MEET THE SINGAPOREANS OF "STUDYBLR"
Feature photo by KIYUN LEE
Singaporean students have lots to study for, and this is often reflected in one of the most ironic ways possible -- social media.
Every time finals season rolls around, my desk is covered with foolscap paper, ugly scrawls hemming the borders. Maybe I have a coffee mug, but it’s filled with herbal tea because I’ve most certainly overdone my caffeine fix for the day. My laptop is open, blasting All Time Low -- and my favourite band’s name is pretty apt, because around this time of the year, as examinations approach, I find myself in an all time low of tangled laptop chargers, notes and revision files.
Perhaps the one comforting fact amidst the fearsome exam period is that other students are in the same (messy) boat. My friends share photos of notebooks and timelapses of frantic writing on their Instagram stories, often accompanied by a time-stamp: “3:31 am” and text “(name of subject) is the bane of my existence…”
This is a common sight for Singaporean students. In secondary school, we work towards completing our ‘O Levels’, and after that we move to taking examinations at the polytechnic or junior college level. From then, it’s either the test of the workplace or university and then that. Singaporean students have lots to study for, and this is often reflected in one of the most ironic ways possible -- social media.
Usually, we think of studying and social media as diametrically opposed things: keep your eyes away from your phone, and you’ll get more studying done.
Usually, we think of studying and social media as diametrically opposed things: keep your eyes away from your phone, and you’ll get more studying done. Hence, the combination of both seems almost counter-productive. However, in Singapore, the fusion of social media and studying has given rise to a compelling culture that lives among studying communities worldwide - the ‘studyblr’ subculture.
Defined by images of journal spreads, calligraphy headers, neat desk-surfaces with coloured pens and often MacBook screens with productivity applications running, studyblrs are peak organisation porn. The studyblr owners take great pains to showcase their desk set-up, create aesthetic journal spreads with their own sketches or drawings, and often apply a filter on their study photography that keeps their feed ‘consistent,’ akin to fashion and travel bloggers.
When Alycia, 20, a first-year university student first started her studyblr on Instagram in 2017, she felt that it was simply a way to showcase what she had already been doing: “making pretty notes and using my planner.” She would post her handwritten notes for subjects like Biology and Chemistry on social media, incorporating her entire desk-space and schedule into the images.
“I used to love writing, so I hand-wrote everything. Even when my school gave me notes, I would find it helpful to hand-write everything.” As an O-Level student juggling many subjects, Alycia didn’t find it a chore to produce notes consistently, as it was already a practice built into her schedule. “I would simply schedule a time each week to shoot my desk and my notes, and edit the pictures later on.”
“When I first started, my ‘signature’ pen was a simple black gel ink”, she remarks, smiling. Now, the specifics of Alycia’s studyblr can be defined by her flowy, cursive handwriting with the help of brush-pens, dried flowers, and her journal. “Having a pretty desk space motivates me - seeing how I can organise items and photograph it in an aesthetic manner keeps me on track with planning and studying. That’s why I put in the time and effort to set up such an elaborate space.”
Like Alycia, other studyblr owners find that the habit of ‘sharing’ their journals and study journeys with an audience has encouraged them to remain accountable to themselves. Joann, 16 and a Singaporean student in the Integrated Programme (IP), also found that running her studyblr allowed her to express herself and find her individual aesthetic.
While being in IP means that Joann does not have to take the ‘O’ Level examinations like other Secondary 4 students in non-IP schools, she has continual assessments that serve as a metric for her academic progress. With the steady drum of assignments and tests to study for, her studyblr has plenty of material to be updated frequently.
“I simply remember it being something that I had wanted to do so that I could perhaps make the entire experience of studying more vibrant, by giving my notes a personal touch.” Working with gradient highlights, washi tape and brush pens, Joann felt that the addition of subtle colour and decorations “were not only a good source of study motivation, but also a fantastic way for me to play around with different colour combinations.”
Her current Instagram posts range from notes on alkalines to detailed breakdowns of daily life - against the backdrop of a clean desk and muted colour palette. “Looking back, I do feel that those few months or so of experimenting under the public eye was paramount in helping me develop a style that I was happy to begin working with as I was still a beginner back then.”
“When I occasionally experience a ‘creative/art block’, I find it harder to put together combinations of decorations that I’m happy to put on my platform. For example, there were some days where certain colour combinations of washi tape looked pretty nice in my head but didn’t come out as well as I would have liked it to -- when this occurs, I prefer to just start on my notes without the decorations before coming back to it another day.”
Beyond colours, Joann’s feed generally appears impossibly consistent, to the point where the rays of sunshine appear to slant the same way across the pages of each journal spread. When I get the opportunity to ask her about this, she cites this as something that is definitely challenging to achieve. “It’s a minor challenge. I enjoy taking my photographs using natural lighting, as [it] allows me to have photographs that aren’t too warm or too cool, which then translates to minimal editing on my part. However, as its name suggests, the quality of natural lighting is highly dependent on external weather factors that I have no control over.
“When Singapore enters the monsoon seasons, or when the skies remain cloudy for weeks, it may take me longer than usual to get proper lighting or edit the pictures as the lighting in my house is slightly tinted.” Joann’s careful consideration of numerous aspects that go into the creation of her studyblr is to be respected, and has been recognised by others outside of the studyblr community. She started off as a thirteen year old girl starting out with the notion of showcasing her study notes and tips, but her very own venture has borne fruit by way of creating opportunities for sponsorship. “At that point of time [when starting out], as much as I did want my posts to be able to reach a larger audience, I didn’t expect my notes, as well as my bullet journal spreads, to be as well-received as it is today.”
“While it’s true that with the growth of my account I have received a number of emails and offers for sponsorship and monetisation, I do put in a conscious effort in trying to stick to the main idea and objective that I’ve built my account upon.” As she finishes her sentence, I start to scroll through her immaculately designed feed once again - Joann did a collaboration with Sudio in June 2020, where a pair of sponsored earphones sits out of its Sudio casing. The centrepiece of this Instagram post is still her handwritten spread on the ‘nervous system’ in biology - and it’s quite clear that her systems for sharing her academic matters are balanced with that of creative self-expression.
For Chloe, 17, a nursing student at one of Singapore’s polytechnics - where she will graduate in three years with a diploma in nursing - a staple in her studyblr posts is something that isn’t handwritten or hand-made.
Rather, it’s her iPad. “When I first started using an iPad and laptop for school, I changed my feed as well.”
“There’s not much of an ‘aesthetic’ to follow for my Instagram account.”
She started her studyblr (@cholestudies) in 2017. “It was on the 6th of July,” she recalls fondly. “I wanted to try something new, and a lot of people were doing it back then.” Chloe’s studyblr sharply captures the rigour of her school day and the practical aspects of her nursing journey: intense iPad notes and digital diagrams of important information. Sometimes, she sneaks in an encouraging quote or features what she is drinking - her yoghurt drink is my personal study favourite, too.
From her perspective, a studyblr “features a student’s study progress,” and functions as a sort of ‘tracker’ for her academic matters. “I think that the studyblr community in Singapore is quite closely knitted as I always see studygrammers supporting each other - liking and commenting on their posts.”
After years of following studyblrs for inspiration, I noticed that most studyblrs in Singapore are run by secondary school or junior college students. “To whether studyblrs in my course (in polytechnic) are a rarity, I would say yes”, Chloe agrees. “I have yet to find one studyblr who is in nursing as well. It’s quite rare to find a studyblr who is in polytechnic like me and more so in my course.”
In any Starbucks or Coffee Bean, students seem to be crouched over their laptops, coffee and earphones accompanying them on their study session of the day. Maybe there’s a large cup of bubble tea on someone’s desk, or maybe someone has a set of ball-point pens instead of a computer. But one thing is common for many students in Singapore - studying is an activity that has affected all of our lives in some way, and even become an outlet for some to express themselves and find a peaceful rhythm in. As we grow up, life and its peripheral activities pass by in a blur, but studyblrs are unique ways of preserving this sacred subculture - no matter the filter or aesthetic.