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ESSAY / On Tumblr: An Almost Elegy / Nikki Barnhart

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It wasn’t long ago that Tumblr was one of the most popular sites on the Internet—some might say it was the veritable heartbeat of online culture, at least for a time. Now, if you log on, you’ll see a much sparser dashboard, interspersed with ads, the online equivalent of tumbleweeds blowing across a desert. Many of your favorite users are probably no longer active, if their account even still exists. Where have the days of endless scrolling gone, when the feed felt infinite and cluttered with the best of the ephemera the internet had to offer, when Tumblr felt like a distinct destination with its own identity, a world in itself—alive in the way the internet used to feel, not so long ago? 

 

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I was always intrigued by the idea of blogging but I never really committed. This could have been because I was between ten and fourteen when sites like Xanga and Livejournal had their heyday, and my excessive self-consciousness birthed a rare payoff: I somehow, miraculously, had the foresight to realize that everything I had to say would probably be incredibly embarrassing looking back. 

I guess I never really got the appeal of baring your naked soul on the internet. The validation of other people reading and responding to your virtual diary entries that these platforms granted was always overshadowed for me by inhibition: yeah, writing in an actual diary was like screaming into a vacuum, but also, no one could judge me. No one could connect with me either, but I would sacrifice connection for a place where I could be myself, unrestrained.  

Tumblr, though, was different. For one, I loved its clean, minimalist aesthetic (in fact, it may have been responsible for bringing that now trite, ubiquitous term to the Internet in the first place). It popularized the design and manipulation of a certain idea or feeling—and how this essence of something larger could be better, stronger, than the direct expression of it. 

Also, especially in its infancy, it was mostly images and quotes, and other short bursts of text. You could communicate your life, implicitly, without giving too much away. In fact, you could easily use Tumblr to its greatest capacity without saying anything outwardly about yourself or your life at all. It gave us the opportunity to gracefully decoupage our identities while avoiding the me-me-me of MySpace.

Tumblr led the pack in what became known as “content curation,” something that has become so normative, it feels entwined in everyday life—this insatiable desire for a refreshed flow of variations on a theme, this constant rumination of a single thought again and again, a compulsive need for stimulation, a cyclical life of scopophilia. There was a dangerous side to this too—indulging unhealthy thoughts, communities dedicated to “thinspo,” drugs, shoplifting, and more. 

While many people used Tumblr professionally, and utilized it like a traditional blog (I still believe it was great for that—less glitchy and more user-friendly than other similar platforms in my experience), it garnered most of its reputation as a deeply personal site. For me, and many others, it enabled you to curate a personal museum of things you loved. 

My posting was very sparse at first, as I avoided the dashboard feed on the site’s main page (colloquially known as ‘the dash’). I vowed to only post pictures that spoke to me found on other places on the internet, and quotes that I had read somehow else. I had a quote book I started in 7th grade, and this served as a virtual component of that, with images and audio embedded throughout, like a multi-media collage. It was a neat dumping ground for cool stuff I found, at its most essential. But I soon realized that the “reblog” feature was how the site functioned. And once I started utilizing it, a whole other world opened, and I learned about new writers and artists and strange places and so many other things I may have never known about otherwise. It was the perfect platform for introverts like me, whose shyness did not decline by the fact of being relatively anonymous: you didn’t have to share or comment (there was barely a space to do that, and that wasn’t even the point, really)—all you had to do is click “reblog.” 

Even after embracing the reblog button, I still didn’t really use Tumblr as a social media. I only shared my URL with a few close friends, had a few mutual followers (“mutuals”) but never actively sought out actually befriending any other users. For me, it served as an even deeper void I could yell into, a better one than a hand-written diary, one that produced a more satisfying echo. Because I didn’t have to write out how I felt in words—sometimes there just weren’t words to describe how I felt. Or I would feel dumb for writing something in ink that would turn out untrue as time went on—like being convinced a boy liked me when he didn’t, or thinking I had just spent the most perfect day with my best friend but really it was the beginning of a long slow process of growing apart. I’ve always had difficulty writing about the present moment. I feel like I can only reflect months later. And by then, the moment is lost. But Tumblr enabled me to finally access how I feel in the moment. 

I flip back through my Tumblr frequently, utilizing its handy and accessible archives—it’s the most direct way to access my former lives. How did I feel in the fall of my freshman year of college? I was lonely and lost, but posting Richard Brautigan’s “Karma Repair Kit” (the memory of reading it in a dog-eared used paperback curled up on the floor of my college town bookstore coming back to me now) and an mp3 of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” (before I wore it down from playing it on loop that first Thanksgiving back home) articulate this better than my own words ever could, let me re-experience what exact type of lonely I was, and remind me how the loneliness was mixed with other things, like twinges of excitement at the sheer newness of the experience. I see pictures of Whistler’s “The Falling Rocket” and remember learning about it in my late-night Intro to Art History class, to walk home later across the dark autumnal campus at 7:15, checking my phone for texts from the boy back home. I see a series of Chris Ware’s New Yorker covers, a transcription of Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” an acoustic cover of Modest Mouse’s “The World at Large.” Upon seeing these old posts, I remember why exactly I gravitated towards them in the first place and felt compelled to rebroadcast them back into the universe, putting my own mark on them, in some small way, in the prcoess. Of course, we never really owned the things we reblogged—but sometimes, it felt like I did given how close they came to define my interior state. 

I can jump to other moments in my life within seconds—fast forward four years to the month I graduated and there’s lyrics from “Broadripple is Burning” by Margot and the Nuclear So&So’s, (the go-to soundtrack to driving around backroads in my friend’s old Jeep), a photo collage of images from the Mad Men finale, pictures of my own campus, with a caption from the final lines of Boyhood: “it’s constant, the moments, it’s like it’s always right now.” 

There’s something about scrolling through these items against the white background, the gifs playing and replaying ad infinitum, the audio posts silent until I click them and make them alive. I miss digging through the bowels of the Internet for esoteric shit—or at least, stuff that seemed that way; I miss the thrill of the search into the great unknown. 

Everything feels too geographic now, too many drop-pins, too many geo-tags. As the internet evolved into a more goal-oriented sanitary place, pretending to be your friend while really subtly—or not subtly—just trying to mine your what information about you is marketable, Tumblr somehow seemed to lose its grip on us. But I for one still want beautiful pictures with no context, with no comments—just exisiting, to take or leave. Let me keep screaming, singing, making my own noise, unaccompanied, into the void. 


Nikki Barnhart lives in New York City, where she works in book publishing. She has been published in the Rumpus, Newtown Literary, the Review Review, and Maudlin House, as well as the music and culture blog Alt Citizen.