Dean Blunt - the redeemer
“What do I do now, huh? It’s all fucked up now.”
Dedicated to Rob Ford.
“Tumblr prides itself on being a home for brands, established and emerging, we at Yahoo are all about brands,” Mayer said on the call.
not to be too too too cynical but I know all the people I follow on Tumblr and all the people who follow me are united in one thing and one thing only: their ravenous enthusiasm for brands. “I came for the sense of a new community, one with a keen feel for the visual but with a passion for language, too,” they say, “but it’s the brands that keep me here. Sweet Christ I love brands. Let the mountains collapse into dust and the oceans all boil, but give me brands,” they cry in the night. I personally remember, as a child, pleading with my parents to let me interface with my favorite brands. And interface we did. With the brands. The glorious, glorious brands
I cried…but I’m not sure why.
Just to play “Devil’s Advocate” here, I would like to point out that Tumblr is, in fact, all about brands. “Doctor Who” is a brand, “Disney Animation” is a brand, “Supernatural” “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” “Canon Digital Cameras” “Instagram” “Star Wars” “L’Oreal Hair Products”, hell even “Homestuck” are ALL brands. It’s just on Tumblr we call them “fandoms” instead.
I cannot tell you how many products, shows, books, and other media I have consumed and loved in the last year, simply because I saw people excited about it on my dash. We are all advertising and marketing these brands 36 hours a day, 8 days a week through GIFsets, meta posts, and snarky anon messages.
As it stands now, Tumblr only barely (if that) breaks even on it’s operating costs, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that if we want this site to continue, it is going to have to start capitalizing on the fact that we are all DAMN good at selling stuff.
David Karp (who is still CEO) has continually expressed an interest in ads that are “content in and of themselves” and Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo! to whom David directly reports) has said that she supports this view of advertising becoming as good as the content itself.
I’ve seen a couple of things saying things to this effect, and I have to say, there isn’t much I disagree with more. No, just because there’s a thing you like a lot and it’s a thing doesn’t make it a brand. You can choose to think of the things you like as brands, if you like; that’s a discourse in which you can frame the world, if you like. I don’t, however, like. The Mountain Goats aren’t a brand; Thomas Malory’s not a brand; Joan Didion’s not a brand. I could conceive of them that way, if the ideology of branding were something in which I wanted to participate, but I think that calling the thing you love and are passionate about a “brand” is choosing to reduce the thing you love and are passionate about to its trappings; its externals; the parts about it that have almost nothing to do with what makes it special. Not everything is a brand, unless that’s the lens through which you choose to view the world. For the life of me, unless you stood to profit considerably from it, I cannot conceive of why one would choose to use this unpleasant lens. I’m not “advertising a brand” when I talk about music I enjoy, books I enjoy, food I like to cook. I’m sharing an experience with people who’re interested in knowing what my experiences are, who want to have a sort of dialogue with me, to meet out there in the amazing fertile field of music or literature, or cooking, even. To think of all this as “advertising a brand” is almost too depressing to bear. Yes, again: you can choose to think of it that way. Why on earth would you, though?
On the prospect of “advertising being as good as the content itself” the less said the better: no thanks, forever.
John Darnielle beautifully articulates an important idea.
I’m not generally a great fan of intentionality, but maybe it makes some kind of difference whether the person who makes the decisions around a tthing considers said thing a “brand” or not.
So, yes, framing the Mountain Goats as a “brand” adds nothing to anyone’s appreciation and subtracts a lot. It’s a glib debating point and nothing else.
But I could also frame the delicious can of Coca-Cola I just enjoyed on this hot day as “not a brand” and maybe that would help too. Yet obviously Coca-Cola is a brand, and to imagine it otherwise would be to ignore an awful lot of the decisions behind how this can in this form has ended up with me.
Framing Apple as a brand, for instance, the way it frames itself, forces the decisions it takes as a brand into the discourse - decisions on labour, materials, pricing, etc. Framing an iPad as a magical object of adoration doesn’t.
So when something self-imagines as a brand there’s value in keeping branding in the conversation. It makes it more honest. (One of the ironies of modern marketing is that marketers DON’T want people to explicitly frame things in terms of branding, they don’t want to draw attention to the machineries of marketing, they want people to focus on their love and passion and sharing the experience of enjoying a thing and all that stuff John opposes to branding.)
The cases of Apple, and the Mountain Goats, and Joan Didion for that matter, are straightforward. But a lot of the media properties so big on Tumblr are in an interstitial space between brands and not-brands: they were not necessarily born as brands but unquestionably some of the decisions being made around them now are framed in exactly that way*.
Bad decisions? Very likely. In a lot of cases it’s tempting to imagine the not-brand Doctor Who and the brand Doctor Who as Tex Avery style angels and devils hovering around the head of this thing you love. It’s not at all wrong to say “this is an unpleasant lens” about branding, but it’s also necessary to remember that this unpleasant lens is part of how the decision-makers behind these things view them. You can employ the lens without approving of it. But I think for a critical perspective the lens is necessary.
Who needs a critical perspective? I suspect, despite the cack-handed clumsiness of her language, that cyberman worldview in which people talking about stuff is always “consumers engaging with brands”, Marissa Meyer doesn’t want people to have much of one. Critical perspectives - seeing things through the unpleasant lens of branding - are what leads to things like the #fbrape campaign, creating change by effectively targeting advertisers. Rather than a separation of advertising and content for Tumblr, Meyer is probably looking with envious eyes on Pinterest, where the fusion of content and advertising, enthusiasm and branding, thrives. Brands would much rather we were passionate enthusiasts who never thought of brands at all.
I’m not generally a fan of reblogging such long conversations, but neither do I often come across a great back-and-forth between John Darnielle and Tom Ewing.
Toni Morrison, age 18, with high school classmates.
Believer editors Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits, and Believer regular Leanne Shapton, are working on a book together titled Women in Clothes, about women’s relationship to style and why women wear what they wear. Contributors include Miranda July, Zadie Smith, Eileen Myles and others. If you would like to contribute by filling out a survey (the book is being built up from these surveys) please visit this website. You needn’t care about clothes, or be a writer, or consider yourself fashionable, or even think about these things often, to contribute.
Because I flatter myself that some of you might be interested, I’m posting the most recent draft of my reading list for my comprehensive exams (slated to take place some time in the fall). This is likely the last draft before it gets approved by my supervisors. All comments and suggestions welcome.
I’m listing my two areas (and their two subsections each) with my research questions first. Actual lists of books after the cut.
Area 1: Dematerialization in Contemporary Art
Subsection 1: First-generation conceptual art and its legacies
How was the notion of non-object-based art practice conceived and positioned in the initial development of conceptualism (1966 to 1972 in Lucy Lippard’s reckoning), especially with regard to art’s modes of production, distribution, and valuation? How were these ideas incorporated, recuperated and/or resisted by existing art practices and institutions? To what extent was conceptual art “actually” dematerialized, in its nascent moment and since? Is it accurate to say that assumptions and modes of working derived from conceptual art have become dominant in contemporary art generally; if so, how? What can we gain by “re-materializing” our understanding of conceptual art’s strategies and practices?
Subsection 2: Dematerialization in new media art and art after the internet
In what ways did the development of new media art parallel the development of conceptual art and why, despite early attempts to draw them together (Kynaston McShine’s “Information” exhibition at MoMA, Jack Burnham’s “Software” exhibition at NYC’s Jewish Museum, both 1970), have new media art and conceptually-oriented art remained at arm’s length? In what ways has discourse around new media and technological art engaged with the legacy of conceptualism, and how and why has that legacy been neglected?
Area 2: Methodology: Marxist Political Economy and New Media Studies
Subsection 1: Immaterial Labour
The notion of art as an immaterial product or ephemeral experience did not develop in a vacuum, but emerged in the context of a broad shift in the organization of labour in the developed world. How has this shift been theorized by Marxist and post-Marxist thinkers?
Subsection 2: Theories of New Media
How are we to understand the new technological media forms through which art is produced and distributed, and how are these forms imbricated in high-technology capitalism?