Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

rolling and tumbling

I’ve been writing lately about thinking — about, especially, the conditions under which thinking happens. Previous posts are, in order, here, here, here, and here. Now for another installment.

I started what was used to be called a tumblelog but now is usually just called a Tumblr in March of 2007, so I was a fairly early adopter of what has since become an enormous social-media enterprise. I liked it right from the beginning because, in contrast to a conventional blog, its code promoted the posting and re-posting of ... stuff. Quotations, images, music, snippets of conversation: all were trivially easy to get onto my site. I began to think of my Tumblr as a digital commonplace book, an idea I wrote about here and here. Looking at those essays, I see that I registered a note or two of caution. For instance:

When I post quotations and images to my tumblelog I suppose I'm succumbing to the temptation to cheat: I'm not writing anything out by hand; I'm not even typing the words, which is what I used to do when as a teenager I kept a sheaf of favorite quotations in a desk drawer. I'm just copying and pasting, which is nearly frictionless. I don't have to think about whether I really want to record a passage or image: if it's even vaguely or potentially interesting, in it goes. I might not even read it with care, much less give it the kind of attention that wold be required if I were to write it out by hand.

And this:

Keeping a commonplace book is easy, but using one? Not so much. I started my first one when I was a teenager, and day after day I wedged open books under a foot of my ancient Smith-Corona manual typewriter and banged out the day's words of wisdom. I had somewhat different ideas then of what counted as wisdom. The mainstays of that era — Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan were perhaps the dominant figures — haven't made any appearances in my online world. But even then I suspected something that I now know to be true: The task of adding new lines and sentences and paragraphs to one's collection can become an ever tempting substitute for reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting what's already there. And wisdom that is not frequently revisited is wisdom wasted.

I really love posting to my Tumblr, and the “frictionless” quality of its code is a primary reason: with a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks I can fill the page with interesting tidbits and even the occasional profundity. And there’s an additional pleasure in seeing readers re-post things that I’ve dug up — I think my record for re-posts is this syllabus of W. H. Auden’s. (Images and short quotations generate the most re-posts and favorites, by the way.) I don’t have a great many readers of my Tumblr, but I think the ones who do read it enjoy it, at least to judge by the emails and tweets I’ve received on previous occasions when I went on Tumblr hiatus.

But I have come to think of these very pleasures as posing problems. Ease of posting makes me indiscriminate — I just throw anything up there that looks vaguely interesting, and then at the end of the day when I see that I’ve posted a dozen items I get this strange illusion of productivity. And sometimes when I want to post something especially important I find myself wishing that I hadn’t posted so much insignificant material that day, because I don’t want what’s important to get lost in the crowd. Moreover, once I start noticing the kinds of posts that get re-posted, it becomes a matter of discipline to ignore that and focus on what I think is interesting. I’ve started to believe that my relationship with my Tumblr isn’t altogether healthy, and — to circle back to the theme of this series of posts — that this particular technology may be encouraging me to post without thinking.

And there’s one more reason why I’m beginning to think that another model of online idea-presentation might be better for me. But that I’ll explain in my next post.