Twee: A PostSecret Tale

13 Apr
April 13, 2010

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like every other Tumblr blog consists of:

  1. Quotes talking about love, loss, love lost, or how you could conquer the world if you just put your mind to it.
  2. Desaturated and out-of-focus artsy photographs where the face of any human subjects are always obscured in some way, overlaid by option 1 (probably in Helvetica).

I’m not hating on them. I subscribe to a lot of Tumblr blogs in my RSS feed that fit the above description exactly, and even though I rack up 1-200 unread items per day as a direct result of those blogs, I relish flipping through everything and mourn the moment my ‘unread’ count hits zero.

But it seems like a fairly recent phenomenon, doesn’t it? And I don’t think it’s just because Tumblr didn’t hit the market until 2007.

*

Cynicism has always been seen as an essential component of being cool. Those desperate to join the ranks of the “in-crowd” (that would be, um, all of us) dismissed optimism as naivety and idealism as ignorance. This attitude was especially prevalent on the internet, where it paid to be a bit more careful about what sentiment you expressed if you wanted to avoid ridicule. You had to protect yourself and throw up a shield when communicating online if you knew what was good for you.

Then PostSecret, a mail-in art project started by Frank Warren, came along in 2005. Warren handed out hundreds of blank, pre-addressed postcards to strangers inviting them to mail their secrets to him, and he posted a selection of these secrets on his blog every Sunday.The project has been massively popular, spawning a book deal, speaking tours, and an incredible number of spin-offs.

The sentiment behind PostSecret was pretty much the antithesis of cynicism: writing down your most intimate secret, the thing you’ve never even told your spouse or partner, and exposing that vulnerability to thousands of thousands of internet strangers. The overwhelmingly positive response from people who identified with secrets that have been sent in affirms the basic message that Warren is going for: people are fundamentally good, and we have more in common than not.

I feel like one of the reasons that PostSecret was so incredibly successful is because it pushed back against cool and aloof. But there was a bit more to it than that–it wasn’t just about celebrating sincerity and earnestness. It also, in a way, gave people people permission to admit that they’re feeling sad and depressed. It was suddenly okay to have wistful regrets as well as grandiose dreams.

Arguably, PostSecret just got lucky. It certainly didn’t come up with the concept of celebrating emotional openness: the term New Sincerity had been coined as early as 1985. But with a mainstream culture that grew increasingly angry and chaotic, counter-culture–the rebellion of the youth–naturally gravitated towards the self-reflective and the thoughtful.

The adolescents who would have had the most exposure to this phenomenon–one of the first waves of adolescents to struggle with coming into their identity as adults amid the incredible cynicism of the internet–have particularly embraced this model. It was comforting to see that the adults, the people who were supposed to have all the answers, were also just making the best of their situations with the tools available to them.

*

As a (former) LiveJournal junkie, the unofficial spin-off that I followed the most closely was the LJSecret community. Thousands of users created secrets in some sort of image-editing program, uploaded and submitted them, and the moderators of the community compiled these secrets into daily aggregate posts.

When I still followed LJSecret, I avidly collected the ones that resonated with me. Sometimes I wished I could show a friend that collection, because after a while the collection grew to create a fairly accurate picture of who I was. Granted, it was more morose and depressed than the person I am in real life, but it also offered a really neat snapshot into my mindset.

I don’t imagine that my habit of collecting secrets was unique, and I’m sure everyone who followed this meme eventually found themselves with a folder of secrets that combined to illustrate a complicated and idiosyncratic person. PostSecret is the logical result, and perfect crystalization, of my generation’s need for sincerity and emotion.

The Tumblr blogs mentioned above just seem like the most natural extension of that. If you ‘grew up’ on PostSecret and its ilk, and if writing or creating art isn’t necessarily your thing, these pithy visual updates in the style of PostSecret provide the perfect outlet for your need for self-expression. There may be allowance for a small degree of feedback on your updates, but by and large, your Tumblr blog is you, not your community.

Given the demographic of Tumblr users, it’s hardly a surprise that I wound up with an RSS reader full of sentimental and emotional feeds.

*

Here are some of my favourites:

Quote-book
You’re Everything To Me
Today Is Happie
This is my heart. It is a good heart.
And It’s Love.

(I still can’t seem to escape the twee.)

1 reply
  1. thedarlingbudds says:

    Great article…and thanks for the links to the Tumblrs. To me, sites like these feel like the evidence of a seismic shift in youth culture: the inclusion of hope and optimism into the DNA of cool.

    Within the last few years, there’s been a subtle adjustment to the concept of cool. Slowly, coolness was less about being bulletproof and more about being open and optimistic. There are numerous possible explanations for this–I’ll spare you an essay on 9/11 and the rise of emo culture–but I think the reason is because of changes in mainstream culture.

    Coolness has always been in opposition to the mainstream. From the 50s through to the 90s, mainstream culture was complacent and conformist. In response, “cool” took the form of cynicism and skepticism against all things. This is best exemplified in Brando’s classic line from The Wild Bunch. When asked what he was rebelling against, Brando slyly answered “What’ve you got?”

    Now, however, mainstream culture has moved on, and has become dumb and loud instead of smothering and condescending and uniform. In response, being cool means rebelling against that by becoming thoughtful. That doesn’t make it any less vital or revolutionary.

Comments are closed.