Writing Autobiography and Forming Identity through Tumblr Blogs
As a potentially narrative form, blogs can not only allow people to share personal experiences but also to post fictional narratives based on popular franchises. Such narratives—based, for example, on television shows, movies, or novels—are better known as fan fiction. The blogging site Tumblr offers particular affordances for the construction of personal or fictional narratives. Bloggers on Tumblr post links, photos, and music of things they enjoy along with written blog entries and creative writing, such as fan fiction. Unlike other blogging tools or mediums, Tumblr (a cross between Twitter and WordPress) relies heavily on visual design and sharing online rather than primarily textual posting often found on blogs. Additionally, Tumblr includes a feature called personal asks (or more commonly asks) which allows followers to send anonymous questions to the blogger.
In this paper, I will focus on one Tumblr blogger, sumerlightning, also known to the Tumblr community by her real name, Ash. Ash is a creative writer who regularly posts both personal narratives as well as fan fiction for animated television shows such as Adventure Time. The most prominent work of fan fiction on Ash’s blog, “Tower, Tower,” became immensely popular with a portion of the Adventure Time fandom—including several animators and writers from the show who follow her.
While blogs are a narrative form, they differ greatly from printed text because blogs allow an interaction between the blogger and their audience. With their audience, bloggers share things that they enjoy, and the act of writing itself allows for the writer to express emotions or thoughts they may not wish to divulge in everyday life. The audience provides a role in the blogger’s writing of the self and formation of the blogger’s online identity. In examining Ash’s blog, one will see how writing blog posts allow bloggers and writers to create a self and an (online) identity.
I. Analysis of the Blog as Narrative
The identity Ash presents in her blog is that of a woman in her mid-twenties who has an unidentified illness, is hearing impaired, and is lesbian. Readers gain this information through Ash’s response to asks. For instance, followers of her blog found out she is fluent in American Sign Language, and she hinted at being partially deaf due to issues with her Cochlear implant. One of her followers asked her about the hardest part of being deaf, to which Ash responded, “The hardest part of being deaf is not being deaf enough.” Another anonymous follower asked what her level of gayness was, to which she humorously posted: “The rainbowmeter on my lesbian rifle hovers between call-her-when-there’s-a-snake-in-the-house and favorite-store-is-Home-Depot.”
Many of the posts that Ash creates are emotional and use vivid description, marking the events as important ones that have shaped who she is. Some posts are marked with trigger warnings, such as “play the game” and “marks the spot.” “Play the game” deals with Ash discovering a child she babysat was being abused by his father, and her emotions in having to alert the child’s mother and her confrontation with the father. “Marks the spot” details an event in which Ash was tricked and severely injured by an older boy she had wanted to befriend. In a post marked “sticks, stones,” Ash also hints that she was once hurt by an adult herself. While she never explicitly states so, the act of writing has clearly played an important role in her coping with the numerous emotional events she has experienced.
1. Blog as Autobiography
Jerome Bruner (1991) defined an autobiography as a narrator in the present “describing the progress of a protagonist” in the past who shares the same name as the narrator, and suggests that “in order to bring a protagonist from the there and then to the point where the original protagonist becomes the present narrator, one needs a theory of growth or at least of transformation” (p. 69). He went on to say that narrative accounts “should center upon people and their intentional states: their desires, beliefs, and so on; and they should focus on how these intentional states led to certain kinds of activities” (Bruner, 1991, p. 70). Ash’s blog contains personal stories and experiences that read like an autobiography composed of vignettes. Interestingly, Ash started to share her personal stories when her followers begin asking her personal questions.
Bruner (1991) also examined why people, when prompted to tell a life story, will typically tell “something ‘interesting‘—which is to say a story that is at once recognizably canonical and recognizably noncanonical” and which “runs counter to expectancy or produces an outcome counter to expectancy” (pp. 71-72). Ash’s blog is full of events that highlight Bruner’s (1991) argument about the relation between the canonical and non-canonical. We see this most prominently in the stories that are prompted by asks from followers of her blog. While Ash gained her large following first by her earliest fan fiction posts, she later increasingly began to incorporate personal experience. On August 10, 2012, she wrote her first personal narrative in response to the ask “do you remember your first story?” In this post, Ash recalls a memory of when she broke a jar as a young child, and the memory of the jar inspired her when she spied one on a shelf as a third-grader to tell younger children a story about the creation of stars in the night sky.
Ash also writes posts that do not rely on asks, such as the post following the story of the broken jar. In the short post, “Wake Up,” she writes about going out for a jog and running for “a long time, a long way, until the pain gnawing through [her] is only a nibble and [her] toes are numb from the dew, and until the aggressive peacock guarding someone’s house chases [her] almost all the way back home.” Other posts are lengthier, such as an untitled post from September 13, 2012, in which she writes about being called out early in the morning to talk to the son of her recently deceased friend and American Sign Language teacher, Hiroshi. Throughout the post she refers to past events and mingles the memories into the present narrative. She references a memory of her brother at a rock concert as she swims in cold water to meet with the boy as well as providing second-person thoughts: “You think you are probably really stupid for doing this. You think you could get sick again—you think you should’ve put that strap on your glasses that keeps them stuck to your head, what if you lose them, and you think think think until your hand slaps the float broadside.
2. Narrative Blog
Kenneth J. Gergen and Mary M. Gergen (1983), in their examination of self-narratives, argued that one’s present identity is not a sudden and mysterious event, rather it is a sensible result of a life story (p.255). Regarding the temporal form in self-narrative, Gergen and Gergen (1983) claimed that “an essential aspect of narrative is the capacity to generate directionality among events in a way that structures the events in an orderly manner that moves toward an end” (p. 257). Ash’s blog itself does not move towards a specific end, as she posts a mixture of fan fiction, but each post about her personal experiences is episodic and has a beginning and a definite end.
While many blogs follow a loose chronology, Ash’s blog is neither linear nor chronological. She switches from past to present events, prompted by asks or by events she feels compelled enough to share with her followers. The plotting of the blog is more consistent when she is writing a multipart work of fan fiction but her personal blog is fragmented. While Ash’s blog provides certain stability in terms of narrative, the blog is made up of micronarratives, which are narratives that “relate events within brief durations” (Gergen & Gergen, 1983, p. 263).
As a narrative, Ash’s blog also contains many elements of tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and even romance. These elements are prominent in the micronarrative posts that relate certain brief events in Ash’s life. To a lesser degree, there are several posts in which she uses macronarratives that refer “to those events spanning broad periods of time” (Gergen & Gergen, 1983, p. 263). An example of a post using macronarrative is from August 30, 2013, in which an anonymous follower asked if she had ever been frightened of something trivial, and the resulting tale jumps from the age of seven to the time that she had recently graduated from college. Another post from May 09, 2013, involves her feelings on being called “fat” and describes how she lost weight due to her illness through a temporal shift from her senior year of high school to college and then post-college.
II. Community and the Blogger
Gergen and Gergen (1983) also examined the relation of self-narratives to social interaction, something that is profoundly important in in the interaction between Ash and followers of her blog. For one to navigate her social life successfully, she must be capable of making herself intelligible as a coherent identity (Gergen & Gergen, 1983, p. 265). Dennen (2009) noted that “self-disclosure and extraversion have been linked to the size of one’s blogging network,” and many of Ash’s posts are reblogged and commented on. People look to her fan-fiction and have created their own works based off of her fan-fiction posts, such as art work or poems.
Dennen (2009) also notes six common elements in which bloggers expressed their identity, 1) name and blog title, 2) profiles, 3) post content, 4) voice, 5) affiliations, and 6) visual design (Dennen, 2009, p. 27). While many in the Adventure Time fandom know Ash by her username and blog title, many more know her through her voice, post content, and her affiliations. Her writing is unique and often relies upon the second-person narrative and use of description which seem to be her signature marks of voice and post content. As her posts are episodic, one never need wonder about the references that she makes in new posts. If she does post something that is related to another event, she posts a link back to the earlier post so that new readers are not alienated.
Ash’s blog content is greatly affected by the dialogue that she shares with her readers. As Dennen (2009) pointed out, “determination of what is shared and not shared is carefully determined by a blogger, to communicate a desired persona in a manner that is comfortable to the author in a public forum” (p. 29). In recent posts, such as an unnamed post on November 12, 2013 and “Confirmation,” Ash vaguely hinted at and then affirmed her engagement to her fiancée, Yamino. As both are prominent members of the Adventure Time fandom, both have been careful in revealing details of their life together. Concerning other content on her blog, Ash often asks her followers for fan fiction prompts as well as taking commissions from some of her followers to write fan fiction. Currently, she has been commissioned to write a sequel to her Tower, Tower fan fiction, entitled Spindle, Spire, which has already begun inspiring fan art from her followers.
While one’s experience cannot become another’s experience, something still passes from one to another, and “this something is not the experience as experienced, but its meaning” (Ricoeur, as cited in Gergen & Gergen, 1983, p. 269). Ash’s experiences are her own, but readers gain meaning and maybe even a little something else from her posts. Although Ash never presents herself as more than what she seems, many followers refer to her as a “perfect human being.” Her personal experiences never end with a moral, and she never tells the readers how the events affected her or what to think. Clearly, she is an blogger who never presents herself as more than she is—a storyteller and human being.