Returning to the U.S. after living in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, Associate Professor of History Susan Fernsebner wanted a way to share news and current events in China with her peers and students – so she turned to Tumblr. Today, Fernsebner has 35,000 followers on her Tumblr, called Gulou, and has had several of her posts featured by Tumblr. Here’s her story on how she got started.
We talk today of a society that’s global. And yet even for me, a scholar who has spent years living and working in the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the distance between Here and There can seem tremendous. Part of the challenge is space. Another barrier is time: how do we keep up with the news in another place amid all that’s happening in our own local neighborhood? And while juggling the many tasks of an ever-busy schedule?
Having left East Asia and relocated back to the U.S. years ago as a professor of Chinese history, I found my own methods for staying in touch. These were the usual suspects: reading newspapers and journals as I found the time, both online and in more traditional forms. Close colleagues and I also exchanged email with links to relevant stories. “Did you see this?” was a common refrain. Many links were ones also intended as material for the classroom. They might be current events relevant to discussions on Chinese history, images, maps, or links to videos that would provide students their own window on China today.
Then, I had an epiphany: why not capitalize on social media and share these links more broadly? An online presence could make them directly available for a broader field of colleagues and students. It also would create its own archive.I thought about diverse tools for the project, having used both Twitter and the WordPress blogging platform before. In the end, I settled on Tumblr, which has proven an excellent frame for this purpose. It’s very handy and quick for posting in the format I’m using—namely, an image and short text, with links out to original stories and other online sites, plus tags. Unlike Twitter, it’s not limited to 140 characters, and, while I love WordPress for longer form posts and more user control, Tumblr is very speedy.
And the results have been resounding. I started the site in the fall of 2012, naming it after a neighborhood in Beijing, “Gulou” [鼓楼], famous for its historic Drum Tower that kept time for the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Shared with colleagues and students, the site initially had a modest but gradually expanding audience. Then, in the spring of 2013, the editors of Tumblr contacted me with two items of news. First, that they had featured one of my posts that shared a story of Hong Kong’s highest court ruling in favor of allowing a transgender woman to marry, a ruling that was a major event in Hong Kong civil rights. Second, they invited me to share my Gulou site as a featured site on the Tumblr Spotlight page for news services. Gulou now stands there alongside established media (Reuters, CNN, USA Today, etc.) and also accompanies other, less traditional, but equally popular sites for news consumption (e.g. The Daily Show) on the same page. In the years since, its subscribed viewer count has built to over 35,000.
Who are the 35,000 who are reading one Mary Washington professor’s shared, tagged, news stories? In many ways this tale comes full circle. It’s a global audience. The readers for this site include many of my students and colleagues. Yet the audience has also built to thousands of readers from around the world, global citizens engaged in a conversation of their own, one in which East Asia is central, but for which the themes are universal: economics, environment, gender, law, civil rights and society, migration, politics, education and more. I look forward to the conversation continuing for a good time to come.