you’ll see an arrow next to your name, and when you click on it, you get to the list of blogs you have on that account:

We currently have no others, so the option to create a new one comes up. Let’s click on that.

You can create a new, secondary blog. There are restrictions on a secondary blog, it doesn’t do everything the primary one does. But, it does a lot. You can have multiple users on it. You can use it in a lot of different ways. That’s how so many people manage multiple tumblrs.

The only other thing you have to remember going forward is to have fun. tumblr isn’t about becoming a big star, it’s about having fun. If you want to become a big star, there are plenty of other websites where you can try that. tumblr is about being yourself.

9. Editing your tumblr’s theme

When you choose a theme, you don’t always get everything you want. Usually, I’ve found, while I love the design of a certain theme or other, I don’t always love every part of it. For instance, I dislike themes that make me show who I am following. I think it’s gaudy.

In this section, we will be discussing how to edit the HTML theme you’ve chosen. I’m going to try to be as simple as possible, but I’m going to assume that you know a little bit about HTML. I’m also going to be using chrome’s developer tools in this section, and ShiftEdit, which is an online code editor.

I’m going to be using ShiftEdit because tumblr’s editor is woefully bad. It’s gotten better, but it’s still not quite there. The hardest part with it is searching for an element, it doesn’t work very well. So, what I do is copy and paste everything over to ShiftEdit.

Now, I know what I’m doing here, so I am not going to be saving a backup copy of the code. However, if you are new to this, I am going to highly recommend that you save a backup, unedited copy of your HTML code. So, if you break it by accident, you can go back to the previous version. There are a lot of ways to do this, the simplest is just to copy it all to a text document and save it on your desktop.

You can also save it on ShiftEdit. And then, when you’ve edited the code, you click “save as” rather than just clicking “save.” It’s easy and will save you a lot of time, because you will break things. Since I am just working from a clean install of a theme, I can just go back to that on tumblr. But, with your own tumblr, you’ll probably make a series of edits, so you can’t just go back to a clean version, you’ll have to remake all of those edits.

You don’t have to use ShiftEdit. The kinds of things that I’m using it for could be done with any text editor. I’m only using it because it highlights text, which can be very helpful.

So, if you haven’t noticed, for this part of the tutorial I have installed a new theme.

I installed this theme because it has a crucial element that I hate, though some people love it. The following section, where it shows all the people that you are currently following on tumblr.

You can see it at the bottom of the image.

We’re going to remove it from our tumblr. I’m going to right click on it and click on the “inspect element.”

It will bring up the chrome developer console, and you’ll be able to see the HTML elements and what they are on the screen.

This element is pretty easy, it’s enclosed by the tags <div id=”following”></div>. So, let’s search for that on ShiftEdit.

It looks a little bit different in the raw HTML than it does in the website HTML, that’s because of how tumblr works. The code there is telling tumblr to fetch and display the people you’re following, and when we see it on our tumblr, it displays the people we’re following. So the HTML does look different, but as long as we know what we’re looking for, it’s pretty easy to edit it. So, all we’re going to do is delete that.

Now, copy and paste the code back to tumblr.

Hit “Update Preview” and “Save.”

Voila! The offending part of the tumblr is gone.

You may have noticed that this theme does not have links to Facebook and Twitter on it. In some themes, they will automatically show up if you have connected your Facebook and Twitter, which is very easy to do. Just go into the options page from the dashboard and click on the title of your blog.

If you scroll just one page down, you’ll see the connection options. As you can see I’ve already connected my Facebook and Twitter, for this tutorial.

I’ve installed a new theme that doesn’t do that, but it allows you to easily connect your Facebook and Twitter.

This new theme is absurdly complicated. It has over 1000 lines in its code, and has built in options to do just about whatever we want it to do.

We’re going to pretend some of those options don’t exist, or that we don’t like them. For this section, I am going to use tumblr’s built in editor, just to show you how to use it. You can choose to use it if you want, and if you disagree with me that it isn’t good enough.

NOTE: YOU SHOULD STILL SAVE A BACKUP TO YOUR DESKTOP.

We’re going to delete the connect section of the tumblr. Inspect element, it’s bracketed by tags that start with <section id=”connect” class=”clearfix”…></section>.

Let’s go to the editor, we’ll search for it. There it is!

And, we’ll delete it.

There’s a way to make secondary pages for your tumblr. For instance, if you wanted to make an “about me” page that wasn’t just a post on your blog, you can do that pretty easily. Just go to the bottom of the Customize page and hit “Add a page.”

I’ll make an about me page. And, since I want it displayed on my tumblr, I’ll hit the “show a link to this page” button.

It will show up on our tumblr.

Instead of having the Facebook and Twitter links on a separate bit, we can put them on the same partition as our other pages on the tumblr.

Go to inspect element and see how the link is formed, and then click “Copy as HTML” from the left click menu.

We’re going to go back to where we were last time, and we’ll put in these links by hand. Since this is a list, the links have to be put between <li></li> tags, like this!

There is another way to do this on tumblr, you can create a redirect link. Why did I show you the other option first? Because it’s a tutorial and the easy way is not always the best way to teach how to use something.

Go to “Add a Page” again, select the option for redirect.

Now, just fill out the form.

There you go. Now let’s see how it looks!

That looks pretty snappy, if I do say so myself. There’s a lot more you can do with tumblr’s HTML. This should give you a strong basis, and should allow you to be successful going forward. But the HTML can get pretty complex in some of these themes, and it’s not always easy to do. I’d suggest you experiment. Play around. Always save a backup. And, most importantly, have fun!

Guide Published: November 2013

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