Welcome to Studyblr: a beautiful, stressful wonderland (2024)

A matcha latte, a pink MacBook Air, the word “tuberculosis” scrolled in gel pen cursive. This is what studying looks like if you’re part of an ever-growing group of young women who run “studyblrs” — a portmanteau of study and Tumblr.

The study blogging community has been bubbling up since 2014, drawing attention from a handful of educators but few others. Now it’s at least as easy to stumble upon on Tumblr as any traditional fandom or genre of lifestyle blogging, with easily hundreds of blogs specifically dedicated to the #studyblr tag. Its community is just as dedicated and active, but it’s curiously set apart by the mundanity of its participants’ goals: getting through the semester, keeping a 3.5.

The aesthetic of study blogs is nothing new. It’s popular in other huge Tumblr communities, originally stolen more or less wholesale from lifestyle blogs and beauty sites familiar to anyone following the post-Hills career of Lauren Conrad or the side hustles of Reese Witherspoon. The basic vibe is coffee and porcelain, a washed-out Instagram filter, clean lines, clean surfaces, pastels, mainly in the pink to peach range.

Lee Humphreys, an associate professor specializing in new media at Cornell, notes that this Tumblr community is remarkably analog. “The materiality, the non-digital traces that are being communicated… it’s all notebooks and pens and paper, but of course it’s all then mediated through digital and network devices.” They’re highly aestheticized projects that serve as a means to an end. The community is emphatically dedicated to students —mostly women — teaching each other how to learn better.

Bloggers make downloadable study schedules and essay templates and printable inspirational quotes to decorate study spaces with. They suggest note-taking formats, and share study behaviors. The Hawaiian high school student who runs the popular blog gatostudies told The Verge, “At first glance it just looks like colorful notes and pretty calligraphy, but if you look harder, you can see that it's so much more than that. There's so many tools that students all over the world [can] benefit from, and study blogging makes all of that available at the click of your mouse.”

“at first glance, it just looks like colorful notes and pretty calligraphy.”

It’s nice that these far-flung teens want to teach each other how to make Cornell-style notes and anti-procrastination playlists, but students swapping study tips is nothing new. Why does this weird, untested idea that — specifically — beautifying studying makes it easier keep spreading like wildfire?

According to data provided by Tumblr’s communication manager Leah Linder and content insights manager Amanda Brennan, the studyblr community was born from a few text posts and motivational quote posts that went viral via the creative writing community in 2014. It took off in 2015, with the addition of photos — mostly of study spaces and beds. Around the same time, the #studyblr hashtag saw a spike of 3,600 percent in total engagements, in tandem with a 1,950 percent spike in engagements on #studyspo (“spo” is a common suffix taken from “inspo,” short for “inspiration”). The community has grown at a steady pace ever since. So far this year #studyblr has 2.2 million likes and reblogs.

To get a sense of the community, I reached out to the operators of 40 study blogs with varying levels of engagement and post frequency. Of the 18 who agreed to be interviewed, all were women. They vary in age from a 16-year-old high school student to a 28-year-old med school student, and they live in the US, England, Australia, Japan, France, and Ireland. Many note that the studyblr community is almost exclusively women, and that they maintain friendships with other study-bloggers outside Tumblr’s platform — in group chats on WhatsApp or Facebook, and on more personal social media pages like Instagram and YouTube. Several of them say that they came to the studyblr community from other Tumblr communities that had become more fraught and unpleasant.

This includes Texas high school student Taylor. “I actually owned a pretty popular Attack on Titan blog a while back,” Taylor says. “But fandoms tend to get really toxic once they get super popular. I distanced myself from that, which is how I found out about the studyblr community.”

The bloggers who make up the studyblr community have different goals, and therefore participate differently. But they all have mostly positive things to say about the other people they had interacted with in this corner of Tumblr.

Multiple bloggers spoke about study blogging as an invaluable reassurance that their education was both as challenging and important as they themselves imagined. “Weirdly enough I find it very calming,” said Rianna, a London student getting a master’s degree in philosophy. “I think it has something to do with knowing that I’m not alone, I’m not the only one studying my ass off.” Alicia, a 14-year-old high school student from Australia, said the best thing about study blogging is being “part of a welcoming community where everyone is working hard towards their goals.”

In 2015, Dr. Jacqueline Ryan Vickery, an assistant professor of media arts at the University of North Texas, wrote some first impressions of the nascent community on a faculty blog, observing, “the publicness helps students teach each other to study – something students need help with. It is often taken for granted that students know how to learn, when in fact, it is a skill (art, craft?) that must be practiced and honed continually.”

Vickery added that the structure of Tumblr itself is key to how the community has grown and how it functions. “It facilitates different levels of participation – from posting original creative photos to joining the conversation to simply reading and saving tips for personal use. While some people may be intimidated by the creativity and organizational effort, the community provides multiple opportunities to learn how to participate and offers different levels of engagement for those interested in joining the community.”

That observation was echoed by Chloe, a history student in her senior year at an English university: “Through reblogging posts, even if you don’t make your own that often, it still shows that you’re active within the community. Whilst, if you don’t make an entry on other blogging platforms it can appear that you’re inactive. As a result, I find that it is also more supportive for more people.” Another college student said the main draw of the community is just getting “in the mood to work,” and taking inspiration from the dedication of others so she doesn’t spend “the whole day watching Netflix.”

On the surface, study blogging looks like any teacher or parent’s dream —teenagers spending their time online talking about homework! But it takes hours and hours of work to make homework look pretty enough for the internet, particularly for this visually picky crew. Scrolling through the #studyblr tag, it’s beautiful, but the enviable precision and organization can stress you out.

Looking at study blogs and reading about study tips doesn’t necessarily mean you ever get around to logging off and studying.

Humphreys added that there’s a word for that problem: narcotizing dysfunction. “There are lots of different parallels to this, one of course being exercise. Reading lots of articles about exercise does not mean that you are physically fit… People mistake knowing about something or reading about something or watching about something for doing and engaging in the activity itself.” Whether knowing a lot about studying and developing positive feelings towards studying actually causes bloggers to study more, she says, is “empirically questionable.”

The imposition of time inherent in a self-made studying regimen involving pristine handwriting, perfect lighting, and a consistent aesthetic is the most glaring issue. “The most challenging thing is definitely trying to find a balance between your actual studying, running a blog, and taking time out from social media, said 20-year-old Australian college student Emma. Alexandra, a French high school student who runs a blog mostly about her science homework, says “the biggest challenge I find is keeping a constant schedule and finding new things to post, because people might get bored by the same colours, the same handwriting, the same scenery.”

Catelin, a US student who also blogs about bullet journaling and fashion, mentioned structuring her study schedule and blogging habits around sunlight: “I find that photos turn out the best by using natural sunlight rather than light from a lamp. So I have to take it at a certain time of day when the sun is shining on my desk. When lighting is not best, I try to edit the brightness using an app called Snapseed or the whitening feature on Facetune.”

As you might expect, many bloggers mention issues with procrastination or distraction stemming from Tumblr. But Vickery doesn’t view that as a problem with the studyblr community specifically. “From what I can see, the color-coordinated notes are organized in thematic ways that require an understanding of the material that likely benefits studying… there’s the potential for this level of creative and meticulous organization to become a distraction or mode of procrastination, but that’s not unique to the blogs —students will always have to learn how to manage distractions.”

In any case, the most frequent concern that study bloggers mentioned wasn’t time management. More of them reluctantly acknowledge the pressure to have nice things, to maintain a certain aesthetic with stuff that costs money, and to keep everything they owned clean and presentable.

To be one of the top-followed blogs, you need to make content that looks nice, and getting ahold of a DSLR camera and a Photoshop license (like many of the students say they use), as well as a beautiful bedroom and plenty of fancy analog study materials you might not need otherwise, costs money.

That pressure is further complicated by the fact that, though study blogging takes aesthetic inspiration from fitness and fashion blogging, most of the disagreement within the community happens when someone strays toward behavior associated with those other types of lifestyle blogs — sponsored content, paid partnerships, follower giveaways, app promotion. There’s a tension between the gravity and near-sacredness of what these young people are working for and what many see as an inappropriate temptation to monetize it.

having a top-followed study blog is expensive

Many (not all) of #studyblrs posts feature expensive pens, leather-bound notebooks, high-end laptops, and perfectly swirled lattes. Money has been invited into the basic fiber of this community and it’s probably too late to get it out. One blogger addressed this in an aside, writing in Tumblr chat “Sometimes I wish I had more of a ‘white bed sheets, houseplants and bujo pictures’ aesthetic.” Another wrote “I’m a teenager and I care more about likes and followers than I’d care to admit, and sometimes I get really stressed out as I feel pressured to maintain a certain aesthetic and a certain facade.”

For all its problems and open questions, the fact that the study blogging community has succeeded in adopting the aesthetics of cool and developing a huge network of enthusiastic participants is pretty inspiring. In the crowded world of lifestyle blogging and fandoms on Tumblr, study blogging sets itself apart by setting an endpoint. These students enjoy what they’re doing, but they’ll enjoy the rewards more, and when they leave school they won’t have reason to continue in this community.

More importantly, lifestyle blogging —around food, exercise, fashion, travel, etc. — is often heavily focused on the body. It’s rare to see a popular “adventurer” Instagram or #fitspo inspiration board that doesn’t feature photos of the curator. That’s not inherently bad, but fitness and weight-loss inspiration communities on Tumblr are notoriously competitive, and plenty of research indicates that social media can have a profound body image-warping effect.

As author Kaite Welsh pointed out on the education blog Bright Reads in 2015, “studyblrs are one of the few places online [where] teenage girls and young women aren’t being judged on their appearance. Spend enough time scrolling through the tag and you’ll find a community that cares less about grades and more about working hard for an uncertain future.”

Even for empathetic outsiders, it’s often a challenge to figure out the value in habitually contributing to a fandom or a high-effort internet hobby like this one. The dedication can seem weird. So, as with Tumblr fandoms, which spring up most often around pop culture artifacts, study bloggers have to buy into a common understanding that the thing they spend their days talking about and creating artwork around is important —that it’s worth spending time on and that people who believe the same are their natural allies.

One explanation for studyblr’s popularity is that the feeling that “education is important” is pretty easy to agree with. Onlookers of other fandoms often criticize the extremity of devotion, but for better or worse, society doesn’t really see a problem with unlimited hours of studying.

Humphreys speculates that participation in the study blog community also requires buying into “[the] understanding that what they are doing is hard.” The note-taking style, while beautiful, and the study spaces, while curated to appear serene, are supplemented by notes and instructions about how to get over rough patches in an academic career, and apprehension about upcoming assignments or tests.

Together, these things imply that the beautification of studying is one way to make it easier, or at least more pleasant. The study blogging community coalesced around a trendy aesthetic, but the tactile, analog fascination itself may have real benefits: recent research suggests that hand-writing notes helps people process information differently than typing them, and that illustrating difficult concepts with visual representations can be far more effective for certain learners. It’s possible that study bloggers really are teaching each other how to learn better.

Even if they’re not, they’re giving a lot of young women a community they might not have otherwise, and making reading look cool.

Welcome to Studyblr: a beautiful, stressful wonderland (2024)
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