Category Archives: x2

The Many Sides of Tumblr: An Internet Coffee House

Resident Tumblr ambassador here, this time drawing a connection between Tom Standage’s discussion of coffee houses as centers of social media and Tumblr.

At first, I thought that Tumblr is more akin to the Devonshire manuscript (Standage 65). A post is “reblogged” across the site among users with varying degrees of anonymity that can add to it however they want (with images, audio, video, capitalizing, quoting and italicizing, quoting and bolding, quoting and italicizing and bolding…and capitalizing…). What intrigues me about Standage’s description of the coffee houses, however, is his observation that different coffee houses were the home of different subject areas: science, literature, law, sailing, and so on. It is this description that brought Tumblr to my brain as site users have “divided” the community similarly.

Tumblr science side(Source on Tumblr)

I see the “science side of tumblr” most frequently. (For a more scientific science side post, see: Shape Memory Alloy). Not being all that well-versed in science, I never know immediately whether the information is accurate (but there’s Wikipedia for that). All the same, users who want to find a funny, often irreverent, and generally speaking fairly accurate update on something to do with science can explore the science side tag or follow the ever-increasing number of blogs devoted to the science side. There is also always the fact-checker side of Tumblr. They arrive on a post about science, history, politics, you name it, and are often accompanied by a .gif from Mythbusters.

Users expand and transform these informational posts through creative use of images, audio files, and video. One post always comes to mind when I think of digital writing and audio:

Origin of the American Southern Accent

A disclaimer here: I have no idea how right or wrong this post is, especially since the original poster’s blog has been deleted at some point over the past few years. What interests me about is that it does something that the written word simply cannot do and is highly persuasive – at least, to someone that is not a linguist and knows nothing about the origin of the Southern accent. I imagine that a written essay to describe the same point would either be overly simplistic (the LA accent is a French accent slowed down) or incredibly complicated (with a lot of linguistic jargon and symbols or accent marks of some sort). Less than two minutes of audio convincingly accomplishes what would take paragraphs of text to do to a lesser degree of success. Tumblr as a collection of coffee houses intrigues me because users can easily speak to one another through a variety of forms on one single platform.

This is not to say that the “sides” of Tumblr, the various coffee houses, coexist peacefully. Tumblr users also divide themselves by primary interest – the main division being the “hipster” side and the “fandom” side. Every few months I will see a post by fandom blogs for fandom blogs that remind users not to criticize the hipster side, but to let them reblog pictures of rainbow hair colors and leggings with galaxy patterns in peace.

Related to my post last week about marginalized voices and social justice on Tumblr, there is also a tension between the “social justice” side and the broader site.  Gavia Baker-Whitelaw writes about the friction on the site: “While Tumblr’s userbase tends to skew younger and more politically liberal than, say, Facebook, SJ Tumblr has gotten a bad rep for being reactive and obnoxious. Accusing someone of being an SJ blogger is the Tumblr equivalent of calling someone a hipster: You may fulfill all the necessary criteria to be one, but nobody wants to own the title.” (“Meet the Trolls and Hoaxers of Social Justice Tumblr“).  Her larger piece discusses one Tumblr user, forfuturereferenceonly, that ran a blog for about a year that mocked SJ Tumblr. I followed the blog during its run (it has been deleted) and never could call if it was an overblown social justice user or if it was a troll.

Being on the internet, and being difficult to search through efficiently, Tumblr is difficult to divide into neat sectors, and I don’t think it should be. I do think, however, that the ways in which users discuss the divisions have led to an interesting parallel between the site and Standage’s coffee houses.

(As an aside – I’ve been collecting a bunch of posts that pop up on my personal blog in a separate tumblr dedicated to this class for convenient perusal:

Guess What I Just Heard?

In Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, Joseph Epstein reveals how gossip, much maligned as both symptom and cause of social ills, actually serves many important purposes in human society. For one thing, chatter about other people in our network of friends and acquaintances can serve to cement relationships and alliances with like-minded individuals. Epstein also argues that expectations and rules about human behavior needn’t be enforced by physical violence because gossip and social censure can maintain societal norms.

The idea of “social currency” is very much wrapped up in both Epstein’s defense of gossip as well as in current and past modes of social media, a world in which gossip and the latest titillating news makes the rounds instantly. Although they moved at a slower-than-digital pace, “ambitious young men” in 16th century England passed poems and texts around, and those texts primarily “served as a form of social currency that could be used to establish and maintain useful connections” (Standage 76-77).

By making themselves into creators, curators, and sharers of writing, Standage shows, up-and-coming guys could win patrons and benefactors. The best could write new materials themselves by both passing along information (read=gossip) and providing new materials that the recipient could then use to impress their own circle of friends.

Today sociable humans still feel the pull to solidify and enrich friendships and acquaintanceships by passing along valuable information and ideas, and social media provides a myriad of platforms to do just that.

For example, Twitter’s name hints at the old saying when asked where you heard a juicy tidbit: “A little birdy told me.”

When a social media user passes along a piece of information, whether it be personal, gossip about someone or something else, news about a current event, or link to something salacious/funny/inspiring/intriguing, the writer looks to add value. Simply put, she seeks to tell others in her social network something they don’t already know.


With the arrival and spread of the Internet, more and more people have access to news, information, facts, discoveries, trivia, and humor, and the web of social connectivity used for sharing, remixing, and promoting that content expanded. It also made it increasingly harder to get payoffs for sharing stuff. People are more and more likely to have already seen that thing you tag them in or share on their wall, just by the virtue of the speed with which content spreads.


At times, social media can feel like a series of desperate attempts to share something before it gets big—to prove that you’ve got your finger on the pulse of what others will find interesting. And that you’ve read it (and shared it) first.

This world, in which social media sites can, as Standage put it, provide “personalized and constantly updated stream of links, photos, and gossip” (231), the need individuals have for sorting and seeking content that interests them is already met instantly: by heuristics and cookies and trails of recommendations, pingbacks, likes, retweets, and browser histories.

On a personal level, I believe this has impacted friend-to-friend exchange of social capital. But the biggest impact has probably been on the companies that try to predict the next big story. On NPR’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow (21 February 2014), a writer for The Verge talked about how it matters less and less who gets to a story first because of the speed in which other outlets skim and repurpose it for their own users. Magazines, websites, and apps scramble to keep tabs on what’s hot and what people are reading.

To keep our social media lives from, as W.J. Stillman wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1891, turning into “an agency for collecting, condensing, and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence” (qtd. in Standage 185), people need to add value to content not simply by forwarding or posting preexisting text and images. It is through *doing* something with them, putting things in new contexts, adding a personal or philosophical spin, and converting them  into something new that we provide a social service to our followers, friends, and readers. Otherwise, gossip is just gossip, and a link is just another link.

Making Time for “Coffee”

I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with Chrome Nanny. For those of you unfamiliar with this horrible brilliant device, it is an extension for chrome that you can program to limit your browsing of certain sites. During the semester, I have it set to only allow me to check Facebook, Reddit, and other similar sites for one or two minutes an hour. When I use up my allotted time, it provides me with this gentle reminder:

Oh so gentle.
Oh so gentle.

When Chrome Nanny reprimands me, I am reminded of the frivolous nature of these sites. Why would I be posting pictures of my dog on Facebook when the article I’m working on remains depressingly unfinished?

Because of that face, obviously. 

The internal dilemma I feel between social media and productivity is nothing new. As Tom Standage notes in Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 years, people felt the same ambivalence towards coffee shops in the seventeenth century. When discussing the initial reception of these caffeine driven hangouts, Standage explains how “[n]ot everyone welcomed the freedom of speech afforded by the new social forum, and some people worried that its compelling, information-rich environment, which provided an endless and addictive stream of trivia, gossip, and falsehood, was distracting people from more productive pursuits” (104).

Get back to work, Theobold!
Get back to work, Theobold!

Over three hundred years later, the feeling that we are wasting our time by engaging in “non-productive” conversations is one that continues to plague us. Indeed, the nagging feeling of squandering valuable time becomes the topic of conversation in an episode of Seinfeld from the mid-1990s.

But really, can’t we have coffee—or facebook conversations—with friends? Is social media merely a distraction? Obviously there are aspects to social media that are unarguably beneficial. As Tom Standage notes, social media has the ability to spread news, spark revolutions, and create a global community. But what about the rest? What about the status updates of mundane daily activities and excessive pictures of food?

Inquiring minds need to know.
Inquiring minds need to know.

Despite the fact that we all may feel compelled to block or unfollow people who are constantly bombarding us with details of their lives, I nonetheless think that the type of connections this level of sharing provides is valuable, and not simply a distraction. Rather, I think social media allows us to talk about the inane details of our lives—to “have coffee”—with our friends and family regardless of the physical distances that separate us. And as Jerry, George, and Elaine remind us, having coffee with your friends may not be such a waste of time after all.

x2: Responding to Standage (audio)

I’m really impressed by your responses to Baron’s A Better Pencil.

Your task for next week is to offer a similarly lively and thoughtful response to Tom Standage’s  Writing on the Wall—with one small technical requirement added, which is to make some use of audio to supplement your work as a writer. This does not need to involve extraordinary technological measures. On the contrary, I’m more interested in quality of thought than technical execution. As evidence:

Joe x2

You can quote songs or recordings that have been made by other people (with acknowledgment). Or you can make your own recordings. I only stipulate the following:

  • The bulk of your response must be in writing.
  • Your audiofiles must be planned, not spontaneous or impromptu.
  • You must intend your readers to listen to each audiofile you use in its entirety. (Don’t upload entire songs or videos.)
  • No audiofile should thus run more than one minute.

The aim of this exercise is to think about some of the ways audio can add to the impact of a written text. I will thus be more interested in the thoughtfulness and originality of your work than in its technical virtuosity. I feel sure you’ll be able to top my own predictable efforts here. Indeed, I double dog dare you to.

Use x2 as your category and, again, think of some identifying tags for your post.

Deadlines: x2 due on Tues, 2/25, 4:00 pm. Comments due by Thurs, 2/27, 4:00 pm.