“Tumblr is what one might call an “unbounded” social network. In her theory of the “elastic self,” presented recently at the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium, sociologist Tricia Wang argues that not all social media are the same. It’s something we intuitively know — most people keep separate personas on Twitter vs. Facebook, for instance — but why we tend to be more freewheeling on one versus the other has largely not been articulated.
In Wang’s theory, a network like Facebook, which enforces real name registration and consists of a person’s friends and family from time immemorial, encourages bounded use. It’s like the small town you never left, the grammar school class you couldn’t pass out of, the first dead-end job. It’s a network mired in past and present, and by its nature it enforces a limited sense of identity and expression.
By contrast, something like Tumblr encourages unbounded use. It allows you to experiment and play. It’s the big city, and each new tumblelog you create is like a new bar or neighborhood where you can try on a new self and see how it fits. In one instant you can be a pug lover, reblogging the best animated GIFs of the flat-faced dogs. In the next, you can dive deep into the Go Pro snowboarding community and post snaps from your latest run.
Hence Wang’s notion of the elastic self. Like rubber bands, when we step into Tumblr we can stretch and reshape ourselves into different configurations. Each new hat we try on stretches the rubber band just a little bit further, and over time it might evolve into a new configuration. This allows for remarkable opportunities to explore different potentials of self and self-expression.
Wang would know. Though a sociologist by training, she has a long history with the arts, doing hip-hop education and documentary film. This expressiveness leaks through in the wide variety of tumblelogs she keeps, listed at the bottom of her website. There’s a tumblelog for her elastic self theory, one for digital urbanisms, one for her ethnographic notes on China tech usage. But she also tumbles on pussy power, fuck yeah pho, her “Crasian” mother, and dancing. Each tumblelog represents an element of herself, and though she links to them from her central web site, she doesn’t have to, nor are most of her researcher friends aware of them.”
I was just about to tweet “I love Tumblr!”