Today in Tedium: About five years ago, I made a decision which I’ve never really regretted—I dropped a popular project of mine that I felt had run its course, something that, when I would think about it, only brought me stress, rather than enjoyment. Mentally, I had checked out—I took a break from the project, came back, and still felt stressed, so I made the decision to drop it entirely. But I still knew the login info, and last week, inspired by some recent news that had me surprisingly optimistic about social media for the first time in a while, I went back to my old Tumblr news site ShortFormBlog—something that is apparently giving some of its old followers some serious retro vibes. And it got me thinking: Has the concept of social media been around long enough to allow for “reunion tours” of sorts? I guess I’m doing one of those, so let’s talk about it! — Ernie @ Tedium
Why social media throwbacks are the perfect thing to compare to reunion tours
I wouldn’t call myself a pro at going to reunion shows, but I’ve seen a few in my day.
Around 2004 or so, I saw the Pixies during one of their earliest reunion tours, and I’ve had a chance to see numerous other bands that reunited for different reasons—among them Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sebadoh, and Refused. Some were one-offs at music festivals. Others were full-on comebacks with the full band. Others still were examples of bands moving forward without key members—sort of a necessity in the case of Skynyrd.
These reunions are often kibble for the fans, but there are cases when it may be the first opportunity to see a musician live for most of the audience—Refused is a great example, because they broke up almost immediately after the release of what would become their best-known album. And I was seven years old when the Pixies released Doolittle.
As I wrote last year, there are somettimes musicians that simply don’t want to be in bands, so they quit at the height of their success and find a different path.
But often the reason why people want bands to reunite in the first place is out of a cultural recapturing. Maybe there was a scene there that was worth something to a lot of people. Maybe what that band said back in the ’90s is still valuable in the late 2010s.
And there could always be business reasons at play—that band was a cash cow back in the day!
Not every band, of course, is worth reuniting: One has to consider the investment, along with other priorities. Everyone wanted The Postal Service to make a second album, but Ben Gibbard, Jenny Lewis, and Jimmy Tamborello already had day jobs.
Social media is pretty easy to compare in this way. I’ve tried a lot of social networks over the years—from About.me to Xanga, and after experimenting with many of them, I’ve only ended up sticking with a few.
These days, I’m mostly on Twitter. I keep an eye on Mastodon. I barely use Facebook. I try (and fail) to ignore LinkedIn. I never got Snapchat, and I sorta faded off Instagram. When I got my new phone, I made a conscious point of removing nearly every social network.
But Tumblr is an interesting case. I loved the network, invested a lot into it, and my work was popular there—when I quit using it, I had around 160,000 followers on ShortFormBlog. (Most of them are still following.) And I felt the fact that it focused on words and visuals was really nice, because I tend to have skills with both.
It was successful enough that it led to media coverage from time to time, and even got nominated for awards. When I did job interviews, quite often, the people interviewing me weren’t interested in the career I had built up to that point—but couldn’t wait to talk about the thing I did outside of work. It had a number of contributors who basically worked on it because they liked the mission—and nearly all of them got real jobs in journalism after the fact, a point that I’m most proud of.
This was a great thing, but it was tough to sustain. As much as I enjoyed using it, it was an aggressive use of time that wasn’t really justifiable from a creative perspective, because it didn’t make much money—and unlike with Tedium, which is consistently profitable on a side-project scale, monetization was something ShortFormBlog was never very good at. Tumblr was designed to actually push people away from the website, so they never saw my ads. And while it did at some points get me freelance work, the side project was so time-consuming that I felt like I couldn’t really do the freelance work justice. And things like Patreon didn’t exist at the time, either.
It was not really something I could make into a business, in part it because it was so tied to Tumblr.
But five years later, the stakes are a lot lower—and it’s not my primary creative outlet. I can post more leisurely, and if I miss a day, I don’t think I have to beat myself up over it. I can enjoy it without a lot of the prior stress that was once attached to it.
In other words, it’s a prime candidate for a “reunion tour,” because people still miss it—and still tell me that they wish I had kept it going, despite the fact that I’ve had nearly as much success with something completely different.
I think if Tumblr had faded more as a social network, I would not be able to do this. But the fact is, even after its sales and its mismanagement, much of the community was still there after the fact.
I’m still getting my footing—communities that used to be very active on Tumblr, like its long-prevalent libertarian community, are long gone. There is more crossposting from Instagram. And the political climate of 2019 smells much more like a trash fire than it did in 2014.
But overall, the reunion tour seems to be going well. So far, so good.
Five social networks that offer ripe opportunities for a “reunion tour” of your own
- Flickr. Owned and acquired, and later sold in a fashion very similar to Tumblr itself, the photo-sharing service (now owned by SmugMug) has moved to a pay model, but it could still be a great tool for folks that are looking for a more low-key version of photo sharing.
- DeviantArt. Going back to a vintage site doesn’t necessarily mean that the site will look like it did 15 years ago—something that can definitely be said of DeviantArt, which just released an ambitious redesign that was so out of character for the old-school platform that it recently trended on Twitter. It’s an opportunity to go back just after a snazzy renovation.
- LiveJournal/Dreamwidth. Technically, the old-school LiveJournal is still around, and the one you definitely don’t feel like sharing might still be online. But its ownership has changed dramatically over the years, in keeping in tune with its Russian user base, and it has led to moves that you might not be cool with. Fortunately, there’s an alternative in the form of DreamWidth, a fork of the original LiveJournal that’s been around for a decade.
- Internet Relay Chat or Usenet. If you’re a bit older, you may have gotten your first taste of a social internet through either of these digital protocols. They’re still around, though their focuses have changed dramatically, and you may find yourself most at home if you’re a developer. (IRC will be easier to get back into, just an FYI.)
- Blogging. As I wrote at the beginning of the year, the blogosphere is a culture worth defending, and if you can add something to it, you should! If you’re looking for the most retro-seeming blogging experience possible, Blogger is a good choice because Google hasn’t updated it in years.
The most eventful 24 hours in the history of ShortFormBlog
The thing about social media is that, while the site may look the same, the dynamic will never stay still. Too many elements are bound to change. You will never recover every memory. You’re reliving, not repeating, your glory days.
And in that spirit, I have quite the story to discuss—a particularly unusual and pivotal day when this blog unwittingly both put me in danger and somehow kept me focused.
There were a lot of crazy days with this site that come to mind—this was just one.
In the middle of 2012, I had just left my job at a newspaper and was about to take my first job in digital journalism—a job that I had gotten in part because my new boss was impressed with my hobby. I made a point of taking a week off between jobs—and during that week, I traveled to New York for a few days.
I had a reason to be there: Someone I knew from Tumblr was putting on a meetup and had invited me to the event. So I showed up. The bar was in an unusual spot, above a Five Guys on the second floor. I remember walking in and thinking that the step to get inside the burger joint was unusually high.
While there, I was promoted as the “guest of honor,” which I guess makes sense because I actually traveled up to New York for it and had gotten some attention for my work posting big numbers and snarky jokes about members of Congress. But honestly, I felt like I was gaining so much from everyone else that was there. I met so many brilliant people at this event—among them SFB contributor Chris Tognotti—people who told better jokes than me and were smart and interesting in ways I wish I was.
The event was awesome, a four-hour period I’d love to relive, but what happened immediately after was not. You know that high step at the entrance of the Five Guys? Well, I had forgotten it was there as I was walking out, and I severely injured my ankle—worse than I had ever injured it before. At 11 p.m. On a Thursday. In New York City. In a city I did not live. I nearly fell face-first into the pavement, but a passer-by broke my fall. (To that person, whoever you are, sorry—and thank you.)
I do not recommend getting seriously injured in a major city where you don’t live. I could not hail a cab to save my life, and Uber was still relatively new in NYC at the time, so no cars were showing up. I eventually had to hobble down the subway. It took forever, and I was in pain the whole time, but I got back to the hotel and immediately put my ankle on ice. (It was not broken, fortunately!)
I rested for a few hours after a decent evening turned disastrous, and expected that I would basically take a breather from social media the next day. That is, until I woke up to the sound of my phone going crazy … and saw this.
I was still very much laid up, but I spent most of the next day in an unusual situation—I was in serious pain, but the nature of the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, one of the biggest news stories of 2012, forced me into action. I spent most of the next eight hours gathering news, pulling updates, and trying to update my readers on what happened. (While also keeping my then-fiancée up to date on my not-so-great situation!)
The messed-up ankle (think swelling, massive bruises, the whole bit) caused my NYC trip to very much go south—I had to cancel a visit with a fellow journalist I was very much looking forward to meeting—but my readers had no idea. I might have mentioned the situation to the people I saw the night before, but I didn’t go into it.
At that time in my life, I felt compelled to aim for something bigger with my work on ShortFormBlog—and I could even compartmentalize a serious leg injury if I had to. Thank God for laptops and wifi.
There were a lot of extremely varied emotions associated with that day, and when I look back now, there’s actually another one: sadness.
See, the organizer of that Tumblr meetup was this great blogger named Tahlia Hein, aka notnadia, who often posted on Tumblr about television and who was passionate and clever just like everyone else there. Like a lot of people there that night, she was on the brink of success in her career—she had just taken a job with TED, and would later work for Marvel. But last year, she died of a stroke at the age of 32—just out of the blue, one day, she was gone.
We had kept in touch after all that time in the way people on social media do. Which is to say maybe we weren’t super close, but frequently popped up in one another’s Twitter feeds.
When I heard about what happened to her, I felt immense shock and sadness. And I still kind of do—someone so creative and clever, gone so young.
She won’t get to reblog this. But she was a key part of one of my most unusual memories—and she’s greatly missed for many reasons beyond that.
At the end of last year, I told Harvard University’s Nieman Lab that I felt that platforms had become too prevalent in the way we create and distribute content online, and that publishers (and honestly, users) should build more self-reliance.
I still think that’s true, but considering that I just rejoined a social media platform owned by someone else, I’d like to augment that thought a little bit.
I think platforms are sometimes a necessary evil, in that they offer you exposure or services in exchange for making that platform a little bit bigger. YouTube is the classic example: In exchange for your data and the ability to run ads, they give creators access to a video-hosting service significantly better than they would be able to build on their own—and users an easy way to find those videos.
But as many of these platforms have matured, their value has fallen. Facebook, 15 years in, feels like a less attractive platform in part because it has repeatedly violated the trust of its stakeholders multiple times—particularly its users, whose data was siphoned off and distributed for political purposes, but also publishers, who invested a lot of money into the network only to find that Facebook had severely harmed organic reach.
With such a high risk that platforms will break the social contract here, it’s important that you use a platform because it reflects your values, not just because it maximizes your reach.
For years, Tumblr really struggled to pass the “values” test. Its ownership was focused on adding low-quality advertising while failing to add things its users wanted. It promised to allow revenue sharing for its users, then failed to follow through. (And as corporate parents go, Verizon was a particularly bad fit, because they directly opposed net neutrality, an issue that Tumblr’s leadership had long supported.)
But I think that, as the network is on its back, with a new owner paying a nominal fee in exchange for taking on the salaries of hundreds of people, it’s worthy of support, even in the face of my still-prevalent views on self-reliance. I’m not really a WordPress user these days, but I can see that Matt Mullenweg and Automattic understand what it means to both build and respect a broad community of users.
As a creative person, I know the value of investing my time somewhere. People frequently ask me to put it in one place or another. It’s impossible to say yes to everything, so I’m very careful about it. And I suggest that, if you care about creativity online, you do the same. For now, I’m saying yes to Tumblr again, after a long hiatus. I’m going on a “reunion tour.”
If you’re going to have a social outpost somewhere, you’re adding value to someone else’s platform—and you’re also giving away elements of your creativity in the process, as well as your personal data.
Think long and hard about your own “reunion tour.” It’s your social voice, and you shouldn’t just share it with anyone. Make it count.