Collecting an Argument on Tumblr

A content warning for the digital text below – while not graphically, it deals with violence against women, rape culture, misogyny, and references to self-harm/suicide. Not to bring anybody down or  anything…

A Woman’s Worst Nightmare

This particular post, written by several tumblr users over months and with nearly 70,000 notes (of both likes and reblogs), represents one way in which tumblr collaboratively composes.

The post’s origin was in January 2011 with alullaby posting the quotation from Mary Dickson’s 1996 article hosted on PBS, “A Woman’s Worst Nightmare.” The piece as it currently stands exists primarily in this form, although there will be small variations across blogs as the person reblogging may add to the written material. It is not a static piece of writing, and, at first, I was hesitant to put it forward as a digital “essay” – as I do think of essays as writing with a clear start and end date and that will appear the same no matter who posts/reblogs it. But it is certainly a digital text.

Further, the piece represents one significant mode of writing on tumblr: collection. The collection could be the most ridiculous posts surrounding the government shutdown, the strangest high school sex miseducation moments, or a more serious post such as this, where women (and a couple men) voice their understanding of women’s worst nightmare. This one in particular is a collection because it has been curated in a certain way. Normally, when a post is just reblogged again and again and added to, the final product on your dashboard looks like this:

x11 1

Courtneystoker reblogged the original post from radiantbutterfly and clicking on either url will bring you to the post on those users’ blogs.

This text, however, looks like this on the dash (I’m only showing a section because it is far too large to screenshot and insert the whole thing):

x11 2

Here, the relationship between each comment is unclear; while it’s possible kaitg reblogged and then added to kittencoaster’s comment, it’s impossible to tell, especially as the urls lead only to the users’ homepages and not their reblogged version of the post. This suggests, then, that this is a collection of posts – though the collector seems to be anonymous. (At least at this point, there may be a way to find out the exact history of the post, but it would involve going through its tens of thousands of notes.)

Collections seem to work uncreatively as Kenneth Goldsmith imagines the mode. If we think back to his presentation on the Brooklyn Bridge – he selects various pieces about it to make a clear, but implicit, argument. While the majority of my own tumblr essay differs from the collection as it has one author, a linear structure, and close reading, some of the work outside of the essay’s main body is in the collection of posts around Hamlet and Shakespeare original to the site.

As a collection, this text works similarly to what Goldsmith describes in that there are a large variety of users putting vastly different thoughts on the table, from “Wow” (kittencoaster) and “men, read all of this please. including the commentary. esp if you consider yourself a Nice Guy” (static-nonsense) to the longer narrative posts (someauthorgirl) and references to outside writers (becomingchichi). The comment that indicates how the piece has grown through the various commentary also stays in the most popular version of it (everythingbutharleyquinn).

The collaborative process embraces different writing styles. Some users don’t use capitalization/proper grammar and spelling, some write extremely informally and casually use obscenity, and some take a more academic, critical tone while still describing intensely personal experiences.

And, the writers recognize the writing that they are collecting as unique. Gtfothinspo writes, “I referenced this quote in a discussion I was having with a teacher a few weeks ago. He shifted uncomfortably and didn’t say anything for a few minutes, then told me ‘I couldn’t write like that in an essay.’ The truth hurts, huh.”

Collectively, the post embodies several elements of digital writing: an element of anonymity, a vast range in styles, collaboration, and a self-awareness of its own project.

5 thoughts on “Collecting an Argument on Tumblr”

  1. Caitlin,

    After briefly scanning the text you linked to and your discussion of it, I’m having some difficulty seeing the connection you’re trying to make between this “collection” on Tumblr and Kenneth Goldsmith’s work on uncreative writing. What exactly are you trying to say is “uncreative” about this piece/post/collection? From the few bits I read, it seems like users are sharing their own experiences, which to me feels like creative writing in a way (creative non-fiction at least).

    Also, I’m not sure I see this piece as a collection. It strikes me more as a comment feed that simply lacks the helpful markers to distinguish one comment from another, to highlight who is responding to whom. Is it a collection simply because we can screenshot a portion of it? What makes this post any different from, say, the comment section on a certain YouTube video? We see a similar range of writing styles there to the ones you’re pointing to in this piece.

  2. The point I’m making is in the way that the posts have been grouped together (with each username under the post by that user). You can screenshot anything on tumblr – that’s not where the difference is. That you can’t tell who is being reblogged from who and that the html relationships aren’t coded in shows that a user has collected the various responses to the quotation and some/all/any/none of the responses into one post – that’s the anonymous user. So in terms of Goldsmith’s work, the final product isn’t something that the anonymous user composed themselves (though they may have composed part of it – I don’t know), but rather something created through the collected responses of others (like the bridge poetry set Goldsmith presented).

    I’m not saying each post is uncreative – I think they all do fascinating, individual work as I point out in talking about the differences across the posts – only that this mode of composing the final product is akin to what Goldsmith talks about in Uncreative Writing – where creativity is judged by the selection of already written materials.

    The difference between a youtube comment feed and this is that this simply isn’t a feed. It’s not the clearly related responses to posts one after another – it’s a curated selection of posts where the relationships are unclear. It would be as though a Youtube commenter went through a particular response to a video, selected varied comments and crafted a post out of the vast amount of responses and then published that selection elsewhere. Youtube doesn’t (to my knowledge) allow that type of work, but on Tumblr the collections can be curated and are different to feeds in both their visuals and coding (and purpose).

    Does that clarify?

  3. Caitlin,

    I think you offer a really interesting interpretation of this text. I had a similar reaction to Chris after first looking only at the text, but your analysis (and subsequent clarification) helped me see the next in a different light.

    I’m particularly interested in how this text meshes different styles. It seems to me that most internet forums require adaption to the specific style of the forum. For instance, most of reddit requires correct grammar and style to participate in discussions (at least to be taken seriously), while other places like 4chan kind of forbid this proper styling (or so I’ve heard). So the mixture of styles in a way that treats all styles as equal (and doesn’t result in some people correcting other people’s grammar) is something that I find both unique and refreshing. It seems that in the format, people are more interested in what people have to say rather than how they are saying it.

  4. Caitlin,

    Goldsmith and uncreative aside . . . I’m intrigued by how you begin here to suggest differences between a “collection” and something more like a “conversation” or “archive.” In a collection, the pieces don’t necessarily respond to one another, as in a conversation, nor does there need to be an overarching concept, as in an archive. They’re just all there, associatively linked, with any one comment able to be read as the master comment or not. That’s both sort of scary, and interesting.


    PS I didn’t know that the “laughed at vs. killed by” distinction originared with Margaret Atwood.

  5. I think you did a nice job of capturing the…confusion? that sometimes comes with trying to follow a tumblr conversation. I really like Joe’s insight into the distinctions you’re drawing, because they’re ones that I’ve noticed as well but couldn’t figure out how to put into words. In any given thread, I’m rarely 100% sure which one is the parent comment and which responses correspond to others.

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