sheep at a trough

Feeding at the Tumblr Trough

sheep at a trough
photo: Nick Pickles /

CYBERSPACE, 11 March — in a world of 7 billion souls, is it reasonable, is it possible at all, to expect to have “unique” ideas? To be “creative?” When the Art History PhD’s helming MOMA or the Tate or the global culture institution of your choice “reblog” 20th centuriers like Jackson Pollock or 21st centurions like Mike Kelley, the trough they semi-communally feed at may be a different one than the trough of internet memes that peeps like Tumblr users reblog from, yet aren’t prestigious museum curators and ordinary public Tumblrers each reblogging from their own parallel troughs?

I first used Tumblr in 2007, not long after then 20-year-old Fred Seibert protege/prodigy David Karp launched the service. I saw it as a unique, powerful, sexy content platform. I was instantly enamored with “archive view” which I dubbed “zeitgeist view” with it’s unprecedented power and simplicity in synopsizing or metaviewing or zeitgeistification of your online/conscious stream. But I also used to chant “I don’t get Tumblr” and was frustrated by the balkanization of its own screen modes. I largely ignored Tumblr for the next 4 years and then in late 2011 fell in love with Karp’s masterpiece all over again. Whether in the intervening 4 years Tumblr had moved closer to me, or my brain to Tumblr, or a meeting in-the-middle, I’m uncertain, but somehow Tumblr made a lot more sense now.

pigs at a trough
photo: Diane Earl

You don’t have to reblog on Tumblr, and you can reblog on WordPress, still, WordPress feels like new text (if not new ideas) and Tumblr smells like reblog. But if prestigious curators can reblog culture, if Picasso can reblog African masks, why can’t “ordinary” people reblog culture too? And isn’t it the same thing? Curators reblog artists to create global culture. Tumblr users reblog internet memes to create personal culture. Or to be a part of creating global culture, but bottom-up like the 21st century, instead of top-down like the 20th century. Or just to create a personal “totem” of their life, feelings, and adventures on-and-off-line.

So the Tumblr Trough of internet / pop-culture memes is analogous to, and as valid as, the high-culture memes of the institutional elite. Or the high is as low as the pop. Either way, analogous. And yet today I find myself mired in the unbounded sprawl of the troughless ocean of reblogged memes. Is the issue focus? Cultural institutions don’t have curator of all-things-cool and worth looking at, rather they have curator of 17th century European paintings. When a site like reblogs content it’s hard to even notice it’s a reblog because their curatorial focus is so strong that they only reblog work that fits almost seamlessly with their own new content. Yet so many of us, understandably, reblog, like life and the world, much more widely.

Vaneeesa Blaylock, Padmavati, and DJ Haraway in Second Life.

I don’t know if one can be a “new friend” and a “good friend,” but I feel like Padmavati is both. Or perhaps a recently met kindred spirit. If nothing else, she is a unique and compelling presence in cyberspace. Her original Tumblr, launched about 8 weeks ago, was a remarkable journal of powerful, detailed, essays or daily diaries of her life in cyberspace. I was blown away. And then some sort of Tumblr account fuss ensued and she lost both her content and her username. Perhaps defeated from the loss of all the effort poured into the original work, or perhaps simply realizing what a massive daily project she’d set for herself, Padmavati’s Tumblr Mark II has evolved to, forgive me, look just like everybody else’s Tumblr.
Padmavati: Born of the Lotus

Pennyroyal Calamity, Ironyca Lee, Trilby Minotaur, Vaneeesa Blaylock, Heathers Miles, Caestan, and Zenevieva in World of Warcraft.

Meanwhile, Ironyca’s WordPress blog on her WoW adventures has become ever more powerful and and gained, forgive me, an unexpected cultural urgency. In a virtual space like Second Life many people call themselves artists; as far as I know, in a space like WoW, almost no one does. Yet through a combination of her own analytic intelligence and the strength of a platform that feels like it favors ideas over shiny buttons, Ironyca has ascended even as so many Tumblrs have become mired in the LOLs of playing hot potato with memes.
Ironyca Stood in the Fire


But we live in a culture of shiny buttons. We live in a world of sexy iPad interface consumerism. We live in a world of Facebook status updates. My cousin the IT guy constantly tells me that any technology more complicated than Facebook will fail. Well, everything is more complicated than Facebook. What he actually says is that if he provides the sales force at his corporation with any tool more complicated than Facebook, that the sales force will: A) Not use it, and then B) Complain that they have no tools.

I broke up with Tumblr 4 years ago. Somehow we got together again, and for 4 months now we’ve had crazy internet-meme-sex at all hours and in more positions than I ever imagined possible. My sheets are gloriously stained, I kind of like those mornings when it’s actually a little hard to walk, and the occasional skin bruises are like charming mementos. Fun as it’s been, I just don’t know if it means anything. If it adds up to enough. Or if I’m just another notch on another bedpost in the meme forest.

woman painted blue as Kali, surrounded by sheep at trough
photo: Leo Lyons

• Purple Sheep, Nick Pickles
• Pigs at Trough, Diane Earl
• Blue Kali at sheep trough, Leo Lyons

As a virtual public artist my work invites avatar communities to express their identity, explore their culture, and demand their civil rights.

6 thoughts on “Feeding at the Tumblr Trough

  1. I didn’t “get” Tumblr to begin with, in fact I hated it. I now feel like I “get” twitter and Tumblr comes across to me like an extended version of Twitter.
    I often find myself wanting to connect with Tumblr authors, or trying to find out more about them, but their Tumblr pages are often so aesthetically clean that very little meta information is there.

    I’ve also wanted to give feedback or just say something to a Tumblr post, but that’s often not possible. I guess you’re supposed to make your own post as a response? Or maybe you’re not supposed to at all … Okay haha, I thought I “got” Tumblr, but now I’m not sure anymore.

    After having started using Tumblr I noticed that the exact purpose it has for me is condensing and showcasing samples of art. I follow only art Tumblr feeds, and I think it works well for that – exposure and spreading. I’ve even used it just as a log of things I wanted to remember, pictures I liked. Instead of saving them on my hard drive, I just reblogged them.

    If I remember correctly, Tumblr doesn’t speak the RSS or feed language other platforms use. Tumblr follows Tumblr. I don’t think you can actually add a Tumblr feed to a reader, which is so annoying, correct me if I’m wrong.

    1. I have to check on Tumblr/RSS, it’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t exist at this late date. Yes, I’ve felt the same inability to connect on Tumblr. Someone told me that there was a “sort” of 4chan influence on Tumblr, IDK if that’s exactly true, but that it doesn’t want to connect the way other platforms do. Yes, instead of commenting you reblog, but that makes dialog different and in some ways less. But lots of peeps add Disqus, so then you have normal old comments and dialog.

      I do still think Tumblr is very visually sexy. And I agree it’s a great scrapbook. But so many peeps scrapbooks wind up sliding into looking more like the internet than like them… so it IS useful for them… but it isn’t for an audience.

      By contrast, boring old WordPress blogs, sure there are abandoned ones and anemic ones… but they do have more of a feel of a persona to them. Padmavati and others have shown that you can do extended, excellent text on Tumblr, but I think I’ll probably keep my text on WordPress, and try to post mostly original (hahaha, if I can resist the lure of the reblog) images. You can’t beat Tumblr for visual candy!

    1. I see… which one is it that doesn’t then… Posterous?

      Anyways, I agree, Tumblr is so edible. Sometimes I find myself plowing through it faster than I really want to. In your analogy – it’s a quickie! It lines it all up for me on the dashboard ready for me to chopstick my way down and 5 mins later I ate it all so quickly that I’m off somewhere else to get dessert.

  2. Maybe we’d do better to think of Tumblr as a party. The pseudo-intellectual pontificating at the party (me) isn’t really a lot of fun, but the peeps wearing sexy clothes, sharing internet memes, drinking, and dancing, they’re the lifeblood of the party. Nobody goes to Facebook expecting profound ideas, you go to see baby photos from your relatives who live far away. Tumblr is a pretty good party, maybe that’s enough…

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