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web event #1: using Tumblr as a medium of self-representation

iskierka's picture

I didn’t expect anyone to take notice of my self-portait when Laura Swanson came to visit. A screenshot of a Tumblr customization page, it felt simple, despite the meaning I had given it, but when I spoke with others, they understood what I had meant. Tumblr, like many social media, stands at a peculiar intersection between personal thought and private identity, allowing users to specifically tailor their blogs to express the particular representation they choose at the time. Among women, it has a particular following; as stated by Niels van Doorn’s team: “The traditionally ‘feminine’ act of diary writing…is adopted by both men and women, challenging the traditional understanding of technology and the Internet as masculine territories.” Thus, it allows for a specific niche where users of any gender can express themselves in the manner that they choose. Through Tumblr, when one has the opportunity to match an identity to a real life face, it can express hidden facets of a personality one is unable to share in daily physical contact, allowing a kind of freedom for users using it to get away from their typical life.

To many of those with a Tumblr, the blogs represent an escape from daily life or just an interruption of their normal patterns. For Benjamin Grelle, Tumblr user ‘thefrogman’, the website represents just that: “Before all of this I had dreamed of entertaining the masses…. But I have found society unwilling to come to my parent’s basement to be entertained. Fortunately, I have a virtual means by which to entertain these masses.” For those like Grelle who are medically disabled, websites like Tumblr provide a sort of wish fulfillment, a means by which they may continue to live their life without being forced to acknowledge that society may see something ‘wrong’ with them. Similarly, Tumblr has become a haven for those with long-distance friendships that cannot play out in real life. Two of my closest friends like in Toronto and New York, and we’ve only had a handful of chances to talk face-to-face over the years, but through Tumblr, we can keep a constant conversation flow. If I see a post they would appreciate, I can just reblog (a function to put it on my blog while retaining credit to the original creator) it and tag (an organization system using keywords) it with their username, and whenever they like they can go see it. Having met these friends before Tumblr had entered any of our lives, though, the process of making friends may better detail this phenomenon. Another friend I had made actually lived within a twenty minute drive of me, but we spoke online long before we’d had any face-to-face contact. If I made a personal post (an original text post about any going-ons in my life), sometimes she would occasionally answer it and start a conversation, and vica versa. We found similar interests, sent each other messages with stories from our day or some sort of recommendation. Eventually we made plans to see Pacific Rim together, along with another mutual friend, but not every online friendship can pan out like so – an unrelated friend lives in California, and while we’ve joked about visiting one another, we are content laughing about west coat/east coast differences. Leigh Gilmore states in Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Self-Representation that, “Autobiography provokes fantasies of the real. Its burden is not only to represent gender, genre, and identity in any particular lived and imagined configuration, but to posit a ground form what that configuration is thought to emerge” (Gilmore 16). Using Tumblr as a virtual autobiography, where one builds up certain facets of one’s life while brushing away those deemed more trivial, users can build up a new identity that, rather than a replacement of their corporeal identity, is an extension, adjusting one’s format to show a different face to a different audience. In this virtual environment, Tumblr allows for users to enhance their life by adding an online component that can reach out past corporeal limits, allowing one to act beyond physical disabilities and geographic differences.

One of the main reasons many use Tumblr is that they can decide on the amount of information shared with those in the environment. Facebook has its privacy features, of course, but it begins with the assumption that, no, you do not object to sharing your name and home and maybe your job as well. With a username, one takes on an identity associated with whatever references one makes. Maybe it’s a call to a favorite television show or book; my own username is the name of a favorite character of mine, matched with a friend’s username based on the character’s sibling. Perhaps it’s a quote, an inside joke, or, like thefrogman, just something with personal appeal. In Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother, we see an aspect of protagonist Marcus Yallow’s personality through the usernames he chooses: renaming himself ‘w1n5t0n’ and keeping the novel’s title in mind, one can easily tell that Doctorow sees the novel as an extension of Big Brother, and goes on to write the story of how a handful of teenagers defy governmental harassment using online media, video games, and virtual identities. While not directly relatable to Tumblr, it proves that these online personalities allow for the maintenance of a modicum of privacy, a distance between a physical-world identity and virtual one. When I used a Tumblr screenshot as my self-portait, I made a throwaway blog using my name as a means of recognition – looking in the URL bar, one can assume that it is my creation. I chose this method because I didn’t want to use my real blog, instead choosing to keep up that wall of privacy and distance – sharing a blog can be an extremely intimate experience, as I sometimes have to check what I talk about in personal posts so that my thoughts don’t reach certain people’s ears, or so that they don’t share my own inner thoughts. There have been at least two people with whom I’ve seriously regretted sharing my blog, because they would occasionally take advantage of this intimacy. Using my real name for this portrait implied an ability to break down this wall of privacy, but the conscious choice not to. This divide is what allows users to maintain a separate identity, and thus represent themselves in the manner they deem appropriate, without worry of interaction with personal life.
The main idea to remember about Tumblr, however, is that it is not a perfect haven of self-representation. The term ‘Tumblr army’ comes to mind, describing any instance where a giant wave of Tumblr users goes to a single blog to voice their disapproval. This can go in either direction; within the last month, a user by the name of Josh Macedo was revealed not to be the clean-cut, geeky feminist he presented, but instead a pedophile who used his position to force younger girls into uncomfortable positions online, as chronicled by the blog wellgoddamnitjoshmacedo (warning: the blog contains explicit images and screenshots of conversations that can be potentially triggering to those with a history of abuse). As the Daily Dot states, “[W]hat makes Tumblr culture such a safe space for women might ironically be the thing that made it so easy for Macedo to wear the "disguise" of an enlightened geek boy. When you frame yourself as an outside-the-establishment liberal who understands the struggles that women face, it puts you in an elevated, respected position—and it becomes easier to abuse your power in the community.” Because of this impersonal distance created through a Tumblr blog, Macedo could personally groom his online identity to suit his needs and endear himself to his audience. Tumblr’s ability to share these stories to a largely-female or otherwise marginalized supporting audience caused many of its users to identify as feminists in some form or another, and Macedo being aware of his position, went through the efforts of positioning himself as a feminist supportive of WOC and body positivity until he could take advantage of his audience. While one could see his exposure and the following onslaught by the ‘Tumblr army’ forcing him off the website for the better, one must also acknowledge the first of his victims to come forth, user sweet-bitsy. Because of Macedo’s prominence, readers were initially (and to an extent, still are) skeptical of her claim. When she posted Skype conversations, they argued that they could easily be faked, that she only meant to shame and depose a prominent blogger for her own amusement. The same occurred when other bloggers came out with similar stories of abuse. When Macedo cleared his blog, fingers pointed to the victim for forcing the Tumblr army on him and scaring him away. One such victim mentioned on her confession, “I know some of his apologisers [sic] are still out in their bowtie wearing ranks so I’ve taken a preemptive measure and shut down my ask box” - following through the link on wellgoddamnitjoshmacedo, one finds that the user has deleted their blog as well.This case alone shows two of the main detriments behind Tumblr – one’s ability to manipulate their self-representation at the cost of others, and the potential that honesty can come at the cost of the Tumblr army picking targets for disrupting the status quo. Others’ representation is checked based on the expectations of the masses, and, for better or for worse, if they fall out of line, the army either drags them back in or scares them away.

Physical life installs numerous limitations on how any person may express themselves. Perhaps their body type leads to a sense of insecurity, or a disability prevents them from living a life without accommodations. Maybe socioeconomic status leads to a particular personal checking, or the society in the immediate vicinity forces one into a shell for the sake of safety. Online, these limits are removed and replaced, giving Tumblr users a largely anonymous format where the only factor deciding their representation proves to be what they are willing to share with the masses. What occurs then depends on how the masses return – despite touting itself as an accepting community, it instills its own strict cultural standards, and like any judgmental society, daring to defy its norms can lead to consequences from other users. Rather than a fully free identity, Tumblr provides an alternate where daily thoughts can be momentarily freed, and in that moment of freedom users arrive at the idea that this is where they may express their true selves.

Works Cited

Gilmore, Leigh. Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-representation. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994. Print.
Grelle, Benjamin. "The Frogman." - Comedy, Photoshop, Kittens, & Corgis. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.
"I Don't Want to Own This Blog." I Don't Want to Own This Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.
Romano, Aja. "Fandom, Consent, and Tumblr's Josh Macedo Scandal." The Daily Dot. N.p., 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.
Van Doorn, N., L. Van Zoonen, and S. Wyatt. "Writing from Experience: Presentations of Gender Identity on Weblogs." European Journal of Women's Studies 14.2 (2007): 143-58. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

"Fantasies of the real"

it's so interesting to read your paper in juxtaposition with pialamode's and ari_hall's--it seems as though the three of you have together laid out a spectrum of possibility, from the (failed) expectation that the College will use images of us to accurately represent the campus demographic, to the (failed) expectation that we will represent ourselves "honestly" on Facebook, to the (failed) invitation you describe here to "free ourselves" from everyday life on Tumblr. Tumblr, in your hands, offers an "escape" from or "interruption" from reality, rather than what pialamode and ari_hal describe--an attempt to correctly represent it, a point that is particularly highlighted by reading your essay in comparison to those of your classmates.

What's interesting in your account is how it darkens, step by step--from celebrating the distance between a physical-world identity and virtual one," to acknowledging that the costs of such freedom may be born by others, to showing how "the Tumblr army" passes judgment on those who disrupt the status quo, re-establishing the cultural standards of the site.

The line in your essay that intrigues me most is that "physical life installs numerous limitations on how any person may express themselves," limits that can be (only temporarily) "removed and replaced" on-line. So, in the end, in your interpretation as in that of  pialamode and ari_hall, virtual reality turns out not to be an escape from "meatspace" after all, only an elaboration and extension of it? A "fantasy of the real," but real nonetheless?

ari_hall's picture

Social media sites are an

Social media sites are an interesting now formation of modern society. Like my topic, the online universe is a new dimension in which an individual or institution can represent themselves, however with this resource to publish your self and your identity to the public can come abuse of this. Like Tumblr and college websites individuals/institutions have the ability to hide behind the web or create false or innacurate representations of themselves, like ethe Macedo person, or the misleading language around race of a college website. I really like where you illustrated the point of how easy it can be for individuals to "manipulate self-representation at the cost of others". The web, in all its glory and ability to allow those who are sincere to express themselves and open up publicly their identity, it can also be used to misrepresent or convey a false identity or representation of something. 

pialamode314's picture

I thought it was really

I thought it was really interesting reading your discussion of the freedom of expression Tumblr allows, after having written my paper on how Facebook is extremely restrictive of that freedom (at least when it comes to gender expression). What I found when I was doing research for my paper was that one of the biggest issues with freedom of gender expression on Facebook was how Facebook demands that people be completely honest in representing themselves, by giving their real name, their gender (well, within the male/female gender binary), and by posting pictures of themselves. Though this sort of honesty in representing one's online self has its own benefits, it also makes it much more difficult for exploration of self identity because that kind of visibility is a segway for harsher judgment and lack of anonymity. So in that sense, Tumblr could allow quite a lot more freedom to explore identity and gender because it is not meant to be representations of the true physical self. Users on Tumblr can be completely anonymous in name, gender, race, etc. Thus, it does not allow followers to have preconceived notions of how users should act based on these aspects of their identities.