Critical Essay—Everything Old is New Again: A Barthesian Analysis of Tumblr

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K. Shannon Howard, University of Louisville


Abstract: Using key ideas from the work of Roland Barthes, this project studies the manipulation of alphabetic text and the use of graphics on the social networking site Tumblr, which founder David Karp insisted would create a platform for short posts, pictures, or links in the form of “microblogs.” While Tumblr is famous for its terse exchanges and its humor and visuals, I show that this site also includes a surprising number of lengthy close readings, textual analyses, and serious treatments of social issues, while also revealing an explicit portrait of users interacting over time. More specifically, the genealogical and explicit charting of users seen in the form of vertical lines and lists of visitors to a post is reminiscent of traditional forms of media and shows written text is integral to the site’s success.


Introduction

Influenced by famous social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, Anne Francis Wysocki explains in Writing New Media that “it is when we see but do not notice, over and over, what our texts—as part of the material structures in which we live and work—embody and how they articulate to other practices that we are most likely to learn, without noticing, what to value and how to behave” (13). Noticing how content and design both alter communication in surprising ways is part of the joy associated with studying media. From the traditional lined paper in use throughout the centuries to the new multimedia tools in which today’s users create audiovisual projects or update personal blogs, the materiality and content of such items informs who we are and how we see ourselves in terms of communicating with others. Likewise, the theories of figures like Bourdieu help us explore this materiality in terms of social conditions and constructions of communication. Consequently, new media scholars often employ critical theorists in their work on social identity and language.

One social networking platform within new media remains relatively unexplored in scholarship. While popular news about the microblogging website Tumblr features the site’s preoccupation with humor, pop culture, and fashion trends, little attention has been given to Tumblr for its surprising organizational patterns, particularly found in print manipulation and sequencing of images for narrative purposes. I wish to show how the site merges old organizational patterns with new ones to create a participatory network that surprisingly values primary authorship and original content as well as manipulations of existing web content. In this piece I depend on the work of Roland Barthes to understand the ways in which users reframe original posts and create genealogical threads of conversation among bloggers with similar interests.

Roland Barthes’ work covers the topics of photography, visual media, advertising, semiotics, and individual authorship, all of which are part of Tumbler’s current rhetoric. While this analysis does focus first on the writing of Tumblr posts rather than all multimodal forms of expression, the writing exists on a digital and visual canvas in which some parts of the post capture the reader’s eye just as photography does for those willing to look closely at its contents. This optic is where Barthes’ text Camera Lucida proves useful to an examination of Tumblr’s various designs. Published in 1979, this short text on photographs features close readings of still images and a thoughtful exploration of the viewer’s reception of such images.1  Barthes’ famous essay “The Structuralist Activity,” on occasion, also provides salient and clear points that help make critical theory and social networking productive neighbors in this work.

Before describing the site of Tumblr itself, it will be helpful to establish some necessary boundaries for the argument surrounding it. First, I use the word Structuralism in the same manner that Barthes uses it in “The Structuralist Activity”: as a term that describes the dual processes of “dissection and articulation” (872) of meaning making at work.  The multitude of ways that linguists have adopted the word to serve their own interpretation of what Structuralism means has already been the subject of numerous texts and articles from the twentieth century and beyond. While I do occasionally pay homage to members of the movement in critical theory called Structuralism and capitalize the term in such cases, my study of Tumblr focuses more on the textual habits of expression among members of an online community and my own method of dissecting and articulating those habits rather than on a retrospective close reading of modern linguistics.  I examine Tumblr’s manipulation of text with more detail than I study its graphics in order to address what I perceive to be a gap in new media scholarship: the study of how original authorship is represented on a platform where the forwarding of ideas rather than the original conception of them seems to dominate the site’s use. And finally, while some observers may claim that the majority of Tumblr’s postings are parodic and humorous, I include entries from Tumblr in the following sections that capture various emotions from affection or fan love for a television series to concern for a stranger’s eating disorder.  This range of entries from Tumblr seems necessary to emphasize the gap in our study of this particular site and the way in which people engage in dialogue through this particular structure of an online community.

The Birth and Rise of Tumblr

In the fall of 2011, Glenn Peoples referred to Tumblr as the “new star of social media” (“9 Things”). Although other websites have risen in popularity since that time2, Tumblr’s presence is one that stands out from other social networking sites. To begin, the name Tumblr itself suggests a linear tumbling through meaning, a mine field of discourse governed by the way in which language propels itself forward swiftly and often imperfectly. Software analyst Michael Muchmore from PC Magazine’s describes Tumblr accordingly: “[O]ccupying the space between full blogging services and microblogging sites like Twitter, Tumblr offers an easy way to get your messages and images out on the Web without the hassle.  .  .  . This innovative service combines a lot of power and features in an extremely easy and intuitive user interface.” To begin, Tumblr’s signup simply consists of entering a password and user name of your choice and then starting your “tumblelog,” which Muchmore says is comparable to the traditional activity of scrapbooking. New media aficionados agree with Muchmore regarding Tumblr’s streamlined functionality; they stress Tumblr’s simple, structured design, lack of restrictions on word count or image size, and ease of registration as major aspect of its success (Marquart; Porter). While the interface is undoubtedly interactive like other forms of social networking, its simplicity and its use of vertical lines to represent user commentary and conversation tracking make it unique.

The Tumblr world replicates the color and movement of users’ favorite scenes and pictures while doing so through a central, linear archive of user microblogs and notes. Although most entries forward celebrity photos and other pop culture artifacts as part of their major content, the blogging that occurs on Tumblr features text-based arguments grounded in people’s passions and their cultural pastimes. Tumblr has also become a place where parody and humor play a significant role in fan culture. It is common to see Tumblr users tagging their posts with “fuckyeah” as a signature of praise and to witness the assemblage of collages where a fan’s casting choices for the upcoming film Fifty Shades of Grey move in disco dance across an assemblage of moving jpegs.

Humorous content alone, however, fails to distinguish Tumblr from its social networking peers. Instead, the very materiality or interface is governed by surprising rules of user interaction. Tumblr only recently allowed direct commenting to occur underneath other users’ blogs and still prohibits what the website itself calls “native” commenting (Eaton; “Help”).  “Native” commenting in the Tumblr world refers to the ability of the user to write a comment without reblogging the content to which s/he is responding. While Facebook allows users to comment directly under status updates in this “native” fashion without reposting the original text alongside the respondent, Tumblr bases its designs on the forwarding of blogs and the genealogical trees of communication that virtually develop on the scrolling “dashboard” of content.

This dashboard’s streamlined design may be why Eaton describes Tumblr’s rise as “meteoric” because it suggests “there's a desire for simple, elegant, short-form-content blogs.”  New media is, in Tumblr’s case, relying on simplicity of linear posts, not multitasking streams of information competing for the viewer’s eye, although the posting of images and video are a major part of Tumblr’s options. Tumblr founder David Founder David Karp explains the genesis for Tumblr’s creation more specifically in these words: “I’d always liked the idea of having a blog.  .  .  . It was this simple idea where instead of one big empty text area when you go to post, we’ll give you six buttons and show you a specialized post forum that makes it as easy as posting a photo to Flickr, as easy as posting a link to Delicious, easy as posting a video to YouTube” (Wallstrip).3 Karp notes that microblogs are a return to an older network design like Myspace, at least before its ultimate fall from popularity (Eaton).  Indeed, the Tumblr user is able to manipulate the site in ways that are easy and almost instinctual, more so than if s/he was constructing an identity on a full-scale blog or maintaining multiple photo albums and a resume of networks and likes/dislikes on Facebook (although advanced computer designers can make Tumblr just as multimodal and multi-faceted as they wish). Simplicity of design and use does not limit complex thinking when encountering the rhetoric operating within this new site, yet Tumblr is a notable change from other websites whose very designs seem intent on creating multi-taskers out of their users, where live chatting, status updating, ticking information of friends’ activities, and link sharing may all be happening simultaneously and, some may even say, chaotically.

Tumblr’s Structure

The design of Tumblr may offer a contrast to what research has shown us when examining online communication among users like gamers. As James Paul Gee explains, the learning that transpires while users participate in new media such as online gaming includes the acts of exploring “multiple routes to make progress or move ahead” (105-06). However, the Tumblr page is a linear and leisurely digital route through one’s favorite things, things specifically tagged by subject so that searching for more posts on the same topic is as simple as entering one word on the dashboard and finding users across the world interested in the same media, hobby, or personal confession. Through the tagging of areas of interest, such as graduate work, landscapes, television celebrities, depression, and others, a person may follow random users and see what their thoughts are.

What Tumblr’s simple interface does is allow a primary text to be placed exactly beside a reader response to its contents, allowing for easy identification of primary material and its secondary reaction.

Sample Microblog Post on Tumblr, Figure 1.0

Words are cut and pasted within the above microblog to reveal a dialogue between the incredulous reader and the words on a book page. Here is where the old and new forms of communication come in close contact.  Capturing the phenomenology of what the reader experiences seems surprisingly anchored in notions of traditional structure by blending old and new forms of textual representation: the cut out of a specific passage, the highlighting of major ideas through which to understand the book, and the traditional marginalia, all digitized as one post that highlights the practice of textual analysis. Here the blogger engages in a focused close reading to share her thoughts about narrative and character development. While the lines from the physical book are captured as digital content, print remains the dominant mode of language through which the frustration about the drunken girl is expressed. Even more interestingly, at the bottom of the post are the hashtags indicating exactly where to find the specific passage in the text: “chapter 15,” “fifty shades.” Such work resembles the production of analysis in which students once deployed notecards as tools from which to read or write their major points of argument or capture key quotes from sources.

One user structures her own engagement with text to circumvent the inability to comment directly on posts when she sees another female user advocating dangerous dieting techniques to strive for physical perfection. The commentator is frightened by what she reads and reacts accordingly below:

Reblogged Post with Meta-Commentary, Figure 2.0

Because the primary, or originating, post on the left is hard to read next to the response, I provide highlights of it here: “Look at what you are about to eat. Then read this. Are you hungry? Are you really hungry? Could you go without it? Think of how great you’ll feel. Think of how great you’ll look.”  The dark and foreboding font “Still Hungry?” at the bottom is emphasizing the original text’s pathos in appealing to the girl who may wish to skip meals to have the ideal figure. This Tumblr user, although hardly representative of all users, has placed the text in its totality beside her argument rather than use a hyperlink, making the nostalgic move of digitally reproducing a source to prove she has used it responsibly in her reader’s interpretation. Also, the user says, “I want to know who wrote this,” invoking the idea of words having a specific origin in time and a single author behind their creation.  

Such activity (the repost and picture of the first blog next to the reactionary response) reflects what Barthes famously notes about language when he explains that the Structuralist activity includes the moves of “dissection and articulation.” (872). In this surprisingly long post about weight loss, the original text, which is to be dissected, gains new poignancy when placed beside a post of articulation that expresses alarm about its contents. In addition, the true focus of the entry is not the “Still Hungry?” query at the primary text’s conclusion but the fear invoked by the text dissector and the demand for knowing the author. In such a case, Roland Barthes, when analyzing the visual linguistics of the post, would say that we have seized upon what in photography he termed the “punctum” rather than the “studium” of the image: the studium is the foregrounded material upon which our gaze is typically drawn, but the punctum catches the viewer unawares, seizing upon pathos in a surprising manner (Lucida, Barthes 51).  

Here we also acknowledge that simplicity of design does not fully escape multimodality. Although “Still Hungry?” as the studium seems to dwarf the size of all other text, the sentence proclaiming concern about the author creates a diversion that reconstitutes the focus of the issue on eating disorders. This juxtaposition of two points of view in one digitized image creates emotional concern that is actually grounded in the manipulation of printed language and the logical back and forth action of a conversation. Finally, because the female user reacting to the original post forwards an image of one girl’s manifesto on the avoidance of food and wrapping her own argument around it, she undergoes what Barthes calls a “distinctive experience” that is characterized by imagination rather than just the way language is structured (“Structuralist” 871). To be clear, she is creating dialogue out of posted images of words and forwarding it through a new platform of expression.

Wysocki stresses that what we perceive to be older historical models of moveable type were peppered with efforts to include images in discourse. Her observation is noteworthy here regarding new media and its continuity with the old media it hails from:

The technologies of the printing press were never static, and could have gone in other directions than those who that made the reproduction of photographs, illustrations, charts, and graphs or of non-rectangular text shapes more technically difficult or expensive than the reproduction of linear type . . . . [W]riters who published through a printing press could push for layouts other than the linear lines of type that we associate with academic writing (13).

To further illustrate Wysocki’s point, below is a Tumblr image in which the interface resembles a daily newspaper. The vertical “family tree” of users reblogging the prompt is seen structurally across the screen, uniting a disparate group of web visitors through the reblogging of emotions that leave them feeling insecure or seeking approval of fellow users:

A Tumblr 'Conversation,' Figure 3.0

Above is a merge of old and new habits of mind on the web: we see the linear progression of the prompt the way we would in discussion boards developed in the mid to late 1990s, but there is a new method of expression that is visual and interactive, centering on community through ideas captured as avatars. This chain of individual avatars represents what Barthes calls “something new” in the user’s imagination and experience. Its chain is “generally intelligible,” with “intellect added to object[s],” creating an “anthropological value, in that it is man himself, his history, his situation” (872). Again, to return momentarily to the visual or photographic nature of this post, the studium, as Barthes says, may be the post’s content about feelings of isolation, but the punctum here may be the set of vertical lines, stretching between names and avatars, growing darker and structuring the conversation as it progresses in the threaded interaction of speakers. These lines draw us in because we are not as accustomed to seeing writing filed under such explicit markers of participation; most communication on social networking sites moves without such policed certainty across the page.

While I do not suggest that multitasking on other sites causes a complete breakdown of structure and streamlined information, I do wonder whether an excess of design features on other sites can make a user feel less comfortable when engaging in communication. One example might include the current use of sending messages in Facebook. Today the design of Facebook features a message function that makes notes appear as instant chat lines in a window, causing the user some confusion as to whether s/he is sending an email or chatting in synchronous time with another person. This merge of functionality in the design is not making communication necessarily more attractive to those who log on; rather, it gives a user pause when trying to discern what sort of interplay of words is actually transpiring.

The Genealogy of Communication

This multimodality, typical of most social networking sites, is also typical of Tumblr. However, Tumblr, while substantially visual and capable of supporting multimedia, is built around a model of linear forwarding and genealogical grounding of where words or messages originate. Although this record of forwards may essentially be random (users do not have to be friends or followers to comment or forward a person’s message), Tumblr includes a design that centers on the vertical placement of lines to order and track the relays of a message’s content in cyberspace. Looking at Tumblr, one sees the genealogy constructed with every user’s response, regardless of the arbitrary link that each post may possess in succession to the following one. Each message’s creation is documented in an assembly line of users who “liked” it or forwarded its contents on a dashboard. To illustrate, in Figure 4.0 below users tease one another about their favorite celebrity:

Tumblr Conversation Among Multiple Users with Vertical Lines Indicating Speakers, Figure 4.0

Looking at this interface initially makes creation and original composition hard to trace: do the lines indicate, as they grow darker, the beginning of the playful talk about celebrity physique, or do they do the opposite? Again, the eyes see the vertical lines as punctuating the scene, but admittedly the presence of lines does not make communication immediately linear and legible. When examining the responses more closely, the visual image suggests that the conversation is moving from right to left across the screen, and so is the “tree” of postings; the eyes are immediately drawn to the lines despite the playful interaction of comments about a favorite tv star. For example, user janekrahe’s “Sorry boys; she’s NOT your type” responds to user mylovelyladylips’s declaration that he or she is “tapping that.” Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories on language include an analogy to a game of chess in which language possesses “a set of rules that exists before the game even begins and persists after each move” (64, italics mine). In addition, this game may be explained with the following principle: that each move “has the unique characteristic of being freed from all antecedent positions; the route used in arriving there makes absolutely no difference” (65). This idea does not reflect the conversation about the celebrity in Tumblr but has direct implications for Tumblr’s other dominant forwarding feature, the “notes,” as seen below in Figure 5.0:

Tumblr 'Notes' Beneath a Post, Organized Chronologically and Vertically, Figure 5.0

Here again the passage of this entry from one user to another is not akin to linearity as much as I would argue it resembles a systematic exchange among a group of users, similar to a chess game that employs a set of pieces. Both move with a purpose that is not readily discerned upon casual viewing of its progression.  Saussure’s chess analogy continues with the following: “[O]ne who has followed the entire match has no advantage over the curious party who comes up at a critical moment to inspect the state of the game” (65). His theories stress the arbitrary nature of his famous concepts of sign making. It is not only the original signified and signifier at stake but also the arbitrary nature of starting a game in the first place. The pieces, just like the notes on the interface, however, do possess relational properties and function as communal active links in a larger system. In Tumblr, a user may join a conversation and redirect it, but the design of the post moves vertically downward and chronologically in ways that allows the reader to follow the interplay of language as it has been archived. 

This notion of archiving in blogs is a return to the early days of Internet communication. In fact, the very structure of blogging in its early inception was designed around the notion of a “detailed chronological record, updated periodically, with its origins in marine navigation.” In other words, “the marked chronology and regularity of updating mandatory features of the log, are bequeathed to the blog, along with the implication that the genre is the record of a journey whose details may be significant to others” (Miller and Shepherd 1464). In this genre Tumblr acts as a newcomer to the field because it deals in smaller segments of text (as a subgenre called a“microblog”), but its marking of chronology and regularity of visitor comments build upon one another in vertical trees of meaning that resemble a record of users lurking or reacting to the content. Someone using Tumblr may also discover when a post or repost surfaced on the dashboard by clicking the upper right corner of a microblog’s entry, which then reveals the hidden information of “June 16th, 4:00pm”  beneath the flow of content. In this way, Tumblr becomes something entirely different, yet it also retains similarities to original blogging design and its roots in travel records. The space beneath the posts is reserved as a true “log” of visitors who have gathered information and then posted it onward, making their own cyber journey through a manipulation of shared language.

Tumblr departs from the hypermedia models examined today because it reinforces an older model of writing in which documentation of usage and histories of argument are explicitly known to the viewer. Although this social network exists in the eras of Web 2.0 and 3.0, the format itself seems more akin to early designs of websites whose visual organization resembled newspapers with vertical and horizontal columns of text.  Pathways of conversation running up and down and left to right are often more compelling than the sight of the users’ avatar picture or link to another personal page. The idea of the traceable path and the visualization of lines that represent it seem to be a focal point of social networking in Tumblr.

Visual Wonders and Limitations in Tumblr

In any social networking website, the workings of its communication system are built on simulacra, or imitations, of real face to face discourse. As Barthes sees the simulacrum as   “intellect added to object” (“Stucturalist” 872), we can better understand how even when users forward messages, pictures, and video, they reframe such texts with meta-commentary to make their own views of them clear to the public. Still, what is fascinating about Tumblr is its unification of old and new forms of visual representation, even when meta-commentary as we understand it in social networking terms is absent from the blog, and materials are distributed as “reblogs” only.  Lev Manovitch explains that even the earliest versions of movie projectors built narrative around existing materials rather than telling stories from scratch as the “magic lantern exhibitioner was, in fact, an artist who skillfully arranged a presentation of slides bought from distributors,” creating “authorship” out of the very act of “selection” (130).  Manovitch further asserts that the twenty-first century approach to new media includes an effort to make “a seamless whole” out of disparate elements, eliminating the “dissonance” that once punctured the montages of Web 1.0 creations (144). Tumblr both adheres to and resists this hypothesis, since the presentation of most blog posts does include some elements of dissonance. An example includes the series of television stills below:

Scene from Showtime’s television series Dexter, Figure 6.0

Here a blogger represents a favorite scene from Dexter by placing moving jpegs in two columns, with the sequence going across and then down the page, as if the televised action has become a graphic novel. The blogger, or in this case the “reblogger” who has taken this series of stills from a previous blogger(s), has added the captioning necessary to make the graphic communicate the characters’ dialogue. This method of grabbing and refurnishing scenes from tv shows or films is common on Tumblr, and fans are able to create the graphic renderings needed to communicate their affection for certain moments that they wish to preserve and share with others.4 The emphasis here is on continuity and not collage, with the exception of having to move frequently downward with the images to accommodate the scrolling screen’s boundaries.

However, while the focus remains planted in notions of clear sequencing, the only way in which to preserve the proper ordering of lines by the actors is to show both performers looking in the wrong direction. Both characters flirt with each other in this narrative, but their affectionate gazes draw the viewer outward to the sides of the screen, toward the edges of the dashboard screen rather than toward the center where they should belong. The continuity inherent in placing lines of dialogue in proper sequence, while creating a fun and warmly comedic studium of captioning and narrative logic, violates the original intention of the television experience by allowing boundaries of space and organization to hinder comprehension, creating the dissonance that is common to collage. It is not particularly helpful to label this dissonance as punctum, since Barthes would say that the punctum is “a kind of subtle beyond” or an “addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (italics in original, Lucida 59, 55). Structurally speaking, the illogical direction of the characters’ respective gazes is not a subtle point but rather a concrete limitation to the graphic sequence as a whole.

I offer this moment of dissonance to reaffirm the surprising value of written text in Tumblr and how it escapes the sometimes clunky assemblage of a series of still or moving images. A graphic narrative based in written lines of highlighted or enlarged text may paradoxically facilitate the experience of experiencing the punctum more than a series of images does (the paradox being that Barthes’ punctum was a concept rooted in photography). As I suggested earlier, the punctum, or “the kind of subtle beyond” on Tumblr is best represented the series of darkening lines that connect the ideas of one user to the next as more people respond to an originating post of information (see Figure 3.0). This visualization of an online “conversation” through the vertical lines is what Barthes refers to as the thing “added” but also “already there.”  It is additive in the sense that conversation is growing, and it is “already there” because microblogging exists in forwards and tumbling paths to begin with.

I suggest that textual analysis in Tumblr, seen as a genealogical tree of meanings connected among users, leads to more nuanced inspection of structure than the mere reproduction of photos, first because it operates in surprising opposition with Karp’s founding idea of keeping text at a minimum and second because it creates an image of dialogue at work, something that is often hard to see in sharp focus on another site like Twitter that truly does limit the number of characters in a post. This is not to say that the use of still or moving images on Tumblr does not deserve attention. In fact, the genealogical tree of meanings created from user interaction is, in fact, an image, just one of conversation and not necessarily of objects, people, or places.

But the contents of the image, when consisting of written text, offer a reminder that old-fashioned ways of writing and responding to ideas are still merging with the new ways.5

This valuing of text may be an interesting contestation, albeit a slightly fragile one due to the visual nature of micro-blogging, to the assertion made by Gunther Kress in his analysis of multimodality. He says, “[L]anguage alone cannot give us access to the meaning of the multimodally constituted message: language and literacy now have to be seen as partial bearers of meaning” (35). Kress’s observation on literacy champions multimodality in a manner that allows us to examine more closely what Tumblr users are doing. Indeed, users always employ a web design that include avatars next to their names, and they do cut and paste digital images of paper or geometric spaces to place texts alongside each other, but the dominant communicative tool, in a surprising number of posts, is print itself, not a reliance on text as doing just part of the work.

Tumblr’s Rhetoric of Functionality

Before concluding, it is also important to point out that this process of tumbling through meaning in the form of microblogs occasionally causes problems. When considering Tumblr, it would be difficult to avoid discussion of the platform’s multiple problems in maintaining functionality. While Tumblr has reduced the amount of sudden crashing of the dashboard’s content, the site often went down unexpectedly in its early years, much to the chagrin of those who posted entries frequently. While the failure of Tumblr to operate is related more to the servers that facilitate its online presence and not the users or designers who have created its rhetorical system within it, the warning message designed to indicate a failure of operation deserves some attention as a return to older images of technology and to earlier ideas about language and its struggle to manage a large system of individual units who relate in multiple ways. Barthes describes the activity of Structuralism as “the shudder of an enormous machine which is humanity tirelessly undertaking to create meaning” (“Structuralist” 874), and Tumblr’s inability to produce meaning due to the overflow of usage echoes this idea as it is known for continual imagery associated with such a phenomenon. More importantly, when Tumblr’s own platform breaks down, the following appears, as seen in Figure 7.0:

Tumblr’s Error Message and its Animation, Figure 7.0

The old ways present themselves in this image of an early model of the CPU or “machine” that is “tirelessly undertaking to create meaning” and in the trope of malfunctioning or malformed platforms being devoured by animated creatures, or gremlins, with devious motives. The new ways of loading excess amounts of images and video are often the cause of the temporary crash. Although such errors are most likely due to server problems than the design of the users or their texts, the error image itself becomes part of the discourse that visitors associate with Tumblr’s meaning. The simulacrum communicates to the viewer that Tumblr is subject to both motivated structures (the system is down unexpectedly due to “mutiny” or not feeding the “wild Tumbeasts”) and arbitrary but diachronic events (“we’ll be back shortly”) that prevent its pages from loading. When examining the error message above more closely, we see that the problem with functionality has been articulated in animated form to alleviate user frustration through use of humor and the myth of machines being helpless against the presence of  unidentifiable organisms that jam the most vital organs of a piece of technology.  Indeed, Tumblr has had its share of gremlins: a Google search about Tumblr’s problems reveals numerous complaints, questions, and theories as to why the server crashes frequently. If Tumblr is carrying the weight of so many dashboards and their multimedia objects, Barthes might suggest that it is simply “shuddering” under the burden of so much dissection and articulation of messages that users send to their followers. Even if this server has nothing to do with the presentation of language as it occurs in microblogs, the message relaying the faulty system reinforces the notion that Tumblr has a new method of communicating its own structural workings and technological malfunction.

The large slits in the image’s three CPUs resemble those that would have been used for the insertion of large floppy discs, and the large green and red buttons on the objects suggest that the main functionality of a computer is either to be turned on or off, something that does communicate the message that Tumblr is currently “off” or unavailable. The animated gremlins running off with the modem of large size is also a potential rhetorical compromise between the old and new: it pictures a system run by cable modem rather than wireless access. This consistent throwback to older ideas about technology is what makes Tumblr a fascinating site of analysis. Not only does it work and display its functionality in linear and diachronic ways (postings occur at a precise moment in time, such as Friday, 4:00pm), but even its announcement of malfunction draws on the collective memories of those users who once owned computers that “shuddered” under the weight of so much data and were clumsy to maintain.

Implications and Conclusion

The expression “everything old is new again” is an important adage for rhetoricians examining new media and the habits of its users. Tumblr in some ways, but not in others, stands in contrast to what Henry Jenkins refers to as “participatory culture” (3) because Tumblr may function either as a major source of collective activity or simply allow passive viewing of a dashboard that scrolls and forwards without active reconstitution of the interface itself and the posts within it, posts that often recycle former messages but do not promote new ones. Looking at any reframing of a forward does hint at the idea that participation and retooling of older rhetorical designs are at the heart of Tumblr’s rhetoric.  Forwarding sometimes occurs more often than digital scrapbooking or retooling itself. To speak in a language we are more familiar with (the Twitter language), we might say that “retweets” outnumber the actual “tweets” in a dashboard, making it easy to punch a button without reframing original content at all.

The presentation of Tumblr, while making us look more closely at microbloggers and their habits, also raises questions about older habits and theories of textual expression accompanying images. Its very hybridity and merging of binaries through the interplay of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century models of technology and design, or the active and the passive forwarding of posts on a dashboard, create opportunities for more research to be done on this relatively new phenomenon.  The rapidity and simplicity of creating a Tumblr account means that users have learned to upload multimodal artifacts and communicate faster, but it does not mean that they have forgotten what the world was like when the visualization of a print message operated according to simple columns and lines. Muchmore uses words like “easy” and “not a hassle” to describe the creation of an account on Tumblr, but its blend of old and new suggest users today are still eager to attribute authorship and create hierarchies of information in ways that continue to surprise us.

Works Cited

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Notes
1Lucida also includes serious contemplations of mortality and the photograph’s relationship to a spectator’s grief, particularly Barthes’ own feelings of loss after his mother’s death. While such themes are interesting, the main project here is to use his terminology for closely examining still images and to allow that terminology to help us think differently about Tumblr’s visual and print rhetoric.

2At the time of this article’s completion, Tumblr’s popularity has been eclipsed by another social networking site launched in 2010 called Pinterest, in which members may tag images of things they like and then share them with friends in a scrolling feed. Members may then “repin” these images in their own feeds. Pinterest, however, does not call itself a blogging site; text itself is short or rare, mainly added to label or classify the images featured. While Pinterest’s popularity would be a productive site of critical investigation alongside Tumblr, the use of text as it guides and reinforces meaning in images in Tumblr is what I find compelling and unique to this particular site.

3In various interviews with Karp that are available online, the founder stresses his lack of interest in writing large amounts and his desire to facilitate easy creative expression. When offering a formal introduction of Karp’s background, speakers allude to his entrepreneurial spirit at age 15 when he left high school to start his own blogging company and to fill a need by designing a site that allows short, creative posts (Mashable ). What makes Tumblr’s rhetoric so interesting in this sense is the proliferation of texts in which close readings and long entries continue to be forwarded, despite the founder’s original intent.

4In order to post previously filmed or photographed items, users may obtain freeware online that will “grab” images from the computer screen and/or record sounds. Bernard Robin and Daniel Tillman list Freescreencast.com and Jing as options for this practice. Users also work with the free program Media Converter to post previously posted video on a site like YouTube. Robin and Tillman also explain how devices like OnAir Creator capture cable or satellite television programs and save them to a computer (152-57).

5I also focus on text here because other careful studies of visual images on the web already exist. One example is Susan H. Delagrange’s idea of viewing online media as part of a contemporary “wunderkammer,” or wondrous collection of objects. In “Wunderkammer, Cornell, and the Visual Canon of Arrangement,”  Delagrange describes  the original wunderkammer  as “cabinets of curiosities” from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that could excite explorers who found them to confront the boundary of what is known and what is unknown. In this work, Delagrange is clearly linking the old with the new. Bridging this early form of wondrous discovery found in cabinets of curiosities with the contemporary age of wondrous discovery in cyberspace were artist Joseph Cornell’s collages and collections of “found” objects from the twentieth century that were arranged in a new way. Cornell’s “found” materials, according to Delagrange, remind us of today’s web activity because they  included the application of layers, mirrors, screens, and holes to suggest following a path through meaning that is made new by forwarding and arranging those things that already exist. This sense of wonder accompanying the juxtaposition of visual images and their occasional dissonance seems most similar to Tumblr’s creative process, where the images found on a scrolling dashboard include new designs grabbed and assembled from old materials.


Biography: K. Shannon Howard is a third-year PhD student at the University of Louisville, where her research interests include digital rhetoric, pop culture narratives in the classroom, and gender performance in pedagogy and composition. Previous publications include “Charles Gunn, Wolfram and Hart, and Baudrillard’s Theory of the Simulacrum” in Literature and Joss Whedon’s Angel and “An Auditory Journey through Dante’s Inferno” in Learning and Leading with Technology.

© 2012 K. Shannon Howard, used by permission


Technoculture Volume 2 (2012)