Struggling to start a paper on the theme of identity in King Lear for my eleventh-grade English class, I googled “quotes on identity.” I included the sentence I found from Albert Camus’s The Stranger as an epigraph to my draft of the paper and blithely went to meet with my teacher about it; it was only when he asked me if I had read Camus that I realized I had done something wrong, only when I saw his disdainful, frustrated response to my “no” that I started to feel mortified. My teacher’s message reached me loud and clear: that one sentence, taken out of context, could not communicate anything significant about Camus’s ideas to me, and so indicating any tie between my ideas and his work could not be honest. The quote, as I had used it, was a collection of words that had more to do with me than Camus. Scrap the quote.
This was 2011. It was early in the days of the Instagram square; Rowan Blanchard, Disney star, was not yet posting Audre Lorde quotes for her five million followers; Tumblr, at four years old, had not yet toddled onto the computer screens of tweens everywhere. The force of a high school teacher’s dismissal was still strong enough to convince a sixteen-year-old that she should be embarrassed to claim any understanding of The Stranger until she had picked up a copy of the book—although the internet was already letting her access the work in fragments.
It might be a tougher sell today. It’s still hard to find bell hooks in bookstores (my local megalith Barnes & Noble stocks five books out of her sprawling oeuvre, my small local independent bookstore none of it), but she’s become a household name among teens who read and share her words—short sentences or passages—on Tumblr and Instagram. Unattributed or user-generated quotes also get widely shared on the same platforms (from Rowan Blanchard’s Tumblr: “‘Everything is temporary’ -3 words that completely changed my life once I fully accepted them”), as well as literary content written with platforms like Instagram in mind (Rupi Kaur’s bite-sized poems, nursed into existence and fame by the Instagram squares they so perfectly fill). The use of snippets of long texts fits into a general prescription of short, scrollable, easily relatable and eminently re-bloggable content on the Internet.
If traditional theoretical or politically engaged writing and consumption of that writing is focused on conversation between readers and writers, this kind of fragmented sharing is about words that springboard or support the ideas of the sharer. A sentence can be powerful, but without context, it remains general (or worse, generic)—accessible, open-endedly inspiring, and void of the rough, gritty detail that represents (and foments) critical response. There’s a limit to how much “idea” can be shared in a single sentence.
A quote’s author is often its only contextualizing force—the names of Tumblr favorites like hooks and Lorde do contextualize, in that they come associated (and hashtagged) with a set of political and social commitments. But with so little text to back them up, the same short quotes recycled on blog after blog, they are no more than buzzwords.
“Bell Hooks,” as she is often referred to, reminds us, again and again, “No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much’. Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’…No woman has ever written enough.” bell hooks is quite literally gone from her words by the time they reach most of their rebloggers. What’s left behind is a general idea about the historical silence of women that can be hashtagged “intersectional,” “feminism,” “creative writing.” Teenagers and the political left aren’t the only culprits in this kind of dissociation between author and language/association between name and buzzword, as the episode of the GOP’s fake Abraham Lincoln quote exemplifies. Tumblr exists in the midst of a system of Internet sharing that supports and privileges rapid-fire associations and quickly digestible words; it just happens to be a corner of that system were the teenagers lurk, and teenagers, more than any other demographic, are ready to absorb and adapt to their surroundings. While Tumblr has historically been the Internet space for the least “cool” teens, even the least cool kids want to fit into their in-group.
Tumblr and Instagram’s buzzwords create their own economy of social capital. With stars like Blanchard to give a stamp of approval to a socially conscious image, progressive views on racism and intersectional feminism have become status symbols on the platforms, even if little serious thought has gone into the cultivation of those views. An image of liberal wokeness is rewarded with reblogs and follows.
Buzzwords, circulating through a serotonin-inducing system of reblogged quotes, aren’t nothing: Tumblr teens (and tweens) are better informed than my peers and I were at their age. They have a vocabulary for talking about oppression, mental health and our country’s political system that can be disarming for older demographics. Rowan Blanchard’s Tumblr post on intersectional feminism, which quotes Kimberlé Crenshaw, is an example of this literacy. She states elsewhere that most of her knowledge about social and political issues comes from other teens on Tumblr—and, presumably, the quotes they share.
The quotes, the buzzwords they integrate into teen vocabularies and political commitments, and the system of internet sharing that produces all this has taught them more than my paper on King Lear, Camus quote or no, was teaching me about life in America today. If the quotes aren’t necessarily accompanied by a rigorous understanding of bell hooks’s oeuvre, or even of a given chapter or article, they are accompanied by enthusiasm for using text as a point of access to thinking about contemporary issues. The depth of that thinking, and its relationship to IRL political engagement beyond personal branding, is up for debate, but far from decided.
The idea of the fragment of a text as a legitimate form of consumption of or engagement with a writer’s work isn’t contained within the boundaries of the internet. Maggie Nelson, who has found enormous popularity (including an enthusiastic endorsement on Rowan Blanchard’s Instagram) but also significant critical acclaim, takes short quotations from theoretical texts and uses them, often without much context, to illustrate and explore the personal ideas and claims she makes throughout her memoir The Argonauts.
Nelson is in some ways a highbrow, traditionally educated iteration of the Tumblr teens (although she has surely read the texts): the theorists she cites, almost always in snippets, are as numerous as the source material for a Tumblr. Her quotations are always deeply integrated into her stream of ideas, interpretations, and experiences, but the names of their authors are often literally left out of the body of her text, noted instead in the book’s wide white margins. Simultaneously visually emphasized and literally marginalized, Nelson’s theorists, like Tumblr teen icons, are important as meaningful names and as spurs to thought, but not necessarily as individual writers and thinkers that exist outside of her usage.
Cherry pick what you need to make yourself feel more free, more informed, or make your internal life richer, seems to be the message. For Nelson, that taking has roots in an understanding of her texts. The texts have personal meaning for her, and in her memoir, that’s the meaning that takes precedence. But The Argonauts has been heralded as a significant achievement at the blurry edges of genre, reaching beyond memoir; Nelson’s methodology of personal-first might have implications for writers purporting to talk about something other than their personal experience. Everything is fodder for personal takes on “The Subject,” whether that subject is feminism or racism or love.
For the Tumblr teens, the culture of taking and claiming at will might be informed as much by the culture of celebrity, which takes the words and lives of familiar names and makes them public property, as anything else. As Miley Cyrus tweeted and Rowan Blanchard reblogged on her Tumblr, “dont make posts that are short bc the ppl on twitter will steal them.” Whatever can be found on the internet, all the words and clips and images, are to be used at will by the crowd. It’s a free-for-all. The integrity of authorial intention feels very close to irrelevant.
Intellectual copyright is under siege as much conceptually as it is literally. As the Tumblr teens go to college and start finding hooks’s oeuvre in their campus bookstores, it’s possible the conceptual battle (if not the literal one) will fall on the side of authors, full texts, and long conversations that get stuck in gritty little details. The vocabulary is there, along with a solid set of names; the Tumblr teens are well equipped to learn the rest.
Nora Battelle is The Awl’s Fall Intern.