I feel like I’ve been here, but I know I haven’t
I feel like I’ve been here, but I know I haven’t
Big news for Tumblr today. I’m a bit of a Tumblr fanboy — a fan of the service, the community, the amazing team, and of David Karp who has been a continually impressive CEO.
I published my first post just over three years ago. Since then, I have created 15+ blogs and this will be my 450th post on this blog alone.
Tumblr has meant a lot to me. But I really want to talk about what I feel it means to the millions of people that have found a home there. And I’ve put a lot of time in to trying to understand why that is.
Tumblr is about a specific type of identity. I’ll come back to that in a bit. First, a little more on what identity can mean to users these days.
For a long time, the internet was a haven for anonymous identity, people who wanted to be someone entirely other than their real-world selves. Anonymous identity is an important part of the internet, but the problem is it is not liquid. You cannot translate that anonymous social capital into real world capital.
On the other side of the spectrum is real identity. When Facebook bucked the MySpace trend and required new users to sign-up with a real name, it set itself apart as a network where the social norm is to represent some version of your real world self. This representation is as liquid as identity gets. This is the social capital you might use to make friends, find a job, and operate in the real world as a credible person.
But Tumblr is something in between. It’s where your aspirational identity lives. Aspirational identity is a projection of where you want your real identity to be in 2, 5, 10 years.
These are not new ideas — aspirational identity has been around since kids have been lining their bedroom walls with posters of sports cars and rock stars. What makes Tumblr an incredible home for aspirational identity is that it allows users to escape the confines of their real identity and have this future view of themselves validated. You could be a high school-aged boy growing up in the rural midwest who is obsessed with dance, or a teen girl from a struggling family that dreams of traveling the world. Your circumstances might destroy your confidence, limit your opportunities, and strangle your aspirations. But on Tumblr, on a simple platform for self-expression, you have an audience ready and willing to validate not just who you are, but who you see yourself becoming. We are all, in some way, bound by circumstance. Aspiration is how we move beyond those bounds.
What I love about the internet and Tumblr specifically is this: it has given form to what people want to become. It has made aspirations real, tangible, living, and changing.
Think about aspirational identity and real identity on opposite ends of a weighted scale. When we are young, who we are might be less important to us than who we want to become. (Think about young children playing house or pretending to be an astronaut.) College might be where aspiration and reality reach equilibrium. We are shaping who we really are, driven by who we want to become. Then later in our adult life, we suppress aspiration and focus on our “real” selves.
This might spell doom for Tumblr. Is it a home that people just eventually grow out of and move on from? I don’t believe so. I think this Tumblr-using generation has somehow figured out what we would all do well to learn. Aspiration is important to all of us and, we start to lose something of ourselves when we settle into our real identity and stick there. It is the interplay of aspiration and reality that make us dynamic, always-moving entities that are interesting precisely because we can’t be pinned down. These are the people that are inventing and re-inventing themselves all the time and that ghost of an identity that lived only as dreams and whispers before now has a form for full expression.
Anyway, this is a long-winded love letter to Tumblr. I have high hopes for their future. I’ll be sticking with them for a long long time.
- Remember that question I was asked about my current solo show? This guy just explained the bulk of what I was trying to illustrate—particularly the final paragraph. I started my Tumblr blog in 2009. Early posts contain mainly reblogs. My “aspirational self,” as Cummings calls it, and escapism merged on this platform as a refuge in many ways for me at a time when I was uncertain what path I really wanted to take. Time passed and soon the reblogs were mainly quotes and the images and majority of text came from my own uploaded content. Suddenly this “aspirational self” was taking precedence and I wasn’t as unsure about it as I was when I started blogging in this space. The reason my blog name is “tobia” instead of “toyin odutola” was because I was unsure how to present myself online and was also hiding behind the safe haven of anonymity. When I commenced graduate school, I cataloged everything. It helped me gain more confidence. I finally revealed my name more and more on my blog, no longer ashamed of it as I was back in ‘09. Around this time, my aspirational self and real self were merging and flexing. It was an exiting time and the blog posts reflected that. Now, it’s 2013, about 5 years in with this blog and it’s a strange feeling. So much of the me now came from all the discourse and sharing and interaction happening here. It’s strange to think of Tumblr in that way, but I cannot deny that having such a platform accessable and available shaped me. —TO
SUMMER OF KATE