Curating online: Hobbies for the hipsters

Tumblr has changed the art of collecting by offering its users an easy way to curate their interests – whether snow globes or dogs in hats

The human urge to amass rubber bands, garden gnomes and novelty snow globes has filled many a bottom drawer, mantelpiece and garage. Collections can be minor afflictions or life-consuming hobbies that lead to nothing but arguments with loved ones.

But where reason and divorce threats often fail to move these little pile-ups of knick-knacks, something else has already started shifting all this stuff – the internet. In the past three or four years, the contents of our scrapbooks and garden sheds have made their way online.

As well as putting our music, documents and holiday snaps up on the net, we're now sticking up all the weird stuff that we like to collect too. And yes, that includes snow globes – see Tumblr blog Ooh! Snowglobes.

Ten years ago you needed fairly decent computer skills to get a blog off the ground. Even five years ago, to customise a blog provided by sites like Wordpress or Blogspot, some knowledge of how to use HTML and other programs was required.

But since easy-blogging site Tumblr started in 2008, a wealth of bizarre but brilliant image blogs have sprung up cataloguing everything from beer labels to Lady Gaga's outfits. Introducing the notion that a single picture could count as a blog post, Tumblr has ushered in a whole new genre of websites – Tumblrs – that focus on collections of pictures, videos and sound files. There are 23 million and counting.

Gems such as DogsInTopHats, BagsInTrees, HipsterPuppies, and ThisIsWhyYou'reFat have brought painstakingly curated photos of dogs in top hats, plastic bags in trees and doughnut and fried chicken sandwiches to the web.

"The visual nature of Tumblr makes it ripe for creative expression," says Katherine Barna who handles communications for Tumblr, "and there's the ability to easily connect with other users over shared interests."

Because you're interested in it, it's likely someone else will be too. And with Tumblr's comment, and reblog features – that other person can comment on your pictures, send you more of them and spread your stuff all over the internet.

What people collect online is a lot more ambitious and random than what they can collect in the real world. You don't need to buy it and and you don't need to negotiate with your significant other about putting it in the garage. So online collections go way beyond stamps.

James Enloe has a blog where he collects pictures of characters in movies wearing wristwatches, a screengrab of Clint Eastwood's Rolex being a typical entry. Enloe notes that Eastwood's GMT Master "Root Beer" Rolex has made a cameo in (at least) Firefox, Tightrope and In The Line of Fire. It's a collection that couldn't exist without the internet. Or at least without the watch community as empowered by the internet.

"The watch community, that's the juice behind the blog," James says of WatchesinMovies.info "I receive about a half a dozen submissions a week from viewers who see a watch in a movie and take the time to grab a screenshot and send it my way."

The blogging platform may be recent but nerdy obsessions with stuff are as timeless as ever. Where James loves wristwatches, Jon Chonko gets excited by sandwiches. His Tumblr blog about them has just been made into a book. He explains:

"I think I've always been interested in sandwiches. At least as long as I've been noticing food. There's so many memories in sandwiches and they're an strong emotional trigger."

The unique angle of his blog – Scanwiches – is to slice the sandwiches in half and scan a cross-section of them on the office scanner. Great news for sandwich fans. Bad news for the guy from IT.

"I started doing as many as three to five sandwiches a day – scanning my co-workers' and my own. Now I average about one or two a week. I think the biggest factor for me has been the response. People who follow the blog really love seeing the sandwiches being shown off. I get requests and stories from fans, tales about sandwiches they've fallen in love with as children... Those are the things that really motivate me to keep it up. I also eat a lot of sandwiches."

Jessica Steeber's photo collection of light fittings is partly done for pleasure. But it's also a professional tool that helps her as an interior designer and magazine editor. She does it on Pinterest – a gallery site similar to Tumblr:

"I have always had an interest in lights" she explains "and I've loosely considered creating a line of my own. So this for me was a way to start cataloguing what I'm attracted to, what's available, and what other people are attracted to. An unexpected benefit of Pinterest is watching what gets reblogged – it's like market research without having to do anything."

Collections can be more than just a pastime for geeks – sometimes they make important points about the society they come from.

Sarah Wood, the curator of the V&A Museum of Childhood mentions an example from the world of museums – how the changing accessories of Action Man over the course of the decades speak of more than just toy design: "In 1960s America, anti-war sentiment about the conflicts in Vietnam and Korea moved some parents away from giving children toys of violence, and an anti-war toy movement developed. Some war-related toys such as Action Man were subsequently demilitarised, to become more general adventure figures.

"Many toy designs branched out into sci-fi and fantasy, with wars in space (such as Star Wars) becoming more acceptably disassociated with violent conflicts on earth."

The average Tumblr blog might not depict tectonic cultural shifts like that, but societal commentary can be seen. Edith Zimmerman's photo blog- Women Laughing Alone with Salad (at TheHairpin.com) says something the nature of the relationship between women and food – particularly in advertising images.

Meanwhile, Stuff Hipsters Hate deconstructs modern youth culture and AwkwardStockPhotos has much to say about the stories the media try to tell and the ridiculous pictures they require to illustrate them, i.e. at what point does a naked man racing a chimpanzee along a beach help tell a story?

And maybe even Ooh! Snowglobes has a story to tell too: the recent boom in online collections could have been fuelled by the recession as much as new technology. Paul Martin, author of Popular Collecting And The Everyday Self believes that people are more drawn to collecting ephemera in times of financial insecurity.

Martin says there was a burgeoning of personal collecting during the last slump in the 1980s – "a period of 'bling', avarice and showy material ostentatiousness". He thinks that the desire to collect ordinary stuff was a reaction from those who got the tough end of the 1980s, people who lost out in Thatcher's Britain.

"The collecting of the ordinary and everyday was a defence or coping mechanism which people used to navigate uncertainty and anxiety in a rapidly changing world. Our sense of self and identity is vested in the material culture of the everyday because it validates what we have been at a time when we are told to forget the past and adapt to a changing future.

"What might seem to be the material flotsam and jetsam of everyday life, for some people is emblematic of the process of change. It is collected as an outward reassurance to oneself and a testimony to the world that they have existed."

By letting us piece together the flotsam of the internet, Tumblr helps remember who we are. And also that sandwiches are great.

Five of the finest Tumblr collections

Things Organized Neatly: thingsorganizedneatly.tumblr.com

What is it? TON is a collection of items photographed, as the name would have it, neatly. Be it watch parts laid out into a cascading formation or a set of nails, screws and joints. The site is overseen by Indianapolis designer Austin Radcliffe, of whom The New York Times said he: "Seems less intent on collecting objects than on collecting images of collections."

Dead TVs: www.deadtvs.com

What is it? A visual collection of that common urban sight – the battered old television set left out on the street in the hope that someone will come and deal with it. It appears to be run anonymously, but closer inspection reveals it to be affiliated with pop culture webzine Chimpomatic. Though silly, the site highlights both our conspicuous consumption of consumer goods and their short shelf life. What use is a broken old television?

Pretty Colors: prettycolors.tumblr.com

What is it? Here various users submit their favourite internet colour codes which are reproduced as a large block of solid colour. Run by a Tumblr staff member, it's oddly beautiful and works not just as an internet meme but as a a handy resource and source of inspiration for anyone working with colours, from graphic designers to painter/decorators.



We Have Lasers: www.laserportraits.net

What is it? Speaking of silly internet memes, this collection is of questionable use, but is very funny. It relates to a generic laser background that American schoolkids could append to their school portraits. The user-submitted pictures from the Eighties and Nineties are endearingly nerdy. The site has recently featured in Newsweek and on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon where Chris Evans showed off his own snap.

It's All About the Bacon: baconbaconbacon.tumblr.com

What is it? The web's premier collection of bacon-related ephemera from pictures of "bacon roses" to pop culture reformatted in a bacon context, 500 Days of Bacon, anyone?

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