Ancient Egyptian Curses and Bog Bodies: Second Response

Published on 26 January 2024 03:14 PM
By Alex Fitzpatrick
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As a Tumblr veteran from the arguable "heyday" of the website (2009 – 2015), Verstraete’s article immediately intrigued me based on the premise alone. My use of Tumblr actually correlates nicely with my journey into archaeology – in 2009, I was just deciding on what my future would be like after high school, eventually choosing to pursue an undergraduate degree in archaeology. By the time I finally deleted my Tumblr account in 2015, I had just begun my master’s degree in archaeological sciences. As such, I experienced much of the same themes of posting that ran rampant across #archaeology on Tumblr that Verstraete describes, with the added twist that I was also in the process of transversing the barrier between "non-specialist" and "specialist". I have vague memories of posting exciting new facts that I learned in my university classes, still too new in the field to provide the depth of detail and nuance that later reblogs from professional archaeologists would add. By the end of my time on Tumblr, I was able to contribute my own expertise to conversations and even correct posts that may have been sharing misinformation.

As Verstraete points out, one of the most unique elements of Tumblr was the way in which blogging and reblogging would necessitate a sort of dialogue between parties, making every post a potential conversation in waiting. In my experience, this was often seen in the form of corrections (the dreaded "actually..." sort of conversation that correlates with the "killjoy trope" that Verstraete identifies) or, similar to an example that Verstraete uses in the article, contextualising a joke or "shitpost". I always found the latter example to be the most endearing; it always seemed to me as an attempt to pushback against the aforementioned killjoy trope that is associated with academics, showcasing that experts could indulge in shitposting that was arguably beneath them while also demonstrating their knowledge in a fun and informal way.

But it is perhaps the other unique element of Tumblr – the emphasis on visual content that allowed for both photogenic "mood boards" and poorly made MS Paint memes thrive among users – that had a more complicated relationship with misinformation. I’ll admit that I was not immune to the siren call of "aesthetic Tumblr" – a subculture within the website that often posted grids of (mostly unattributed) photos and artwork that were meant to evoke an overall setting or feeling, often those that did not have a distinctive identity (for example, the aesthetics of a woodland elf sat within a forest clearing on a moody autumn day); it can be argued that these mood boards were predecessors of today’s "vibes" and various "-core" (i.e., cottagecore). But there was rarely any text that accompanied these posts, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer. Combined with the fact that these mood boards were able to be created through the perspective of the user who made them, this created a double lens to distort what perhaps may be the reality of the "aesthetic" that one was attempting to evoke.

I appreciate that Verstraete delves into the specific features such as the ones mentioned above that made Tumblr so unique as a social media network, and how they ultimately shaped the way knowledge (and so-called knowledge) was engaged with on that website. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the decline of Tumblr and the mass migration of users to Twitter has also irreparably impacted the way discourse is formed and shared there – Tweets often read like Tumblr posts in informal and conversational tones, with the Quote-Tweet function acting similar to that of reblogging.

And this ultimately connects to what is the most important takeaway from Verstraete’s article – that the "battlegrounds" upon which archaeologists will be fighting against pseudoarchaeology and misinformation are unique and will require approaches beyond the formality and rigidity of academic debate. Social media networks have their own cultures and languages, through which misinformation is constantly spread – it is up to us as professionals to learn and adapt to the constantly changing and evolving nature of the digital universe and engage with pseudoarchaeology directly. But as Verstraete also acknowledges, this approach needs to be acknowledged by the wider archaeological community (particularly those within academia) as not only valid, but also worthwhile. Because how can we possibly expect a 500 page Oxford Handbook to compete with a meme of a skeleton with over one million reblogs and likes?

Cover Image "Image taken from page 41 'John L. Stoddard's Lectures [on his travels] . Illustrated ... with views of the worlds famous places and people, etc' 1877 British Library

Mathead Image Screenshot by Emma Verstraete of meme posted to Tumblr