Textbooks and TV and Tumblr, Oh My!

A photo of me, chilling at home, before my extensive plastic surgery last fall.

I’m a student.  I spend most of my time studying, or watching television, or on the internet.  I am truly a modern Renaissance Man.

I only say that with half of my tongue in my cheek, because whether I’m watching Netflix or reading about the Atlantic Slave Trade, I continually encounter new information taking various forms.  Sure, most of that information is processed subconsciously, but it still engages my mind and makes me consider what I’m learning from these sources.  They ultimately seek to do the same thing: tell me, as part of their audience, what I need to know about the topic being discussed.  And to do this, they utilize some or all of the five modes of communication: linguistic, visual, aural, spatial, and gestural.


I bet I could make bank if I weaved these and sold them on Etsy.

It seems an appropriate place to start is with an academic book.  When reading a collection of primary sources for my Colonial Latin American history class, I came across a section devoted to Incan tunics.  The information in this section was conveyed primarily through linguistic, visual, and spatial modes (as a book, aural and gestural modes would be difficult to use).

Linguistically, the text read as most textbooks do.  It provides an oversight of Incan weaving tradition, along with information about why wool tunics were made and how they differed across classes.  The linguistic mode also helped establish the text’s visual communication, by attaching captions to images.  If not for these, it would have been considerably more difficult to identify the differences between garments and the relevance of their patterns.  Still, the visual mode is important by itself.  It gives an idea of what tunics looked like and what designs adorned them, which accordingly can provide insights about the garments, such as the wealth of their wearer (opulent pieces were probably not worn by people who could barely feed themselves).

Interestingly, the spatial mode plays a large part in the organization of information in this textbook.  The section about Incan tunics is clearly demarcated, making obvious that it is separate from the book’s other primary sources.  More intriguing, however, is that this document is divided into two sections: a first, which I have described, and a second, 148 pages later in the book, which features the described tunics in color images.  Visually, this section is stunning.  The images bring color and texture to the aforementioned photos.  Spatially, however, this break in information is frustrating.  It divides information and makes it less readily accessible (it took me a solid fifteen minutes to find this section.  I probably should have looked at the table of contents).  Although the second section adds visually to the text, that addition is difficult to access and appreciate.


I’m a huge fan of reality TV.  I don’t care if you say that it’s fake or stupid or immature.  I love it.  And there’s no show I love more than Survivor.  The new season’s introduction (or theme song, if you will) was released this week, and can be found above.  What I love about the introductions for Survivor is that they tell so much about the season without using an abundance of text.  In fact, the main use of the linguistic mode is simply to list the names of tribes and of contestants as their faces flash on the screen.  It is also used briefly at the very end of the introduction to show the name and the slogan of the season.

To give more information, the editors rely on other modes.  Through the spatial mode, we learn how players are organized into tribes.  We also see use of the gestural mode, which depicts facial expressions, like celebrations or looks of pain (contrast Jeremy and Tasha’s body language in this opening) that convey some idea of who the player is and what role they play.  This is particularly nuanced because the editors provide two shots of each contestant, showing perhaps one moment when they are excited and one when they are upset to prove the game’s imminent turbulence (look at the difference between Peih-Gee’s first and second shots).  The aural mode is clearly present, using a song that combines elements of Cambodian music and Survivor’s long time theme, “Ancient Voices.”  This fusion tells us that this season will continue many traditions of the show, while incorporating aspects of Cambodian culture that are new to viewers.

Probably the most dominant mode seen in the introduction, however, is the visual one.  First, can we just appreciate how beautiful all of these shots are?  Take a moment if you must.  It’s pretty incredible, right?  Aside from just telling us what the contestants look like this season, the visual mode also communicates the beauty of this season’s setting, Cambodia.  It shows natural and cultural life, including shots of monks and of Angkor Wat.  Even if you aren’t familiar with the ancient Khmers, their sophistication is made evident by the editors’ decision to show both small, intricate details and all encompassing shots of their temples.  Also, near the end of the video, we see the contestants walk through the ruins at Angkor, suggesting that culture will be immersed into the game, somehow, during the season.

“Tumblr, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” -Vladimir Nabokov, sort of.

I am not ashamed to admit that I have a Tumblr page devoted to Myers Briggs personality typing.  And while I won’t show you mine (at least not yet), I will talk about the multimodal uses of the website through one of my favorite blogs, Funky MBTI in Fiction, because it uses all five modes of communication.

Again, the linguistic mode is used in a fairly obvious way.  Charity, the moderator, writes detailed descriptions about the personality types of characters from fiction.  She is very organized when doing this; first she will talk about the most prominent feature of the character’s personality (their dominant function), and will then discuss their less obvious traits.  This also demonstrates part of the blog’s spatial organization.  In addition to clearly labelling sections within the posts themselves, Charity also has tabs on the top and the right side of the blog that tell visitors where they can find a particular character or how they can ask a question.

Visually, the blog is simple.  Unlike other pages on Tumblr, there are not wild colors all over the place or cursors that trail pixie dust behind them.  Soft shades of blue and purple add a touch of pop to the otherwise black and white page.  Aurally, the page is silent, making the deliberate decision not to play music like other blogs.  Together, this simplicity serves to draw attention to the words on the page.  These words pair with gifs, which use the gestural mode to show expressions or individuals suiting a particular type (for example, Charity depicts Lorelai Gilmore making a face when answering a question about her type).  Together, these words and gifs seek to illustrate the character; they discuss their experiences and approach to life while showing snapshots of how they behave visually.

You, wondering why this post hasn’t ended yet.

These three examples seem diverse, and they are.  Each takes on a different form and therefore must work within the parameters of that form.  For example, a textbook simply will not be able to utilize aural communication, unless it includes a CD or a link to audio material online.  Similarly, the minute long introduction to Survivor is too brief for the extensive use of words.

The texts are also each are meant for a different audience and therefore each has a different goal in mind.  While the textbook and Funky MBTI in Fiction both are educational (albeit at different levels of formality), the Survivor introduction is meant to make the show look interesting and attract viewers.  This, coupled with the introduction’s emphasis on visuals, makes it the most distinct of the group.  Although the textbook is the only text that does not make some use of all five modes of communication, it has a similar goal to Funky MBTI in Fiction.  Both of them seek to teach and to give shape to abstract ideas, and therefore put the greatest emphasis on linguistic communication.  Still, each text succeeds in conveying information to the audience about the topic at hand.  That this is done differently underscores the fact that information is flexible, and can be communicated in numerous, effective ways.

Next time you’re at home, watching E! or scrolling through Facebook, don’t fret about wasting time.  Whether you realize it or not, you’re processing information and sorting out how it is told.  By observing the work of others, you are learning the many ways you can make your message heard.  Just make sure to get up and create something at some point, because it would be a shame to let all of that painstaking research go to waste.

2 thoughts to “Textbooks and TV and Tumblr, Oh My!”

  1. Michael,

    This post made me laugh out loud so many times. You make an excellent point that different audiences require different modes of writing. I noticed that any text trying to sell viewers/readers on something almost always uses visual and spatial modes to its advantage. In the textbook for your Colonial Latin American class, you mentioned the section being spatially frustrating. This makes a great case that the purpose of a text relates to what modes the author uses. Textbook writers’ primary goal are to give you factual information, without really caring to make things pretty or accessible–or without caring to make our lives easier, in my opinion.

    What modes of writing do you think are most effective for historical writing?

    Also, LOL at comparing Tumblr to Lolita. I’m still cracking up.


  2. Hi Michael!

    You are probably one of the most interesting people I have met at this University. Your post was so intriguing and I felt engaged the entire time because I was thinking about texts I had never thought about before (also, I need to see your personality typing tumblr because what the heck that is just so cool). There is so much I could talk about, but for the sake of the hours of homework I have to do, I will try to keep this brief.

    First, I found it really interesting that you brought up how at first you couldn’t find where the images of the Incan tunics were located spatially within your textbook and thought you should have used the table of contents. This made me think that a table of contents itself is a very interesting text to analyze. Although, it is linguistic and obviously spatial (usually placed at the beginning of the text), do you think it could also implement the gestural mode? The table of contents is more than just a page to read, but also a place where the audience can go to in order to interact with another page. It’s interactivity is what makes it gestural, in my opinion.

    Secondly, I really enjoyed your analysis of Survivor. My freshmen year roommate was obsessed with that show (and probably still is) so I know a ton about it. One of things I noticed while watching the intro to the new season was the racial diversity between competitors. I think there is something to be said about the visual choices the producers chose for the pictures of each contestant that may or may not be guided by their socially constructed racial phenotype. (i.e. Abi-Maria’s two shots versus Tasha’s). Did you have similar thoughts while analyzing that video? Please bare with me, I am an enthusiastic comm major who analyzes media everyday haha.

    Overall, great great work!

    P.S. You could definitely make a TON of money on Etsy selling those.

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