My Instagram Scrapbook
By Chiara Scoglio
In response to Dare-Zine's topic in issue VI: Is there an analogue to the analog?
In spite of my seven years spent living in the UK, my non-native English speaking (or thinking, perhaps) mind is still regularly surprised at the amount of never-before-heard words and expressions encountered on a day-to-day basis. One of the latest examples of this is the term ‘ephemera’, which I cannot help but find mysteriously fascinating. Deriving from the adjective ‘ephemeral’ – or, lasting for a very short time – the noun refers to those everyday objects that are not meant to be preserved, such as postcards, train tickets, labels, etc. Not possessing a “traditional” artistic value per se, these items assume importance based on the subjective relationship one might develop with them – usually one of curiosity and/or affection (see Merriam-Webster, 2023). Moreover, the concept of ephemera is often related to the originally Victorian practice of scrapbooking, meaning the preservation and presentation of personal history in the form of a book, most commonly through the use of scraps, collage, drawing and writing (see Merriam-Webster, 2023).
Having fallen into an ephemera/scrapbooking/anything quirky and Victorian rabbit hole lately, my creative work could not help but somehow reflect the current obsession, which is how I ended up putting together what I called The Ephemera Zine: a small, handmade booklet entirely made out of antique and vintage scraps and – very loosely – reflecting on what classifies as ephemeral.
By drawing examples from The Ephemera Zine as well as analysing the phenomenon of scrapbooking, I wish to compare these “analogue” media to their potential present-day or specifically digital counterparts. What can be considered an example of “contemporary ephemera”? Does scrapbooking ultimately find its equivalent in blogs and social media platforms nowadays? Are such contemporary versions of the analogue fully disposable or can there be a kind of lasting quality to them, perhaps?
When putting together The Ephemera Zine, my main thought was to try and create something between a scrapbook and a zine. Aesthetically speaking, I wished the booklet to look aged and somehow vintage, while the content would not be strictly personal, but more of a very open and abstract reflection on what is ephemeral through the layering of ephemera in a collage-like technique. Without actually thinking too much about it, I begun to assemble imaginary scenes with the bits and bobs available to me. The result is a series of pages in which surreal dreamscapes of land and sea, humans and magical creatures, coexist one next to the other, attempting to capture the ephemeral quality of our fantasies and day-dreams – the vague images appearing in our minds a moment and vanishing the following one while reading a book, for example.
Flicking through the pages, it is possible to observe how my focus progressively shifted towards people, interpersonal relationships and human creation, particularly art and theatre. I reflected on all these as also temporary and fragile when silhouetted against the vastness of time. Each one of these ephemera once belonged to somebody, who might have received it as a gift from an acquaintance, who would have picked it out from a shop or market stall. The amount of history and life contained in them is at once vibrant and – again – extremely transitory. The zine even contains a couple of written postcards from 1907 and 1911: they are objects once loved and even physically handled by a person now so far away from us and yet still present in this one trace of their existence – an even more effective example of the ultimately ephemeral nature of our lives.
The zine ends with the poem Ephemera by W. B. Yeats, describing a man and a woman walking down a park coloured in autumn tints while processing and mourning the end of their love: ‘Before us lies eternity; our souls / Are love, and a continual farewell.’ (Yeats, 1889) Once again, love as ephemeral; our whole existences as ephemeral.
When it comes to ephemera, it is interesting to reflect on how these objects have changed nowadays. Postcards, physical photographs or cinema tickets – for example – have mostly disappeared in today’s digital world. Moreover, clothes or technological gadgets (phones, laptops, etc.) have become much more disposable than they used to be, particularly when framed within the context of fast-fashion and an increasingly consumeristic culture. As a matter of fact, an example of contemporary ephemera could be represented by second-hand/charity shops – places usually associated with a charity and with the aim of fundraising through the donations of clothes, books, toys, homeware, etc. received by the local community (see Merriam-Webster, 2023). These realities gather and give new life to the daily objects people leave behind, while also dedicating themselves to a number of charitable causes. Second-hand and charity shops can often be surprising places rich in “cheap treasures”, allowing customers to explore and perhaps see something special in an item discarded by someone else. Once again, the element of subjectivity and the personal value given to an everyday object come into play.
With regards to scrapbooking, the practice seems to have acquired popularity across the UK in the 19th century as a form of personal content archive. Scrapbooks would present both private and public dimensions, usually being compiled in solitude, but often shared with friends afterwards. Could scrapbooking be compared to social media platforms, then? Both involve a ‘stream of personal content’ as well as a kind of ‘personal media assemblage’ (Good, p. 559) – in other words a combination of writing and imagery belonging to the author/user as well as appropriated. Whereas scrapbooks can be considered both private and public objects, however, social media platforms are irrevocably public instruments. The mere act of subscribing to one of these websites/apps implies the intent to make one’s life (or at least parts of it) accessible to the rest of the world. Another difference can be found in the fact that social media platforms tend to be fully accessible to their audience, while scrapbooks originated as an activity for the rich to showcase their status and taste (see Good, 2013) to then become progressively more popular among lower social classes.
Scrapbooks would usually see their primary target audience in women of all ages. As a consequence of this, these books can often tell us more about their otherwise underrepresented authors and their private spheres. First of all, scrapbooking would often serve the purpose – at least partially – of a journal where to express one’s mind about family and social life, whether through writing or imagery. Moreover, these books show us what women liked to read and engage with through the analysis of specific transcribed literature, thus proving to be an important medium for their self-expression. Some women would even enjoy playing around with photographs in order to alter the appearance of the people immortalised in them (see Sallee, 2016). Finally, scrapbooks have occasionally been used in more openly political manners – numerous suffragettes kept one! In this case the authors would gather newspaper cut-outs and even question media coverage of the time (see Watton, 2022).
In a similar manner, social media platforms do offer the option to be used in creatively or politically aware ways and can be informative instruments. At the same time, however, their ceaselessly public nature is bound to influence the way a user may navigate their presence on the website: how unfiltered can we actually manage to be when constantly observed? To what extent are we not “manipulated” by the endless stream of thoughts, images, news and the way it is expressed and delivered to us? How does the “pace” at which the average user consumes digital content affect their actual retainment of information anyway?
Observing the evolution of the concept of ephemera and the practice of scrapbooking over time can shed an interesting light on the ways in which our lifestyles and – perhaps – priorities have changed: what would have been essential in the past has now become transitory, while some of the most private sides of our lives are accessible to anyone anytime. While second-hand and charity shops can represent an alternative to ephemera by ultimately recycling products and opposing consumerism, what about social media platforms? How ephemeral and disposable are they actually? Is there a chance they will somehow transform into ephemera of their own with the passing of time, or are they and their users’ content destined to disappear, overshadowed by an unstoppable technological advancement and leaving no record behind?
‘Charity shop’, Merriam-Webster, available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/charity%20shop (last accessed on the 24th September 2023).
‘Ephemera’, Merriam-Webster, available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ephemera (last accessed on the 24th September 2023).
‘Scrapbook’, Merriam-Webster, available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scrapbook (last accessed on the 24th September 2023).
Good, K. D., ‘From scrapbook to Facebook: A history of personal media assemblage and archives’, New Media & Society, 15(4):557-573, June 2013.
Sallee, R. L., ‘Femmage And The DIY Movement: Feminism, Crafty Women, And The Politics Of Gender Performance’, The University of New Mexico, Albuquerque: July 2016.
Watton, C., ‘Suffrage scrapbooks and emotional histories of women’s activism’, Women's History Review, 31(6):1028-1046, 2021.
Yeats, W. B., ‘Ephemera’, The Reader, available at: https://www.thereader.org.uk/featured-poem-ephemera-by-wb-yeats/ (last accessed on the 24th September 2023).