The New Thief of Always: Endless Scrolling, Wasted Time, and Hyperactive Boredom Through the Lens of
“However this miraculous place worked, it seemed real enough. The sun was hot, the soda was cold, the sky was blue, the grass was green. What more did he need to know?”
– Clive Barker, The Thief of Always
Like many of my fellow Millennials, I have a bit of an internet problem. I run two Tumblr blogs already, curlyhairedguys—what?—and a space dedicated to my photography business, each with modest followings in the thousands. I have a Facebook account, four emails addresses, a Snapchat, and two Instagrams. For a while, I contemplated starting a third blog but abandoned the idea (a submission-based repository for the victims of pushy online sexual advances) because I don’t want to shame people and don’t really have the time anyway.
Tumblr, for the uninitiated, is most influential to photobloggers, activists, porn connoisseurs (can’t forget them!), meme-generators, and of course teenagers. Community is key to Tumblr as well—as the interface encourages users not only to “Like” the posts they see and “Follow” other bloggers but to “Reblog” other posted content with the click of a button. LIke many internet communities, Tumblr not only invites but thrives on collaboration. A whole lot could be said about Tumblr’s (or others’) subjects—its audience and demographics, or how meaning and content are affected by constant elision—but that’s for another time and place.
Today, what primarily interests me are its means. What Tumblr, and other web-communities like it, might represent—by their means—for how we deal with time and boredom; and in turn how that might relate to a little-known children’s novel, The Thief of Always, by horror author, Clive Barker.
The Thief of Always is a fable, so Barker calls it, and thus is well-suited for social commentary (as fables often end with a moral). The story follows ten year-old Harvey Swick (I was eleven when my mother first read me the story) into a drearily boring February, Christmas memories already fading and summer too far off, as Harvey watches raindrops chase each other down the window sill. You’ve been in your share of February's: they’re the worst. And Harvey’s wish for something to assuade his boredom, for something to happen so he can avoid his mother’s constant nagging, “Don’t sit wishing the days away, honey,” lands him in a fairy tale-turned-nightmare that soon becomes a reality. I think, despite the novel being published in 1992, that Harvey is not unlike many of the common characterizations of the Post-Modern Self: curious, dim to consequence, definitely good, desiring, and ultimately unfulfilled.
[Image from Hyouka, a 2012 anime]
Tumblr, founded in 2007, purports to address these post-modern worries with distraction and community. Nowadays, it gets its power from a four-ish year-old redesign called endless scrolling, or infinite scrolling. This is what I mean by “means.” Endless scrolling allows a user to scroll down a single webpage endlessly for new content instead of continually clicking open a new page. Think daisy-chain of articles and pictures, instead of book. Many sites now use this feature. Doug Lauretano, writing for OpenX Blog in January 2014, characterized the redesign of the New York Times website, introducing endless scrolling, in the following way: “Readers have a far greater chance of finishing an article (and seeing all of the ads) if they’re relieved from the burden of clicking to the next page. Page loads, after all, slow us down.” His comments, and the NY Times redesign, came on the heels of noted blogger, Jack Marshall’s, own comment in Digiday on the endless scroll: “The standalone webpage as we know it might soon be a thing of the past.” If the internet is a rabbit hole, endless scrolling sends us further and further down it.
If you believe the user experience—Facebook, Twitter, all sorts of sites have redesigned to incorporate endless scrolling—then we’re very concerned about clicking less to get our information (less effort), getting more from the “feed” experience, and of course staying more connected with advertisers in the process. Endless scrolling seems to repeat the claim of the 2nd-wave tech