Tag Archives: tumblr

2014: Standing out from the pack

I reminisce that I was once a novelty. A novelty, at least, when it came to the fact that I shared my life on the Internet. I remember, over a decade ago, being the only person with a digital camera at a party in our parent’s basement. I remember the MSN messenger noises that would ping when people asked me when I was going to share the photos they saw me took, the ones they posed for. And I remember Photobucket (or shutterfly, or snapfish, or whatever now defunct photo hosting website I used at the time) crashing from the traffic. The dozen or so teenagers wanting to laugh at the digital photos I had taken only hours earlier, emailing them to the people who weren’t there, look at this, the novelty of the instantaneousness of the thing.

I also remember my sisters asking me after having read my blog, “how can you share so much of yourself with strangers?” The concerned voice of my parents, the emails from strangers about the audaciousness of it all. It felt harmless for the most part, but so good, too.

A screenshot of an old blog description, an awkwardly written teenage biography. The text shows broken links and broken image links.

Re-reading those dead blogs now, I can remember the feelings even more vividly, as the heat of embarrassment fades from my face. Fuck, it felt brash, it felt good, it felt original to a certain extent. And it felt necessary.

Things have shifted since then. For me, and for the Internet. Since 2010, at least, I have been joking about being the last of my friends (my generation? insert relevant emoji here) to not have a smart phone, and this remains true today. In recent years, I decided I didn’t want to swim in The Stream, as it had been dubbed. An apt term in many ways, but I often imagined it more as tsunami than a peaceful babbling brook.

I used to blame these factors – no cell phone, nostalgic almost luddite-leaning tendencies – for the disconnect. How maddening it is for me to try and understand virality as a measure of merit or quality, the thinkpieces… if you could call such thoughtless things something with the word think in the title, the megaphones for the masses which instead of fostering fruitful discussions often felt like a cacophony of idiocy. I would find solace in the idea that maybe I just didn’t “get it” because the Beast of the Internet had grown and evolved so much, and because my online habits, in many ways, hadn’t. I worried that maybe I had become the curmudgeon, shaking his fist at a screen because it didn’t reflect him, his face, his ideas, his values or beliefs.

A bright red megaphone emiting cursors (representing clicks) on a yellow background

Image by Oliver Munday for the New Yorker

Whereas I once felt like I was the first of my IRL friends to be on X platform (myspace, friendster come to mind), now I feel late to the party. Late to a party I wasn’t invited to, yet still I often found myself feeling beholden, obliged.

I didn’t like where I saw the Internet going, how I saw it being transformed as a tool. But I’m hardly above it all, and had grown so dependent.

So I shifted. I put my guard up. I succumbed, in many ways, to what is expected of online behaviour. I resisted in others. I typed out – and swiftly deleted – status updates about food or cats or overly emotional moments (positive and negative). I shared fewer and fewer of the thousands of photographs I take.

Instead, I put on an online game face. A mostly faceless online game face, really.

This is what I read, what I liked.

This is an image that strikes me, that I want to reblog.

This is a song that moves me, here are the lyrics (I needed this, I often say).

Here, here is a like or heart or a favourite to let you know I am reading, I am watching, I am here.

 

2014 is easily the year I shared the least of myself online. The fewest photographs, the lowest word count, the least personal. I measure this idea, this “sharing” of myself online, mostly in the public sense – the things I shared open and accessible to anyone who wants to see them. But the same could be said of the amount of emails sent, photos shared within smaller, more personal networks. (I was shocked to find I had only uploaded 36 photos from the year on Flickr, and those, namely for a dear friend who lives halfway across the country and doesn’t use Facebook.)

A screenshot of open tabs on a Google Chrome browser

This is the one thing that stands out to me, that creates a gulf, a rift, between all the other years I’ve stepped back from and taken the time to reflected on online. The lack. How hard it is to piece it all together, to map it out.

In past years, every December, I would spend hours poring over old livejournal or blogger entries, back when I used to write in my livejournal at least once (ONCE!) a day. It was a simple one stop shop for me. Not today. Today it is five or six tabs open, it is instagram/twitter/tumblr/facebook/soundcloud/etc. It is work email accounts, it is split personalities. Livejournal instead feels like a graveyard now. Mine, filled with the names of friends I no longer know, photographs of old lovers, the corpses of questions I asked myself, I asked out loud that have since been answered. In this, I am not alone. It has felt like a graveyard to many twenty somethings for more than half a decade now, so much so that we often joke about it on newer social media platforms, using hashtags, a tool that did not exist back when we used to email each other invite codes to create our very own novelty livejournal accounts.

These are among the multitude of things that struck me as I tried to map out 2014.

No, these feeling of not being able to/not wanting to keep up are not new.

But the feeling of repetitiveness, of sameness, of lost novelty, is.

A film still from Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) showing Chaplin's character stuck in the gears of a giant machine

Sometimes I feel complicit. Complicit in the self-serving navel-gazing break-neck speed at which the Internet whirrs these days. The term “digital native” has dropped out of view but I think of how it felt like me, like a key aspect of my identity even though I’m not technically part of that generation. Sometimes I step back and look at the long term impact of the way the Internet has changed the way we communicate, the way we work, and how we are paid for that work. And when I do, I feel like I’m part of the machine, the same machine mocked by these satirical pieces.

I find solace in the way Jes Skolnik puts their finger on it here, articulating some of my apprehensions:

I am exhausted by clickbait media seeking to capitalize on the frustration of the marginalized by churning out thinkpieces (by often-terribly-paid freelancers, the labor exploitation of which is its own thing and has been elegantly written about by many; it is a seriously complicated issue, as any labor issue is, particularly in this economic context) which we are urged to share over and over until the next incident happens and then we share and share until we forget about the last thing and nothing gets solved. It is only reactive, only consumer-based (see: why talking about what cultural product is or isn’t feminist is exhausting too) and very little structural inequity often gets challenged.

Hearing someone else say it feels like a weight off my shoulders.

These reflections were all spurred on by the daunting task that has been looming these past few weeks: tomorrow’s year in review, recommended reading, which songs I was listening to. This ends up being more of a digital version of a diary, a filtered one but very diary-esque in spirit. This is what happened, these were the images and sounds and ideas I consumed, but this is how I felt, this is who I was, as well.

Selectively filtering through, pinpointing the things I want to remember and hold on to. Even though the links will die, the digital platforms they are hosted on will decay. Unendingly nostalgic Julia wants to remember, reminisce, before things have even ended/happened.

A screencap of the author's old livejournal account

What was new about 2014? What did I learn that I didn’t know before? At this distance, my nose still pressed against the glass, my head groggy from lack of sleep, it all feels like a foggy mess. When moments do come into view, when I look at images of police officers wearing shirts that read “I can breathe” – oblivious to the physical and psychological violence they enact – when I read about the most underreported horrors of the year… it all feels the same. Déjà-vu broken record cliché as fuck the same. The propaganda machine, distractify, how the social media sites feel even more effective at the spin of it all than old posters and radio broadcasts. The world is an awful place but a place where I have to live just the same. The sameness.

It makes me angry that the same issues, the same stories, the same dead bodies are the ones that stand out to me about this year. In August, I tweeted that this essay “broke my heart and haunted my dreams.” Sometimes I feel like that’s what the world did to me this year. By the same token, though, I rediscovered rage. The power of it, the empowerment of it. Rage expressed in music with voices like Perfect Pussy, New Fries, Run the Jewels. Rage expressed in art, in a rambling email to your best friend, in an essay you boldly share with millions of strangers on the Internet.

It’s all a balance, right?

Earlier this week, Nathan Jurgenson tweeted this which put some of this mess in perspective:

In my own attempt at slowing the blur, focusing in, some truths have emerged. In 2014, I shared very little of myself online – representations of my visual self. But I did not become cold. I was more frank face to face than I have been in years. I shared, I tried to amplify who was saying it better than I could. I was more intentional. I tried to take more time. I spoke less, I listened more. That’s really not so bad when you look at it.

A self-portrait of the author taken in a mirror. A half-dozen old alarm clocks are in the foreground.

Hopefully reading this, and tomorrow’s year in review, will make you feel like the world has slowed down just a bit.

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a tale of tattoos, zebras, and the importance of context

i’ve had this image saved on the three computers i’ve owned over the course of the past decade. i’ve posted it to livejournal communities, shown it to hairdressers before i knew what “fingerwaves” were, invented stories and lifetimes for her, imagined the details of her tattoos. in the end, all i really knew about her is what my (very tattooed) friend ursula told me in a livejournal comment:

the first pic with the zebra, that girl is a circus freak show girl haha, back in the 20’s and 30’s girls with tattoos were pretty rare…

i always admired this mystery zebra-loving stranger for that, and wouldn’t have thought of it that way if someone had not pointed it out to me. sometimes i daydream of having a tattoo of a tattooed lady on me, and when i do, i still see her face, her cupid’s bows lips. to put it succinctly, this image has been pretty fundamental in helping shape my aesthetics and my imagination from the time i was in my late teens until today.

something that has struck me more recently, however, is how despite the fact that i am seemingly obsessed with this image, it’s ultimately one i know nothing about. absolutely nothing factual, or true, or verifiable – vague inclinations and assumptions at best. does that intrigue me somewhat more than if i knew her name, or at least had a better idea of where and when the photograph was taken?  more than anything, though, it frustrates me. it frustrates me because it’s hardly the only image i’ve had these questions about. it frustrates me because it is indicative of an online culture of circulating and re-circulating images, and stripping them of their original context.

screencap of a tineye.com search

while i’m critical of it, i’m part of that very same system. i’ve been using the internet, creating and taking content, for more than a decade. i saw this image for the first time probably about 7 or 8 years ago… but where? i saw it somewhere online and “right clicked, save as” to my desktop. of course, we’ve all done that far too many times over the years to possibly remember where we saved it from, even if there was information about the photographer/photographed.

who is she? who took the photo? is it a closeup of a larger photograph? who scanned it and shared it online? these are just some of the questions that are increasingly difficult to answer in the digital age. it’s not as though i came across the photo while browsing in an art book, and could easily solve these riddles by reading a caption or the anotated bibliography.

screencap of the weheartit front page and pinterest front page on may 5th, 2012

the propagation of visual “pinboards” and “inspiration sites” make it effortless for images to be stripped of their context, history, and original sources. never mind crediting the person who originally shared the image online; we can’t even find the person who created the image to begin with. i’ve spent far too much time thinking about how my post-secondary education (especially as a history student) emphasized not only the importance but the necessity of citing your sources, ensuring the people who made those statements or created those images were credited in as much detail as possible. professors and academic advisors drilled it into my brain that one could not simply use an image without ensuring you listed the date, artist, format, etc. they even explained the importance of why: ensuring artists or authors were recognized or even paid for their work, to share knowledge not just images, and so on and so forth.

but with more people using the internet more often than ever before, online culture moving increasingly away from a model which centers images in relation to their creator, towards an orgiastic internet free-for-all.

this all comes back to my tattooed zebra-friendly lady. when this image came across my tumblr dashboard via tangledupinlace in february 2012, i reblogged it saying pretty much what i’ve just told you: “i love this image, i wish i could find out more.” moments after i lamented this, k (lookuplookup on tumblr, who runs a great music blog side ponytail) sent me a message with a guess of who my mystery lady might be. could it be?

May Vandermark (Ada Mae Vandermark Patton) was a tattooed lady from Scranton, Pennsylvania. She came to New York in 1924 to work as a stenographer. It is rumored that she saw a person with a tattoo of a butterfly on their shoulder while swimming and decided she had to have one as well. She got a tattoo of a butterfly on both shoulders. She met Miss Pictoria, or Victoria James, who convinced Vandermark to become a tattooed lady. Vandermark began getting tattooed by Charles Wagner, who gave her a special price of $150 for a full body suit. She started doing Coney Island shows with the name Miss Artorio and eventually worked with the Ringling show in the 1920s

the satisfaction! after years of wondering, finally i have some answers! ironically, the very same internet tools that stripped this image of its original context made it possible for me to plea with the many internet friends i have to work together and share our knowledge. huzzah! the only other photo i’ve been able to find of her was found via bme zine, shown above. since then, i’ve come across a handful of other vague stories regarding may vandermark, including the two or three names she used. i’ve added amelia klem osterud’s book, the tattooed lady: a history to my must-read list.

The Tattooed Lady: A History

i’ve also spent a bit of time thinking about my fascination with circus babes. part of what i’ve always loved about that first photograph, without a name or history attached at all, was how she was stepping outside the boundaries of what was deemed beautiful or socially acceptable at the time – at least visually. to put it succinctly, i have a very special place in my heart for those who presented an alternative version of femininity at a time when women were trying to find not only visual but material ways to reject the prescriptive gender, class, and sexuality boundaries imposed on them. that said, it’s absolutely essential to look at these things aspects critically (many people – especially people of colour and people with disabilities- were forced into almost endentured slavery type situations in circuses and sideshows like the ones may vandermark was featured in) and not simply romanticize the beautiful parts.

an illustration of may vandermark stylized with more tattoos by nicoz balboa

Tattooed Lady by Nicoz Balboa

unsurprisingly, i’m far from the only person to have been inspired by this image of may vandermark. many artists, like nicoz balboa, have paid homage to this woman who seems so strong, so compelling simply based on the one photograph we’ve seen of her and her zebra friend. as much as i feel disappointed that it took me so many years to try and find out more about this image and this woman, it is wonderful that my internet friends were able to help me find her name.

really, the best thing you can do if you find yourself in similar situations is prevent these problems from happening in the first place. nip it in the bud. when you sign up for the latest greatest image sharing service, get informed. learn how to use it. post images or quotes linking back to the original source where you found them. add simple captions with the name of the photographer, the year, and the medium if possible. when you come across images that don’t have any credit, you can ask your fellow internauts to help you find out. ask, who made this?

some of the most often referred tips i get when lamenting how difficult it is to find credit or sources for random images is to use this website. tineye reverse image search is designed to deal with this specific conundrum, and is pretty trusty. it’s how i found the highest-quality version of this may vandermark, in fact.

but what is most important is to keep this in mind: let’s make an effort to be informed of the narratives surrounding the images we put out there. here’s how Hila Shachar puts it in this interesting post:

Maybe it’s a good idea to start approaching images from a photo-journalism perspective where images form a significant part of a wider narrative, and where there is a distinct relationship between images and words, history and the present. I’m afraid that if we don’t do this, all these “inspiration” pin-boards and blogs will just end up being one big vacuum of nothingness.

yes, my story with may vandermark is specifically talking about context and credit in regards to an older photograph. but as shachar points out, it happens even with the most famous of historical figures and can be a great disservice not only to the consumer of the image, but to the person in it.

as our internet culture rapidly changes and we hop on the bandwagon of the next great image sharing website, let us temper our enthusiasm with a smidge of responsibility. let’s foster an internet space where facts and information remain key, not optional. where independent artists are recognized and rewarded for their work. where the hard work librarians and archivists have been doing for decades is not undone in a single click.

Knock Out (flapper boxer tattoo design) by Quyen Dinh

Knock Out (flapper boxer tattoo design) by Quyen Dinh

recommended reading about credit/sourcing online:

recommended reading about tattooed ladies:

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