Tumbling into Facebook

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Since social media platforms for image sharing each represent a unique form of audiencing, images get reinvented as they travel between online contexts. In a parody of the cover of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (figures 1 and 2), the image interacts within the micro-blogging platform Tumblr’s Dashboard and the social media giant Facebook’s Newsfeed. Images found on a Dashboard are interpreted as nouns, objects that carry a message, while the same images found on a Newsfeed are interpreted as adjectives, descriptors of the users who post them.

Lavoie fig4According to the homepage of Tumblr, the micro-blogging platform currently services approximately 183.5 blogs with over 83.1 billion posts (“Tumblr”). Tumblr is a free online service; anyone with an email address can create an account that is linked to a unique URL for his or her own blog, or tumblr.  David Karp, the founder and CEO of Tumblr, recalled his objective in designing Tumblr was to create an online space where anyone could feature their creative work while observing and following the work of other individuals (“Tumblr: CEO Interview”). With an account, users are able to follow other tumblrs that feature content appealing to their interests.

The content posted by the blogs a user follows is displayed on a personal homepage called the Dashboard. Figure 3 is a sample of a user’s Tumblr Dashboard. The highlighted components represent the compositional aspects of the dashboard’s audiencing. The red boxes labeled 1, for example, outline usernames of the Tumblr users that post the content featured. A common trend on Tumblr is for blogs to align with a certain genre or focus area. For example, looking at the blogs featured in the image, we see that “homeandinteriors” is centered on interior design, “teacoffeebooks” focuses on images of tea, coffee, and books, and “2headedsnake” features modern and popular art. Box 2 points to the tagging feature of posting. This allows every post made by a user to be associated with any keyword they associate with their content. In this case the image of kiwis is tagged as fruit, healthy, kiwi, food, photography, sweet, and posted. When any of these terms are searched on Tumblr, this picture of kiwis will appear amongst the search results. Box 3 points to the sourcing of the image. Since Tumblr users can “re-blog” and “heart” (see box 6) any post they encounter, this sourcing credits the original Tumblr poster. This nurtures the creative-sharing community that the Tumblr team strives for (Coatney). As seen in box 5, 2headedsnake’s image has 852 notes. That is to say, 852 people have re-blogged or hearted the image that was re-blogged by 2headedsnake from “artesens.” Finally, box 4 highlights the area for poster’s comments below an image; artesens left a comment that referenced the artist of the image, the name of the image, and its English translation.

The composition of the dashboard impacts the meaning of an image posted to it. Consider the appropriation of Animal Farm, which includes the altered title “if you give a pig a windmill, he’ll pursue absolute power” (figure 1). The image was engineered and posted by the creator of the Tumblr blog “betterbooktitles,” Dan Wilber. Users who follow this tumblr blog would associate betterbooktitles with literature related humor, parody, and books (figure 4). And so without viewing the image, the follower can anticipate what the post will relate to. Having read the book, it should easy to infer that the image references Orwell’s novel, even though it lacks iconic cover art (see figures 2 and 5). For any viewer familiar with Orwell and his works, the Lavoie fig3opposite facing profiles of the pig and donkey will refer to Napoleon and Benjamin, the two antithetical allegorical characters from Animal Farm. Their positioning reflects their opposing attitudes, personalities, and philosophies. These same audience members will understand the parody’s reference to the windmill in the plot. However, the revised title holds a deeper meaning; the creator chose to reference a series of popular children’s books by Laura Numeroff (e.g., If You Give a Mouse a Cookie). Her books feature a young child protagonist who encounters an animal; when the child obliges a small request of the creature, further requests are made, one by one, that lead to a series of seemingly contrived events. While betterbooktitles’s juxtaposition creates humor, it also suggests a heavier thought; the government-related ethical questions raised in Animal Farm can easily be placed into a simple, everyday existence. For users who have not read Animal Farm, however, a different interpretation is formed. When interacting with these users, Wilber hopes to create an encouraging environment that promotes reading. As he mentioned in his response to an anonymous question posted to his Tumblr accusing him of nurturing idiocy, Wilber replied, “The main aim of a blog promoting inside jokes that only readers understand is to make reading feel even cooler than it already is…I think posting any joke/funny image/reference/bad review/good review all help literacy in general” (Wilbur). Without reading the book, viewers are aware that the retitle should be humorous, but are unable to see why. Wilber tries to use this feeling to motivate people to read more.

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Facebook has become one of the most popular online hubs for social networking. As of January 1, 2014, the site boasts 1.31 billion monthly active users (“Statistic Brain”). Similar to the Tumblr Dashboard, Facebook also has a media sharing homepage called Newsfeed, which displays the recent and trending activity of the user’s Facebook “friends.” Figure 6 shows the three-panel layout of a user’s Newsfeed. The top left box labeled 1 highlights the user’s identity, featuring the user’s full name and profile picture. Beneath this stamp lists the user’s messages, events, groups, apps, friends, etc. in the left panel. The head of the middle panel is an area for the user to update their status or add photos and videos. Beneath it trends the activity of the user’s friends. The right panel lists important dates and what is trending generally online. The images that circulate through Facebook are predominantly featured in the middle panel. Box 2 highlights a header to the post, similar to that featured on Tumblr. It holds the poster’s name (pointer 3) and his or her action. Unlike Tumblr, rather than posting the number of notes beneath the image, a list and number of people who have liked the post appears instead, displaying the poster and user’s mutual friends first. These small differences in the compositional modality of audiencing are what define the Newsfeed and the Dashboard as unique forms of media sharing.

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The Facebook principle that users should only be friends with people they know in life changes the purpose of the Animal Farm parody when it is audienced in the Newsfeed. Say a Tumblr user sees the appropriation, enjoys the humor, and shares the image on his or her Facebook profile. Now the image appears in the Newsfeed for every friend of the sharer. When these friends see the cover, it is displayed beneath the sharer’s name and above the post’s comments and likes. Tumblr follows a similar display pattern, and in both platforms, the name above heavily influences how the image is interpreted. Facebook and Tumblr begin to deviate as the names associated signify entirely different entities. Unlike Tumblr, there is no anonymity on Facebook. The names displayed above images are names of friends. So the images are interpreted in relation to a person rather than a genre. In the case of the betterbooktitle book cover, all the potential in-depth interpretation of a Tumblr viewer that has read the book is predominantly lost. In its place lies a more shallow analysis of the cover that assigns the superficial qualities of the image to the poster. George Orwell signifies classic literature. Praised as a world-renowned novelist, his name is associated with quality and intelligence. Through the medium of the image, these traits are passed on to the poster. The lack of capitalization in the title indicates to any viewer, regardless of whether they have heard of Animal Farm or not, that the image is a parody and the original title has been Photoshopped. Again the sentiments associated with parodies, like wit and cleverness, get assigned to the poster by means of the image. Finally, while visually similar to the notes shown on Tumblr, what can be inferred from likes is very different. Notes on Tumblr posts are a good way to measure the overall reception, circulation, and popularity of an image within the entire Tumblr community. Likes, on the other hand, act as a good measure only of the number of friends the poster has who can find humor in the post.

An image’s role change between Tumblr and Facebook mirrors the difference in the user’s role on either platform. A major component to being an active Facebook user, in the spirit of keeping in touch with friends, is to have a ready supply of self-definitions, something that can easily be accomplished by a quick image post. On Tumblr, under a blanket of anonymity, a user can blog and observe as much or little content as he or she desires without scrutiny. In this sense, Tumblr is a map for exploration, Facebook is a diary that is kept along the journey, and images are the ink that both are written in. That being said, analogies can only illustrate a relationship so far before collapsing. For instance, a diary is often considered a personal, private document, while Facebook is a very public, open means of sharing. This gap in purpose points to the quandary: are people using social media for self-validation instead of communicating? Perhaps Facebook is better considered as a personal diary that any friend can access instead of a mechanism for keeping in touch. Perhaps in the realm of social media, MySpace was the most aptly named website.

–Erin Lavoie

Works cited

“Facebook Statistics.” Statistic Brain RSS (accessed April 28, 2014).

“Mark Coatney, Media Evangelist, Tumblr.” Analyst Wire (2010).

Numeroff, Laura. “Laura Numeroff: Author of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” LauraNumeroff.com (accessed April 28, 2014).

“Tumblr – CEO Interview.” Analyst Wire (2013).

“Tumblr.” Sign up (accessed April 28, 2014).

Wilber, Dan. “Better Book Titles.” Tumblr (accessed April 28, 2014).

Illustrations

Figure 1. Dan Wilber, parody of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “Better Book Titles,” Tumblr.

Figure 2. Cover of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Signet Classic.

Figure 3. Screenshot of Tumblr Dashboard for user Erin Lavoie, April 24, 2014.

Figure 4. Screenshot of “Better Book Titles,” Tumblr, June 2011.

Figure 5. Cover of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Signet Classic.

Figure 6. Screenshot of Facebook Newsfeed for user Erin Lavoie, April 24, 2014.

Comments

  1. My intention in writing this wasn’t necessarily to condemn Facebook as a website. I think that Facebook does present a lot of pros in what it offers as a social networking platform. I think my goal was more for readers to become more aware of how they look at images shared on Facebook. A sort of counter argument to my own paper, but Facebook does not completely rip meaning from images. For example, a Page that is liked on Facebook can anonymously post content, and achieve a quasi-similar effect to Tumblr. However, I also feel that Facebook can be distracting. In terms of creative exploration, Facebook isn’t an ideal viewing platform if only because creative content would be intermixed with personal content, which I personally feel detracts from the audiencing of images. Because Tumblr is very minimal and barebones, the site presents users with a form of audiencing that is free of personal distraction. From the perspective of the creators of this body of work, I imagine many would also prefer that their audience remain within a distraction-free environment when viewing their work (a gross generalization, of course).

  2. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to read the book Animal Farm, but this fact did not hinder my experience with reading this post. Wilber’s quote on his Tumblr page accurately describes how he wants an outsider to feel; They will have an air of jealousy (Like myself) and want to read! I think it’s interesting how you used the Animal Farm cover to describe the context and mission of Tumblr, while comparing it to Facebook, an equally applicable social media site. However, while I agree Facebook is a platform that promotes self-validation since it acts a “personal diary”, I don’t believe that it outweighs the purpose of communication.

  3. I have never used tumblr so it was interesting to read your comparison between Facebook and this site and how the book cover changed meaning as it moved from one site to another. Knowing your original comparison I was thinking that your discourse might focus more on the change in the book cover but it was very interesting and relevant to read about the changing context. It is interesting how much technology has opened up conversations/ ideas about books and other things. On Tumblr users can express their views on something and other unknown users from across the world can view and comment on it. We have so much access to different opinions with this site. Even without knowing them, Dan Wilber has probably changed many people’s perspectives on books that they have read. I think your conclusion brought up a really good point about the motivation of people posting to social media sites; it was definitely thought provoking.

  4. Having read Animal Farm in middle school, I find this article to be very relevant and capturing as a result. Since students like myself, constantly are on social media, this aspect also becomes very relevant. It is interesting how different types of social media: tumblr, Facebook, etc., all have various effects on the way these images are portrayed and viewed. Something on the dashboard of tumblr can have a completely different connotation then an image on a person’s Facebook wall. Knowing this, I will be more aware of the images I post on Facebook or see on tumblr on a daily basis.

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