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Facebook, meet Commonplacebook

Pinterest boards collecting images and texts supporting a central “aesthetic,” Tumblr blogs curating media around a mood or interest base, TikTok edits mixing Lucy Dacus songs with “The Sopranos” clips — in all these practices, common among young social media users, the age-old tradition of commonplacing rears its head.

In our previous posts, we’ve examined the concept of a commonplace book, a structured collection of quotes in a notebook, how commonplace books written by women have been hidden in bibliographic processes, and how the works of other authors influenced Aldo Leopold. In this final post, we’ll explore how commonplacing is reflected on social media platforms. 

Though debates around the value of social media persist, the platforms still hold outsized influence over American teenagers and young adults. A 2022 Pew survey found 67% of teenagers ages 13-17 have used TikTok, and 62% Instagram — 16% and 10% said they almost “constantly” use the respective platforms. 

Some commentators have noted the analogous nature of commonplacing and social media collages. Stephanie Sylverne, an author and journalist, termed commonplace books “Ye Olde Facebook” in a Medium post.

"Social media like Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest are probably the closest thing to digital commonplace books. They share roughly the same idea: collecting quotes, pictures, song lyrics, social commentary, recipes, etc., for ourselves but also to engage others and exchange ideas."

In an era dominated by technology, the tradition of the commonplace book has found new life in social media. The essence of a commonplace book lies in its role as a personal repository of thoughts, ideas, and inspiration — practices we now see in the digital landscape. 

Photo courtesy of Tumblr user whetstonegirl

How commonplacing helps us navigate the information boom

If commonplacing is thousands of bees working together to create an ounce of honey, “webweaving” — a Tumblr and TikTok trend which combines quotes from literature, clips from different media and popular songs — is the arachnid, silk-based equivalent. 

Tumblr user “fearwastaken” describes the process as such:

“It’s when you compare different types of media (song lyrics, book quotes, movie moments, poetry, etc) because they all have the same theme, talk about the same subject… it’s insane to see serious poetry and then right after a screenshot from a jack box game and have them make sense.”

Webweaves skyrocketed in popularity during summer 2022’s TikTok cycle, as industrious users combined their favorite shows, poetry, novels and more with songs provided by the app — most notably, indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers’ single “Scott Street,” off the 2017 album Strangers in the Alps

Commonplacing is a longstanding practice for Ethan Kay, Senior Staff Software Engineer at Google. A a UW-Madison alum who majored in Mathematics, Philosophy, Physics, English, Astronomy, & Political Science, Kay has continually maintained a commonplace book even after graduating in 2016. 

He was first introduced to the concept during his university coursework with UW-Madison professor Joshua Calhoun and appreciated how it emphasized memorization in a world increasingly reliant on technology and visual media. Kay was so enthused with the practice of commonplacing that he developed an app to grab quotes from open-source texts, like those one might find on Project Gutenberg or Google Books: he now maintains a fully digital commonplace book.  

Kay at proto-HH event in UW-Madison Special Collections, June 2014

“I thought [commonplacing] was an excellent way to think about one aspect of reading — the collection of quotes,” Kay said. “A collection of quotes and phrases that are meaningful as you're reading along and then can give meaning in themselves and sometimes stand alone outside the work.”

Kay said commonplacing — especially in creating connections between different texts and ideas — can help practitioners navigate an increasingly complex media landscape.

“You know, we have a limited number of years to read good words. That hasn't changed — that's basically the same as it's been for 100 years,” Kay said. “There's virtue and trying to find the ones that are worth reading.”  

How does social media work alongside — and against — the commonplace tradition?

Social media platforms offer an immediate outlet to express thoughts and ideas. Platforms like X, formerly known as Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and others offer spaces allowing users to repost quotes, pictures, and gifs that turn their feed or homepage into something of a commonplace. 

Curation and collection are central ideas to many of these platforms — both Tumblr and X prompt new users to select topics they’re interested in before users can access the platform.

Though some social platforms can function similarly to commonplace books, there are specific apps that facilitate digital commonplacing. Both Readwise and Notion are apps which allow users to make a sort of digital notebook compiling different texts or media forms.  

The way a user posts on platforms like X or Tumblr, however, can create a more commonplace-like feel. Many social media platforms have public or private modes, used to either broadcast curated content or keep thoughts and spaces hidden from anyone browsing. Private modes are analogous to a traditional commonplace book structure, where people only see what you have curated if you choose to show them. 

But some intrinsic aspects of social media platforms can detract from the commonplacing experience: noise and distraction provide one such issue. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram are filled with content, and when a user scrolls they see an infinite stream of posts. This concentration of random information could influence a curation-focused user, making it increasingly difficult to maintain a focused, personal collection of curated content. 

Even if some apps do have features that are similar to core principles of commonplacing — sectioning off content or collecting quotes — their data-driven prerogatives drift away from the core of commonplacing. Social media platforms implement algorithms prioritizing popular or trending content — this can influence and overshadow personal, grassroots entries. 

One example: user-generated “popular highlights” on Kindle e-readers, which Kay said lack the individuality and intent necessary for commonplacing.

A Kindle e-reader showing text with a section underlined and the phrase "163 highlighters."
A "suggested highlight" in a Kindle e-book version of Virgina Woolf's "To The Lighthouse."

“[The highlighted text] doesn't become a personal artifact for people,” he said. He contrasted that with the sentimental and educational power in commonplace books.  “A commonplace book that you put together yourself is a bit like a store of important memories,” Kay added.

Algorithms are tailored to user’s specific preferences and harness usage statistics to prioritize high-engagement content, often at the expense of other entries users might relate to. This risks dissonance between the user's curated content and algorithmically-highlighted content — how can niche interests compete with posts receiving thousands of likes?

Structures we might not have expected

Throughout this series, we’ve seen how commonplace books have persisted throughout the ages and touched the lives of many. Whether it’s scholars in Ancient Greece, women in 18th and 19th century America, or an environmental scholar in rural Wisconsin, we find commonplace books in all corners of written communication.

Even if the words “commonplacing” are not as common in modern vocabulary, the practice endures in new mediums. We jot down amusing messages from friends in notes apps, archive our favorite pictures in photo libraries, curate collections of quotes we see on instagram, and in each action you can find some aspect of commonplacing — a principled, intentional recording of quotes.  

Those rules are less strict than we might think; two posts ago, one archivist memorably told us to “keep it loose” in how we delineate between commonplace book and diary. And those same guidelines apply to the actual practice of commonplacing; like one Yale scholar found, when we look at real commonplace books, we find structures we might not have expected.

We hope this series made you excited about the idea of commonplacing and more perceptive to the ways in which it’s influenced writers and people throughout the centuries. Thank you for coming on this journey with us.

About the Authors & the Project

“Real Commonplace Books: A Series” is a Spring 2024 Independent Study on commonplace books — many of which are contained in UW-Madison Special Collections.

Liam Beran, a fourth-year English major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has a passion for language and is seeking a certificate in French. Outside of school, he spends much of his time editing articles for UW-Madison’s oldest student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, and is an active distance runner with the Wisconsin Track Club. 

Libby Markgraf is a senior majoring in Economics with certificates in History and Data Science. Her interest in history began during a papermaking event on Library Mall with Holding History, and she further explored the field through Professor Calhoun's English courses, "Shakespeare, Sort Of" and "Spenser" which introduced her to Special Collections. 

Thanks to UW-Madison's Professor Joshua Calhoun (Assoc. Prof., English Department; Affiliate Faculty, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies), Sarah Marty (Director, Bolz Center for Arts Administration; Affiliate, Division of the Arts) & to the Holding History program for hosting this bookish, bloggish conversation about Commonplace Books.

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