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Digital vignettes: A personal essay

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Weekender Editor

OCTOBER 22, 2022

The internet is an accumulation of vignettes. Portals of all sizes transform momentary impressions into the pseudo-worlds of our lives. However estranged, unruly or abandoned they may be, the worlds we create online remember what we often miss today: the brief fragments of ordinary life.

Recently, some friends and I sparked a conversation about our old Tumblr days. When we were in high school, Tumblr was an integral part of our daily lives. Years passed, and its cultural force as a social media platform ceded to the growing popularity of others like it. As time marched on, it eventually disappeared from our thoughts altogether.

But when we logged back into our accounts, nothing had changed. Our usernames and passwords, bios, posts, captions… it’s all there, just like before. In our absence, the Tumblr accounts had taken on lives of their own, separate from our own. Did it mean anything? Did it change us? How should we know? 

As we scrolled through our Tumblr pages, we were reminded of a period in time when it was cool and trendy to repost movie stills layered with provocative subtitles, usually written in a mustard yellow serif font near the bottom of the shot. 

In between grainy images of Tyler the Creator and attractive people smoking cigarettes in the city, I came across one of those movie stills. It was from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”: Ferris is lying in bed, looking up at you and narrating, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” I still like the quote. 

When I posted that image, though, I only knew about the movie from my dad, who had watched it in the late ’80s when it was playing in theaters. I knew of it, but I did not know it; I’d known that it fell in line with other coming-of-age films of its time, but I had personally never watched it. In fact, the image I had posted was not from a movie at all. The photograph was its own discrete, separate whole.

Why did I repost an image from a movie that I hadn’t actually watched? If my intention was to “save for later” some imperative to watch it someday, that “later” date was unknown to me and never arrived. Looking at Ferris now, young, baby-faced and ignorant of the cares of adult life, I imagine that I had posted it because it was exemplary in some way of a sensation that I must have been experiencing but couldn’t identify. What was that feeling? Is it still lingering somewhere in that picture? 

We kept finding more snapshots of these old movies we hadn’t watched, sprinkled all over our Tumblr accounts. All the cult classics were there: “Pulp Fiction,” “Akira,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Blade Runner,” “Clerks,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Clueless.” Many of these movies were popular before we’d even been born, but we had found ourselves drawn to the imagery they used and the things they had to say. 

They depicted success, lust, sadness and fantasy. Some images were of places we wanted to go to or people we wanted to become. Occasionally, I could still remember whatever had drawn me into the image; the composition of a bed frame, the blueness of a shadow on an actor’s face, the scuffs on a linoleum floor, the dispirited way that a woman looked at herself in the mirror, etc. — brief and immediate scenes from a filmic life integrated and embedded into mine. 

The weird thing we found going down this nostalgic rabbit hole was that we have now watched most of those movies. I’ve seen “Blade Runner” many times. When I am asked, I sometimes label it as one of my top 10 movies of all time. How have those images informed the way I interact with movies today? I began to wonder what kind of work these images were doing on my behavior while I explored cinema throughout my twenties. Somehow, the pictures of James Dean and Brigitte Bardot on my Tumblr account must have inspired me to watch movies that no one else was watching in 2015, like “Le Mépris” and “East of Eden,” even without me being totally aware of their presence. 

There’s something otherworldly, even paranormal, about learning about myself from the digital footprints I left behind. When one social media platform gives way to another, those forgotten spaces on the internet become ever more alive. Their very presence continues to act on us in small and subtle ways, traces of who we were molding who we have become.

It’s crazy to think that we can delete one account and make a new one in an instant. Before we look away, it might be worthwhile to ask ourselves how much of ourselves we lose, and how much we hold onto, when we exchange one corner of the internet for another. I don’t know what it means to post various film grabs of old movies, but I think Ferris is probably right. There is something to learn by stopping to look around once in a while at what’s going on before we miss it.

Contact Sabrina Miranda at [email protected].

JANUARY 23, 2023