Tumblr – an explainer

Screen shot 2014-08-11 at 7.47.27 PM There is a fair bit written about using Twitter and blogs in higher education, and in legal education. Less visible however is the easy-to use microblogging/social media hybrid, Tumblr. The question is, can Tumblr be used in an educational context? The answer is, yes it can – but its form means that it may not appeal to purists seeking an in-depth doctrinal analysis of complex areas of law.

In the words of the Tumblr website:

Tumblr lets you effortlessly share anything.

Post text, photos, quotes, links, music and videos from your browser, phone, desktop, e-mail or wherever you happen to be. You can customize everything, from colors to your theme’s HTML.

Handy.

To use Tumblr, you subscribe to accounts and you can view posts – often audio/visual, though also textual – as you scroll vertically through your feed. In this respect, the experience is somewhat like Twitter. The interactive part occurs via a ‘like’ or comment on a post, somewhat like Facebook. Accounts also have the option of ‘ask me anything’, inviting question and answer. These interactions then show up on the post, and will be viewable in the feed of all who subscribe to that account.

Additionally, once you have an account, you can upload simply and easily from your smartphone, computer or other device. You can upload thoughts (via text), images, videos, audio, web links…or combinations of these, according to your interests. Many posts use hashtags to represent key words, and these can be searched to find new accounts to follow, or to follow a ‘trending’ event.

There is a lot of introspection on tumblr, and it is a platform also known for pornographic images so users should be aware of this, particularly in an educational context. Despite these common uses, there are a lot of accounts that engage with contemporary justice issues and also of Australian law. Tumblr therefore has a variety of resources that may  be of interest to legal academics and their students. In particular, it is the variety in the posts that makes this a particularly engaging medium. See the image below, showing only a few of the variety of accounts and posts under ‘law’. (It shows a number of accounts along the top, with individual sample posts below.)

Tumblr search 'law'

There are a number of Tumblr accounts that deal with topics of relevance to Australian law students. While there are many human rights accounts (see screen shot below), check out Art and Human Rights. This is an excellent example of the use of Tumblr in that it integrates audio/visual and text-based approaches to human rights. This makes for a neat package of (popular) culture and law that integrates law and legal thinking into the reader’s own experiences. (Well, at least the reader’s experiences via popular culture.)

Screen shot 2014-08-11 at 7.08.01 PM

The Criminal Lawyer provides an ‘illustrated guide to criminal law’ and even answers (non-specific) questions about the criminal law. Again, it makes the most of the variety of media that can be uploaded onto Tumblr.

For a text-based Australian law account, take a look at Shitjudgessay. This pithy account captures brief quotes from Australian case law. Without necessarily proclaiming the ratio or important obiter from leading cases, it encapsulates ‘the vibe’ of the courtroom and the literate foundation of the law through its selections. It provides the student of law with a view of the law at odds with the all-too-serious approach of the law school curriculum.

My last example illustrates how a lecturer can use Tumblr as a medium of communication with students and other viewers. At Freedom to Dixer, legal academic Peter Black invites questions from readers. Some of these relate to his course administration and others are more personal. Either way, this account represents the way in which social media lies at the intersection of the somehow within and beyond the professional. It is an effective use of a social media tool to engage and communicate with students.

Because of the infinite ways in which the user can tailor Tumblr to their own interests, it can be used by the academic in a number of ways. Dissemination of information to support a course, links to current events, question and answer and diverse ‘artifacts’ to represent a path of thought about the law, Tumblr can do it all. For the course designer however, it’s important to remember that this is a tool designed by the user. So giving over control to the viewer is part of the challenge.

I suspect that Tumblr can also be used as a tool for students to capture (and post) their own thoughts and impressions of the law – but I’m not aware of how academics are presently using it deliberately as part of course design. Do you have any ideas?

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