How Tumblr taught young women to code
Last year TikTokker Avery Steeves posted a video ask why no one talks about the fact that there’s a whole generation of teenage girls who learned to code HTML on Tumblr. “People are like, ‘Oh, there are no girls in STEM,'” she says, mimicking the faceless crowd on the internet. “No, there were! They were just doing pale blogs,” an emblem of the soft, faded grunge aesthetic popular on the platform in 2014.
The comments section bloomed with notes from women who credited Tumblr with launching their tech careers: “Wrote my college application essay on learning to code on Tumblr and got accepted in college for a cs [computer science] diploma,” wrote one; “And now I manage the web design project,” said another.
As is typical of most online talk, there were also dismissively sneering replies: “The front-end isn’t actual coding, you know,” one user commented, accompanied by dismissive remarks such as “Html /css isn’t really coding, suffice it to say”.
I asked Maxine Hood, a 25-year-old software engineer at YouTube, what she thought of those comments. “It’s like looking at the sky and thinking, ‘The sky isn’t blue. How can you say it’s blue?'” she laughs. “This is a ridiculous statement that tries to put teenage girls down [and keep them] to get credit for doing something difficult… HTML is a coding language. This is coding.”
From 2011 to 2015, Hood ran a Tumblr fan for South Korean girl group f(x). “My youth was a fan of f(x) and ran this fan site specifically for [f(x) member] Victoria. I have worked very hard to try to be the best Victoria fan page on the site. You could do a lot with Tumblr themes back then, they gave me so much control over editing the HTML code.”
When I was 14, “I had no coding experience,” says Hood, “so what I remember doing was copying HTML code from a different theme that someone had posted, and then go in and change the color or try to add plugins or APIs [an interface that enables two applications to talk to each other]. “She would often update the theme to match the aesthetic of the latest f(x) music release.” I remember really struggling to add this chat box functionality. I finally got it to work, but it was only in the bottom right corner when you scrolled all the way down. It was my first experience in the world of programming.”
Hood’s high school didn’t offer computer science classes, but during her first semester at Wellesley College, she enrolled in an introductory course that would put her on the path to majoring in the subject. “I knew I’d be interested because of my coding on Tumblr,” she says, “without editing the themes, I don’t know if I would have been.”
HTML is a coding language. It’s coding.
Dimitra Zuccarelli, 26, also owes her career to Tumblr. She joined the platform around 2009, first using it as “a proper blog” before the site became the photo- and GIF-heavy multimedia mecca that is “the Tumblr we now know”. As far as coding goes, the Arctic-themed multiplayer game”Club Penguin was literally my origin story,” she says, but Tumblr opened up a different world of possibilities.
“I was so obsessed,” she adds. “It was very educational for me and a lot of other people. It was the equivalent of what TikTok is now for the younger generation: a free space to discover your style and your interests. I had a strong sense of style, and I really wanted to express that.”
Zuccarelli and her identical twin sister Milena “grew up together on Tumblr. She was designing [themes] on Photoshop and then I would code them,” Zuccarelli recalls. “As a teenager, I had a very, very, very narrow vision. If I wanted to do something, I was going to find out… Basically I just lowered my head googling everything… going into the source code of other people’s websites, copying and pasting everything, then literally going line by line, deleting stuff, copying little bits, see what that would do. Tweaking something here, what would it look like on the page? It was a lot of trial and error, but I would come home after school every day and work on it to the point where you started to see patterns, and it became second nature.
“Once you understand how something works, it’s pretty easy to start applying those principles to something from scratch.”
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Zuccarelli says she and her sister excelled in a style of patterning that was “niche at the time, very minimalistic. It was hard to find items that exactly matched that aesthetic.” They started selling HTML templates and opened a small website building business. Then, “I started to realize that while I really liked designing websites, understanding how [programing language] PHP in WordPress themes was much more interesting to me,” she recalls. “I loved the logical side…and that’s when I realized I could have a career in coding. I knew because I spent my life on the computer and was chronically online that it would be a good career path.”
It was a lot of trial and error, but I would come home from school every day and work on it.
Zuccarelli now works in backend development for a fintech start-up in London, while his sister, who studied interactive design at the Glasgow School of Art, works in front-end engineering. Zuccarelli says learning to code on Tumblr is now a badge of honor that she finds “hilarious.”
“I didn’t used to tell people [about learning on Tumblr] because, until a few years ago, there was so much stigma,” she explains. “Like, ‘Oh my God, you were on Tumblr, you’re like an SJW snowflake that had a eating disorder.’ There are a lot of stereotypes attached to it. Now I think I wouldn’t be embarrassed at all.”
She sees Tumblr as a rich breeding ground for formative creative growth — if you have the time to invest. “I would spend so much time researching and discovering new things and learning about photography, graphic design and user experience. I wish I had that again because I miss being able to dive head-on into the things that interest me. It’s more difficult now with a nine-to-five.”
For Shanaia Ramirez, 23, coder has been his main creative outlet. “I can’t draw, I can’t paint… my creative side comes out with coding,” she says. She joined Tumblr in sixth grade, in 2010 or 2011, attracted by One Direction (she’s a daughter of Zayn) and Percy Jackson fandoms. Ramirez dabbled in HTML editing to create carrot-strewn Hogwarts house widgets and themes, an early joke in later Directioner fandom grumpy deign.
But things got serious with “the rise of the Tumblr aesthetic” when “everything was minimalist, everything was beige,” she laughs, and she went after a “cleaner look and better flow.” Ironically, “I was able to get more creative with minimalism: make the colors look pretty, the transitions, the effects, when I repost, when I skim the posts,” she tells me, her voice warm with memories. “I got addicted to learning… And when I couldn’t solve a problem, it irritated me. I was researching outside of Tumblr, ‘How does HTML work?'”
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In high school, Ramirez quit Tumblr to focus his energy on his studies and college applications. “I’m Asian. So you know there’s a whole stereotype about becoming a nurse…” but she didn’t think a career in healthcare was the right fit. When she asked herself: “What did I do before when I had time?” — the answer seemed natural: “I love technology. Why not code?” This satisfied his need for constant change and evolution. “I get bored easily [but] with comp sci, you have to keep up. I’m still learning. It’s always changing.”
She has learned Java, C, C++ programming languages and is working on mastering Python. “It’s always different every day, there’s always a new language. I can’t get bored.”
Ramirez will be graduating with a computer science degree from California State University San Marcos this year. It can be a lonely trail to walk, but she says being one of the few women in her major pushed her to stick with it. “You can count the number of girls in my class on one hand. I was walking into a coding class and all the men were looking at me like, ‘Oh girl, are you lost?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m actually here to do the same thing you did.'”
At the end of my call with Hood, I dubbed this mini-phenomenon the “girl-to-engineer Tumblr pipeline.” But then I backtracked — maybe “Tumblr girl” felt reductive. “Oh, you can call me that!” Hood assured me, proudly. “I’m fine with being called a Tumblr girl.”