If you live a significant amount of your life in social media (like I do), you’ve probably seen something cross your dash or pop up in your twitter stream about Welcome to Night Vale. No? Well, consider this a recommendation to go check it out. It is a 20-30 minute fiction podcast written as a community radio broadcast from a small town in the American Southwest that is crowded with a combination of the mundanities of small town life, an abundance of conspiracy theories, and a number of Eldritch horrors. Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, it is beautifully narrated by Cecil Baldwin (the name of the main character and the actor who voices him), and it is posted on the 1st and the 15th of each month. You can find it here on iTunes, where it caught a good bit of media attention for leaping to the #1 podcast spot just over a year after it started.
I could go on and on about the things I like about Night Vale, and I invite you to feel free to talk with me about it if you decide you like it too. Seriously. I need discussion partners. But what I want to dive into here is not the awesomeness of Night Vale, but the way my introduction to it came through social media and developed my facility with that particular platform.
About a year ago, I wrote a post about how I didn’t quite get tumblr. I chalked my ambivalence up to a (generational) unfamiliarity and thought perhaps it had something to do with my preference for text as well, since I take tumblr to be a largely visual platform. I still had a tumblr, and I checked it once a month or so when I felt “caught up” with my usual social media sites. On one of these drive-bys, I slowed down to look at some incredible fan art, and I thought, “I wonder what that’s based on?” About a week later, I checked back, and my tumblr feed was overtaken by cryptic quotes and great art, so I went looking for the podcast.
I sort of get tumblr now. I spent the next two weeks checking my dash every day, reblogging and following new people. I connected my tumblr to my twitter and pinboard accounts, and I had a fascinating conversation with a teen on an airplane trip to Austin who noticed Night Vale on my iPhone. She wrapped up our 40 minute fangirl conversation by saying, “I’m going to post about this on tumblr, and no one is going to believe me.”
When I think about my progression from an ambivalent, nearly scornful, attitude toward tumblr to a wholehearted embrace of the platform and what it offers, I think it’s fair to say that I adapted my internet habits and adopted new ones because I found a community of people making (textual, visual, musical) art around a narrative that I was interested in. My points of entry into myspace, livejournal, dreamwidth, delicious, pinterest, Facebook, twitter, and tumblr were similarly constructed around the twining ideas of community, narrative, and art/making. I think with all the conversations around the ways that social media and technology can leave us “connected, but alone,” it’s important to think about these communities of interest and how they support – well a variety of things, really, but especially the acquisition of tech savvy practices.
The teen I sat next to on the plane from Atlanta to Austin was going to stay with a friend she had met online. She described an incident at a fan convention where the people she was rooming with were talking about an amazing story they had read without realizing that she was the author. She had a brand new Homestuck tattoo, and she was concerned about the implications of Yahoo’s acquisition of tumblr and what it might mean for creators like herself. Her life online is clearly an important aspect of her identity, and she was shocked and delighted to find that that could be true for a 40-year-old high school teacher and PhD student as well. For all our common interests, I still had to ask her, “But how do you meet people on tumblr?” She looked at me, perplexed. I tried to clarify, “I mean, I can see how you follow people, and they follow you, and you use tags to find things, and link platforms to keep them easily accessible, but how do you start a conversation with someone?”
“You ask,” she said.
It’s not greatly different from how it’s always been done, or from how our conversation on the plane started, though it may not look the same. You have to risk and learn the appropriate code/cues and find compatible people and invest in them. You invest in a shared project, you learn the language specific to your shared space, and you invest in each other with your own stories. You build community; you build narrative; you build tech experience.