The room where it happens: How Tumblr is reframing history
“I am nobody. Nobody is perfect. Therefore I am perfect. —Odysseus, probably.”
This joke appears on the Tumblr blog “history-jokes,” and it works like a Russian doll. On its surface, it pokes fun at a famous literary character’s vanity. Beneath that, it makes reference to Rene Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” And beneath that, it can be read as a comment on how famous historical quotes lose their meaning when they become detached from their contexts.
The post is emblematic of how the Internet processes information and turns it into jokes. It is guided by a democratic spirit that merges high and low culture, that values the ability to synthesize and make connections more than the act of identification, more than, for example, the status conferred by the ability to cite facts about Homer and Descartes.
There is a subculture of history jokes and memes on Tumblr that follows these principles. In doing so, it is rewiring the mechanisms through which history is communicated and interpreted.
Traditionally, history has been transmitted in dry, heightened tones through books and lectures. At least in the American education system, the emphasis is on names and facts. Students are tested on the who, what, when and how, but rarely the why. This tendency creates a distance between the past and present; it turns people into gods and makes events seem inevitable.
This is bad, because it makes history sterile and ignores the common human traits that create it. When politicians and pundits talk about the founding fathers, for example, they often take their words (or popular interpretations of their words) as irrefutable law. That these were flawed men prone to ego and impulse rarely factors into the discussion.
Social media, and Tumblr in particular, works according to different principles. The platform allows users to create a wall of verbal and visual content and to curate a feed of content from other users. It’s like Facebook designed for scrapbook enthusiasts.
As with other social media, it can serve as a melting pot of one’s interests, gathering information from disparate sources into a single location. This allows communities to form and bleed into each other, for connections to be made across disciplines, for cultural information to be presented and received in new contexts. Where traditional media—newspapers, television, radio—operate from the top down, social media allows the audience to take a measure of control over the content they receive through likes, comments and direct, publicly visible communication with content providers. If traditional media operate like a republic, social media functions closer to a democracy.
When history is transmitted through Tumblr, it adopts a different tone and creates space to look at people and events from new perspectives. Feeds like “history is funny,” “history memes” and “history jokes” are full of posts that take complicated situations and reduce them to their essence or use modern vernacular and cultural references to highlight the psychological principles that drive them.
One post, from the account “memeblogger,” consists of two Cards Against Humanity cards placed side-by-side. The first reads, “War! What is it good for?” The second, “The Great Depression.” Another, from “mikki-ninaj,” rewrites “This Land Is Your Land” to describe “England in the 1800s”: “This land is my land/And so is this land/This is all my land/And you get no land.”
While these kinds of posts are reductive, they do important work. For one, they foster curiosity through the age-old impulse to understand jokes, lest we feel isolated from our social groups. Those who are not familiar with the subject matter may feel the urge to research and engage with it, to make it their own.
These posts also cut through the hierarchies that form around academic subjects, making the case that history is not merely the province of intellectual elites. It belongs to everyone, and by using modern cultural forms such as memes, gifs and pic stitches to talk about it, Tumblr makes it accessible in ways that dense books and lectures may not.
This impulse to make history a living, breathing organism finds its most visible current manifestation in “Hamilton,” the 2015 hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton. The play takes a radical new approach to a period of history that often evades critical examination in popular discourse, casting actors of color in the roles of the founding fathers and using a modern musical genre, hip-hop, to tell their stories. In doing so, it promotes an understanding of the motivations behind events we take for granted, focusing on the attitudes and temperaments that shaped them rather than stopping at the mere recognition of their existence. While Tumblr’s history-obsessed subculture predates “Hamilton,” the play has brought its methods a new level of exposure, inspiring its fans to dig into obscure and under-represented corners of American history.
Of course, the Internet is not a perfect vessel for re-contextualizing historical events; it has its vices, namely, a tendency to lie. This is dangerous and can undermine the credibility of those who adhere to fact. But even when it lies, it does something else, something that goes beyond the recitation of truth: it’s giving us a modern framework for history that recognizes the elements of human nature that extend across eras and nations. It is defusing the notion that historical figures lived on pedestals, instead promoting the idea that they were important people who did important work while dealing with real feelings and flaws.
History is written by the victors, the saying goes, which often promotes established ways of thinking. Tumblr is changing that. You’ll want to read the edits.