An Infinite Frontier

How we write on the Internet is different from how we write in print. But who is writing (and what they can write about) has also changed.

In A Better Pencil, Dennis Baron continuously talks about the “frontier spirit” associated with Internet interactions (2). He argues, “The internet is a true electronic frontier where everyone is on his or her own; all manuscripts are accepted for publication, they remain in virtual print forever, and no one can tell writers what to do” (25). This frontier is “rough and uncivilized” (139), or at least seemed to be, in terms of both online authors and their unique style of writing.

What interests me about the frontier, however, is the historical significance that immediately comes to mind –the frontier as something to be conquered and standardized after a period of lawlessness. It was a place, at least in the US, where difference was ruthlessly eradicated and a standard culture implemented. I think, in a sense, Baron is correct in associating the Internet with the American frontier.

(Manifest Destiny)


(M4nif357 D357INY) 

To a large extent, we have adapted to online writing; we’ve moved past l33t, at least. My iPhone autocorrects “ttyl” to “Talk to you later” (and I use “autocorrect” as a verb without a redline appearing in my Word document – though WordPress is not convinced). Most everyone with access to technology uses that technology as a digital author, whether they compose e-mails, post on Facebook, or run a blog.

Yet, I think we can adjust our understanding of the Internet as a frontier if we look at who is writing, not just how they write. As you will very likely hear from me several times over the course of the semester, I use Tumblr. I recently saw this written in a post on my dash:

 Once upon a time there was no internet. You kids know about this, sure. But you don’t really know. There was no way to learn all the things you should have learned. And when you were alone, you were really really alone. (Rubyvroom)

Anonymity and identity are tied up with authorship in the digital age. Oftentimes, this is worrying. More often, as Standage will point out in Writing on the Wall, it leads to the new type of internet troll that tirelessly posts comments playing up all types of prejudices. Despite that, because “no one can tell writers what to do,” marginalized voices (and cultures) have reemerged onto the electronic frontier. I talk about Tumblr specifically because there are more teenagers, people of color, women, and LGBT-identified individuals than other platforms, leading observers, like Tom Ewing of Freaky Trigger,  to say of the website,

What looks to dim outsiders as some kind of obsession with ‘social justice’ often just springs from people talking about themselves, their lives and the shit that happens to them. (All Our Friends)

Tumblr user Me-ya-ri remarks of this changed landscape, “I remember all to [sic] well what it was like to not have any words” (Me-ya-ri). When we think about the words we use online, how we manipulate them with fonts or colors or how we replace (or augment) them with images or videos, we should also consider the access to them that the Internet grants us.  It is, I think, a truly untameable frontier.




5 thoughts on “An Infinite Frontier”

  1. Caitlin,

    I know we’ve spoken to each other a few times already about the many nuances of tumblr, but I’ve got a lingering question/curiosity: I wonder what it is about tumblr that lends itself to the types of “marginalized” communities you mentioned. For me, I always considered tumblr to be something queer, in both a sexual and figurative sense, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on just what made it feel so queer. Perhaps it’s because I associate it with fanfics and shipping (I believe that’s how you spell the term that refers to when fans fantasize about fictional characters being in a relationship with each other?), or maybe it’s the overabundace of pornographic tumblr pages that make the site feel “taboo” or part of a counterculture.

    Or is it because tumblr is somehow more secretive or more conducive to anonymity and therefore a greater sense of freedom of expression?

    Obviously I don’t have any hard and fast answers for the questions I’ve posed, but I would like to suss this topic out a bit more!

    1. Chris,

      I know we chatted a bit about this Tuesday, but I have been thinking some more about it as well. I think that fandom contributes to it more than anything, as well as the sense of anonymity (especially as compared to facebook). I recently read a post (I will go searching for it) that talked about how those involved in fandom tend to be the most ruthless to the shows that they love; they question relationships, gender, race, class, etc and they reimagine the show better. One user said, “I write fanfic because your show was almost good enough.” So in that sense, I think Tumblr supports an open discussion of issues generally silenced or coopted (and by coopted, think of Macklemore as the hip hop voice for the LGBT community as opposed to someone like Nicki Minaj who is a member of that community).

      I can’t say with any degree of surety what attracted people to tumblr to talk about these things as there are many blog sites (lj being one) where fandom is present or these conversations are out there. I honestly think it is partially due to the interface. It is much easier to stumble across material on tumblr than wordpress or blogger, for instance. I think the site’s functionality (reblogging and tagging) makes the conversation easier.

  2. Caitlin and Chris–

    I’d like to piggyback on Chris’ questions with some of my own. I know very little about tumblr, although I have stumbled across various sites (mostly consisting of pictures of puppies) that I have enjoyed. I am, however, very familiar with reddit. For those of you unfamiliar with it, reddit is a site where people post links, pictures, questions, personal stories, etc. and then the community comments and “votes” on them. There are thousands of different subreddits for basically everything you could ever think of.

    But back to my question: how does tumblr differentiate from sites like reddit (and the others like it)? What makes tumblr more “obsessed with social justice” or more queer?

    1. Heather,

      I actually know nearly nothing about reddit and so can’t answer your question. I almost have this weird feeling that there’s the reddit path and the tumblr path and I made my choice (though I can’t articulate why I feel that way!). But weirdly enough I don’t know anyone who uses both sites.

      I think, as Tom Ewing says, that there is a mix on tumblr of those who are actively pursuing social justice questions and those who really just write on their blog, “I was told in class today that I couldn’t wear a shirt with spaghetti straps because that is too distracting for the boys and I shouldn’t want to draw attention to myself like that.” What is a comment on a personal blog (in this case a young woman’s) gets reblogged by other users who have experienced similar things, and then there is a larger conversation about gender. I think it does again at some level come down to the way the site functions and the ease of information flow across the website. If the girl tagged her post, “sexism,” then it will show up in the tag and people who track that tag (many of which self-educated in feminism – to follow this example through) respond with a social justice vocabulary.

  3. Caitlin,

    Having just read Heather’s critique of Baron’s unimaginative use of images, I want to begin by noting how intrigued I am by the ways you mix visuals and words. I’m not exactly sure how to define it—the images don’t exactly advance your argument, but they seem more than simple illustrations, or are at least very oblique illustrations.

    But having said that, I then need to say that I’m unconvinced by the utopian views of tumblr. To get at my concerns through analogy, I feel that at times you almost seem to be saying that tumblr is the queer “brand” of the internet, which seems about as far as you can get from being untamed and frontier-like. But, then, my experience of tumblr is pretty much like Heather’s—cute photos of dogs and the like—so what do I know?


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