Like most obnoxious young politicos, I loved public speaking. It gave me the chance to speak my mind for at least six minutes, uninterrupted, and, even better, gave me an excuse to skip maths class. I would usually debate Auspol but, this time, I had taken inspiration from my newest love—Tumblr.
I’d spent hours reblogging paint sample poems and pastel dip dyed hair before she appeared on my dashboard. She stood without explanation— topless, ‘still not asking for it’ scrawled across her chest. I’d been moved before—I’d fawned over Gillard’s misogyny speech and aced my history paper on the suffragettes—but she was different. After scanning the comment thread, I reblogged her. Then it was decided: in my next speech, I would teach everyone about what I’d just learnt about feminism.
The premise of Tumblr is simple: follow blogs that you like the look of and borrow photos from these blogs to stitch together your own page. This pattern inevitably results in certain themes tending to arise and, eventually, dictate the style of your Tumblr. For instance, my Tumblr began as a strange shrine to A Very Potter Musical.
Another popular aesthetic was an amalgamation of Kurt Cobain idol worship and inverted crosses, donned ‘soft grunge’. Some were solely in the business of taking black and white screen grabs from movies, insisting that the quote overlaying it was the most profound thing to be said since the last Wes Anderson release.
Then there were the political people, who would broadcast a shallow representation of their respective schools of thought, and defined themselves in opposition to each other. This adversarial approach was often reflected in the ‘debate’ that surrounded posts, as hilariously bad insults detracted from the points being made.
Another related problem would arise when users reblogged loaded images, unwittingly inviting a torrent of abuse in the process. A young user may, for instance, reblog an image without recognising the image as a symbol; this symbol may support, question or condemn a controversial idea, a fact lost on the clueless 14-year-old behind the screen.
For many users like myself, Tumblr was the medium through which we first made contact with progressive politics. Perhaps the most important aspect of this engagement was the fact that it was personal. In borrowing an image for my blog, I’d found third wave feminism. I—in my Western Sydney home, in my Catholic school uniform—was now a feminist. It made me feel knowledgeable, and special-and fuck anyone who told me otherwise. Any attack on my newfound ideas seemed deeply personal. Insult what I understood to be feminist principles, and I’d be ready with my new arsenal of egalitarian catch phrases.
I reblogged the photo of that woman’s body, demanding not to be objectified, because it was edgy. I knew it was different to the expressions of feminism I’d been taught about in class, although I didn’t exactly know how. In any case, it allowed me to project an image of myself through my blog, an image of a slightly braver, slightly more worldly version of myself. I thought I was escaping the suburban loop but, funnily enough, I’d entered into another kind of echo chamber. Looking back, I think I would still have reblogged the image if I’d understood the debate around it, but I would have been more prepared for the backlash.
I saw her again in the first semester of first year, ‘still not asking for it,’ on the projector of Footbridge Theatre. By now, I’d read Butler, Stead, Plath, and more. I remembered my speech and, internally, I groaned.
When I left the lecture theatre, I was confronted by an enthusiastic student handing out pamphlets for a protest. We talked for a few minutes, and the conversation felt all too familiar.
Upon starting university, I have noticed that students often play Tumblr politics, at least, in stupol circles. Many of the same dynamics are at play: students argue at one another without earnestly engaging with the other side’s argument; students accidentally stray into the stupol scene, without realising what they are walking into; students tend towards virtue signalling, just like a Tumblr user who reblogs something without committing to the cause represented by the photo. As I snap a photo at a rally, add a frame to my profile picture, hand around another petition, I wonder: are we reblogging the photo without understanding the significance of this act of solidarity?
Like Tumblr dashboards, maybe stupol isn’t the ideal space for learning about political ideas. But it would be unfair of me to reduce both of them down to their worst aspects. Tumblr made me aware of inequitable norms and, to some extent, stupol gives me the opportunity to challenge them.
Let me be clear: I don’t miss Tumblr. But I am glad that I reblogged all those posts, and that I learnt. My speech was ill-informed, but it was a start. And now, despite its flaws, stupol allows me to continue the conversation.