2009 was a good year for Tumblr. Synecdochally speaking, that means it was also a good year for Tumblrers, or whatever you call them.
Whether your metric-of-choice is book deals or raw numbers, The Kids Who Tumble graduated to big boys on the playground, not so much by stomping the other kids as by inventing their own game in the corner. Tumblr’s make-or-break premise was always that the semi-closed platform (insular, secular, participatory) would eventually make a deeper connection than the open online systems (cosmopolitan, egalitarian, populist) powered by Feedburner and retweets. Whereas anyone can read blogs or tweets, tumbling nearly demands participation.
And reblogging. Lots and lots of reblogging.
That insidery quality is why we shouldn’t be surprised that there isn’t a single Tumblr in the Technorati 100. (If choosing a blog platform were tabloid fodder, then the shocker of the year was that The Awl — one of a few new sites to creep onto the list — chose WordPress over Tumblr.) And besides Newsweek, there isn’t a single media company even trying to do anything with the platform.
But Tumblr never was for the suits. What it lacks in individual size, Tumblr makes up for in aggregate. Take the “Fuck Yeah ____” meme. These Tumblrs (including but certainly not limited to Fuck Yeah Sharks, Fuck Yeah Neal Patrick Harris, Fuck Yeah Skinny Bitch, Fuck Yeah Philosophy) have nothing to do with each other, but they served their essential purpose of being 4chan-lite. (Oh look, Fuck Yeah 4chan.)
This year, one new site embodied the larger-than-it-seems Tumblr zeitgeist better than others: Mad Men Footnotes.
TV recaps had become a moribund genre. Thousand-word recaps of things you already saw, recaps were the downtrodden hookers of internet discourse: felicitous with their views, but leaving behind the emptiness of sloppy seconds. Mad Men Footnotes flipped the genre around. It wasn’t about the telling you what you just watched — it was about exploring the entire universe that it created. Through short posts that allude to passing show references (Rothko, Ann-Marget, salted ice cream), the site made history feel like the present.
Just as Mad Men uses the ’60s as a prism through which to understand contemporary advertising and desire, Mad Men Footnotes is shorthand for understanding blog culture. It is the quintessential use of the platform: a reblog of a reblog designed for reblogging.
Rex Sorgatz blogs at Fimoculous. He subscribes to approximately 600 feeds in FeedDemon/Google Reader (now connected!).
Offworld started in late November 2008, the first off-brand offspring of Boing Boing’s attempt at world domination along with Boing Boing Gadgets and BBTV. The site quickly became a favorite of the indie gaming community, thanks to the singular vision of Austin-based editor Brandon Boyer.
Offworld explored the art and culture of games, with a focus on under-appreciated and innovative games from the exploding independent games movement, as well as some quirkier mainstream titles. Most entries highlighted a single link, but the site also featured in-depth previews, interviews, and roundups of obscure delights. By far, Offworld’s most popular entries were showcases of art — galleries of exclusive concept art, leaked imagery, and game photography.
In the process, it became the largest blog to regularly cover indie games, exposing the scene’s efforts to a wider audience. Ultimately, Boing Boing’s advertising partners couldn’t find a way to market to the site’s audience. Less than a year later, on October 7, the site was quietly shuttered, downgrading Boyer to a weekly feature for the mothership. On Boing Boing, every entry’s fantastic — highlights include original art from Canabalt, LittleBigPlanet, and Brütal Legend — but it’s not the same. Game over, man.
Honorary Mention: Paul Lamere’s Music Machinery, where the Echonest’s community lead hacks music metadata with entertaining results.
Andy Baio is the CTO of Kickstarter, a Brooklyn-based crowdfunding startup, and writes at Waxy.org. He subscribes to 515 feeds in Google Reader.
Launched in April, The Awl specializes in incisive commentary about anything and everything founding editors Choire Sicha and Alex Balk find worth incising. What you won’t see here: rapacious coverage of the dirty story of the moment. The Awl stands at the edge of the party (next to the keg, probably), giving the play-by-play of the downward spiral of the media industry. (For the purposes of this metaphor, the media industry are those in the center of the party who are drunk, copping feels and making frequent butt.)
Over the past few months Sicha and Balk have added a stable of columnists and fellow Gawker Media alums, including Ana Marie Cox, who pairs up with HuffPo’s Jason Linkins to pen alternate-reality (maybe?) captions of the White House Flickr Feed, including such sweet nuggs as this: “Disappointed in his inability to win President for a Day responsibilities, Joe Biden returns to an afternoon of sexually harassing Valerie Jarrett, one of the powerless, non-basketball-playing women of the White House.”
So it’s funny, yes, and always delivered with a steady stream of insight. And it can even be informative, such as Awl “business guy” David Cho’s recent explanation of the lyrics to “Empire State of Mind,” in particular how sports players’ jersey numbers relate to the price of cocaine. And there are also movie reviews — the best I’ve read all year — like Choire’s take on The Hangover and the people who go see The Hangover. It’s more than insightful, it’s correct.
Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He subscribes to 82 feeds in NetNewsWire.
Naming a favorite blog seems somewhat disingenuous because if you are bloggy enough to have a “favorite blog,” you probably use RSS. So rather than reading one site’s posts sequentially, you see it in the context of all your other favorites. So before I name my favorite blog of the year, I should probably first reveal the contents of my Google Reader folders. If I could only read one blog ever, it would be Things Magazine (although picking a linkblog like Things is kind of like saying “I’d wish for more wishes”). My other favorites are Ballardian and Bookslut. Then Next Nature, A Journey Round My Skull, Marginal Revolution, Design Observer, Art Fag City, Tao Lin, Daring Fireball, Futurismic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Infinite Thought, Jack Cheng, Snarkmarket, Sit Down Man, You’re a Bloody Tragedy, Britticisms, and over 600 others.
Among the great debuts in 2009: Will Wiles’ consistently fascinating Spillway and Mandy Brown’s A Working Library. Both are now in the “must read” folder. Bad British Architecture is very funny, as is The Awl, especially Mary HK Choi’s fashion posts. Hyperallergic had one of the best posts this year, a parody of the Art Review’s “power” issue. There were other great blogs that closed as mysteriously as they debuted. For a while this summer, Digital Fiction Show was your one-stop shop for the best links about the future of books. It’s dead now. And I’m not sure what’s happening with the Review of Reviews, but I hope they start posting again.
But my favorite blog this year is Hilobrow. It celebrates intellectualism and pop culture, seeking the extermination of quatsch and middlebrow. If there is a Walt Whitman recording in a Levis commercial, you’ll find an insightful post about it there. With long posts about “Hilo heroes” like Sheila E. to Zygmunt Bauman on their birthdays, a series on the book as a weapon, galleries of unforgettable cover art, and even short fiction, it’s easy to waste an hour clicking through the archives.
Joanne McNeil blogs at The Tomorrow Museum. She subscribes to 749 feeds in Google Reader.
Mike Deri Smith
Tumblr provided the blogging platform to define how it felt to be online-in-oh-nine. The best Tumblr blogs adhere to the essential rule of “have something to say” and maintain a tight and clear curatorial mandate: you know what to expect. Favorites include EYE ON Springfield, THE BROKERS WITH HANDS ON THEIR FACES BLOG, and GIF PARTY, “a place where GIFs hang out, and do whatever!” Most shout their titles, and though the platform has been described as “Livejournal on coke and privilege,” the quality and variety denies lazily laconic reduction. Through Tumblr’s Dashboard — an intelligent RSS reader doubling as blogging engine — it’s easy to publish, and compelling to make it good, with readers/publishers sending/receiving red-hearted ‘likes’ to and fro (doing it before Facebook, but after the Hype Machine).
The blog that stole the most of my hearts this year, and my favorite blog of 2009, is SlaughterHouse90210. Its title is not all-caps, and its subtlety, quietness, and consistency rewards readers. The Slaughterhouse melds literature with television, publishing TV screenshots above erudite quotes. Extracting literary works from their pages, and isolating TV shows into a single frame, empowers both, provoking me to constantly reevaluate both.
There’s Friends united with Sylvia Plath, Douglas Adams finding something to say about Scrubs, and Mad Men tied to W. Somerset Maugham. The best bit: there are over 400 posts to meander through. I subscribed to scores of Tumblr blogs through the year, but the colorful, bounteous, waterfall proved to much to get through. All that is left now is Slaughterhouse90210. It has gutted and bled the opposition dry. The result: the carcass of high-and-low culture carved into one prime loin.
Mike Deri Smith is an assistant editor at The Morning News and used to run the UK’s “best music blog.” He subscribes to 168 feeds in NetNewsWire.
Sublime taste across the board on a blog about words and images is pretty difficult to find. Bright Stupid Confetti, run by the one-man show, the brilliant Mr. Christopher Higgs, is a weekly updated stream of mental objects, concept-minded sound and film, freaky and mesmerizing imagery, and hyperfunctional languages. Without commentary, he hand selects entities of aura, ones that are more difficult to not stare at than they are to scroll on past, which in the face of such easy/heavy click-click-click land ability, is a rare find.
What I like most about BSC, beyond the always-invoking taste, is the simplicity of its format, its no-sales-pitch, just-memes treats. It’s like an e-museum you want to go to once a week for its refreshing beeping, and its knack to energize.
Blake Butler is the editor of HTMLGiant. He subscribes to about 150 feeds in Google Reader.
Most of the sites I skim over each day are topfeeders; if they link to something, then it’s probably been whored around the internet all day. But then there’s CreativeApplications.Net (or CAN for short), started by architect Filip Visnjic in October 2008 (2009ish, right?). The folks at CAN manage to mine out the dark, esoteric corners of information presentation and extract real gems that are at once useful and beautiful but somehow overlooked or forgotten. The apps usually take the form of Flash (web), PC, Mac, iPhone, or occasionally Processing (a programming language).
There’s a real sense of character to the selections at CAN that speaks to the quality of their curation. Sure, the writeups are not much more than app-porn (as in “hey, check this out”), but that’s okay; the work is in the finding. Besides, these little app beauties speak for themselves, and the posts are well-stocked with videos and screenshots and links. One recent find by CAN was OmmWriter, a sublime Mac minimalist writing tool that snows on your screen as you type. Another nice catch is Satromizer for the iPhone, which lets you play glitch artist à la Jon Satrom.
On more than one occasion I’ve been the cool guy at the bar with the kick-ass iPhone app thanks to CAN (confession: it’s my wife’s iPhone). And on even more occasions, the amazing techno-art presented on CAN has taken my breath away for a few moments. That’s a rare thing in internetland these days.
John Beeler is the futurist and resident historian/technician/stay-at-home-dad at Asthmatic Kitty Records. He subscribes to 432 feeds in Google Reader.
It’s no coincidence that every American with a blog links to each new entry from Maira Kalman’s monthly series for The New York Times, And the Pursuit of Happiness. Though Obama ostensibly ushered in an new era of hope this January, when Kalman’s series also debuted, the intervening months have flooded our national consciousness with a sticky cynicism that even Jon Stewart can’t wash away. We constantly need something to remind us that there is good at the core of this country, and Kalman’s uplifting blend of illustration, history, reporting, and poetry fills that need perfectly.
Her writing is sweet without being cloying, her sentiments are optimistic without being naive, and every entry is given life by her wonderful, evocative artwork. She also achieves that rare balance of personal storytelling so honest that it becomes universal. When she falls in love with Abe Lincoln, we swoon with her, and when she finds hope even in our deeply flawed legislative system, we too can believe in a brighter tomorrow.
(I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kalman’s generous spirit, as she freely gave her time to some random idiot on the internet. In that interview, she told Kevin, “This is a column that takes me about three weeks to do. I guess most people don’t spend that kind of time on a blog.” That’s a bit of an understatement. And she didn’t even seem miffed when Kevin described her gorgeous, expressive lettering as “handwriting.” Now that’s a class act.)
And the Pursuit of Happiness should be required reading for all Americans, from school children who need the world’s only entertaining lesson on the word “bicameral,” to adults who, well, need to learn the same thing. And lucky for me, I don’t even have to cherry-pick the best entries from her archive. Just scroll to the bottom of her page, fill your browser with tabs, and lose yourself in her world.
Bureau Editor Nick Martens subscribes to 54 feeds in NetNewsWire.
I’ve often claimed that BLDGBLOG is the best blog on the web, or at least it has all the characteristics that I think make blogging a uniquely satisfying written medium. But what I adore most about BLDGBLOG is that it’s driven by genuine passion for the subject. The site isn’t written solely for architecture and urban development enthusiasts. Instead, BLDGBLOG proves exactly why you too should care about architecture.
For the same reasons, its newly launched sister site, Edible Geography, is my favorite blog this year. Where BLDGBLOG finds an interesting story in every niche of architecture, Edible Geography does with an even more familiar topic: food. Author Nicola Twilley talks about how global warming affects the quality of Czech pilsners, the EU’s legal standards of beauty for produce, and the Subway sandwich shop being built atop a crane at the Freedom Tower construction site. She digs up the obscure and fascinating.
With much ado about the definition of liberal arts 2.0, I think this site defines exactly what I’d like it to mean. It’s hyper-interdisciplinary, thoughtfully written, and, true to blog form, easily digested (okay, bad joke). Edible Geography is never predictable and always delightful.
Bureau Editor Kevin Nguyen subscribes to 110 feeds in NetNewsWire.