Digital Media and Virtual Performance, Graduate

Mastering the Thumbaround

Pen spinning is about as hard as you think it is, which is to say it is difficult. For my presentation, I am trying to master the thumbaround, which is the cool pen-twirling move where the pen swings around your thumb and you catch it with index finger. It’s supposedly one of the easier moves to do, and it looks impressive when the pen isn’t flying across the room.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I wanted this to be an opportunity to try and activity  that helped me think about my hands: why I move them, what I’m doing with them, and ways to channel the anxious movement into something artistic or impressive. Taking it on as an assignment has meant I’m trying to do the thumbaround all day long. I sit down once each evening for about 30 minutes watching various videos, but I’m also trying to do it in these empty waiting periods outside of offices and before meetings. Essentially, I’m using my practice as a time to see whether pen-spinning works as I intend it to in my daily life. And so far, it does! While I think about it a bit more than I would playing with my ring or an elastic or just tapping my fingers on the desk, it’s helped me realize the moments in which I’m compelled to move. It’s also helped me think about what it means to perform in those moments – what does pen-spinning say about me as a person in comparison to drumming my fingers on the table, or clenching my fist? While no one has commented on it yet, someone must’ve noticed me doing this. What do they think about this performance of social anxiety through pens?

Pen-spinning has a large online community of practice – so much so that it’s explicitly mentioned on its Wikipedia page. The peer-to-peer networks Miller mentions in Playing Along have been crucial to the success/awareness of pen-spinning as something more than just a cool trick. In some ways, amateurs’ use of kinesthetic knowledge have created a foundation for the more “professional” venues of competition and artistry that pen-spinning takes on in other countries. The videos I found on YouTube are almost all amateurs in every way – video production, explanation, content. The more professional ones, coming from competitions or “professionals,” don’t necessarily serve as learning material but rather something to inspire others. And the comments on those videos largely come from people outside the community of practice.

One of the things we didn’t talk about in our discussion of communities of practice is who makes up these communities. We have a good idea of who takes on the role of teaching, but less so on who takes up the role of learning. Learning to play guitar online or do yoga or learning to dance is applied to a general public audience. But as a public human, I should know better – public should be defined. So, who else is trying to learn pen spinning? Based on the conversations in the comments and the videos I’ve watched, the audience seems to largely be the following:

  • Kids: Mostly middle schoolers trying really hard to impress their peers
  • Procrastinators: People looking for something to do in order to avoid what they should be doing (finals, wedding planning, homework, projects at work, etc.)
  • Anime fans: Pen-spinning is an art form in Japan, and many commenters reference seeing it in various animated Japanese shows.

Watching the videos has been a challenge in itself. I spent a significant amount of time trying to find a video that a) appeals to me as a user instead of someone like Quinverse, b) gives me a moment to follow the move instead of jumping right into it, and c) doesn’t immediately reference other moves or videos related to the thumbaround.


What I have learned, though, are a lot of the basics to getting it right.

  • Don’t actually use a pen to start – work with an unsharpened pencil, which helps you understand the maneuver through balance. You want the heavier end of the pen to be the one you are pushing.
  • Don’t focus on the whole move at once. These videos come in two parts: 1) getting the pen around your thumb and 2) catching it. The first part of the video means your pen will be flying everywhere across your room – that’s a good sign! It means you have the momentum to get it around.
  • Some commenters suggested not looking at your hand while you’re practicing, which has actually been the most helpful advice from these videos. I wanted to learn this skill in the first place to understand what my fingers are doing in these moments of social anxiety, when I’m playing with rings or elastics and not thinking about the movements. Pen-spinning seems to work the same way. When I’m intently focused on what my hands are trying to do, I get increasingly frustrated with my inability to master the move. But when I do it in place of another social anxiety activity, pen-spinning feels natural.
  • Dominant-hand makes a huge difference here. Almost all of the videos I watched focused on right-handed users, with vague suggestions of how it would work for the left hand. For the record, I did try to switch to my left hand, which further defamiliarized myself with that interface. Whereas my right hand already knew how to hold a pen, my left hand seems totally lost.

One of the videos mentioned that it took the three months to master the thumbaround, which does not bode well for my final demonstration. However, I’m practicing a lot and seem to be getting somewhere! In any case, I’ve mastered the art of demonstrating the set-up for a thumbaround & how to teach it to others.

7 thoughts on “Mastering the Thumbaround”

  1. I also have super fidgety hands (my main fidgets are messing with my hair or playing the right hand part of the first piece I learned on the piano when I was like eight), so I really relate to your desire to do this practice exercise. It’s interesting to think about learning a technique as a performance of social anxiety as you discuss in your reflection, which is exactly what I have done by continuing to play the right hand of a piano piece that I learned years ago. I’m curious about what kinds of practices feel like they would socially acceptably fall into this category. As in, what do we deem as socially acceptable manifestations of social anxiety and what do we not?

    I’m also interested by your discussion of who constitutes the public watching these videos (and I’m super glad you defined public here). I wonder how the aesthetic qualities of these tutorial videos change across demographics. This may be a bit of a chicken/egg inquiry, though, in the sense that it’s probably impossible to nail down whether the aesthetic of the video attracts a certain audience, the audience has mass influence on the aesthetic of a genre of produced videos, or (most likely) some combination thereof.

    Your discussion of the importance of dominant hand reminds me of something I’ve seen in some dance tutorial videos, as well. They frequently show something on the right side and then just say “Now do it on the left!” which is kind of hilarious because beginners in dance often really struggle with going from the right side to the left side, and (at least in my experience) learning how to do this becomes a big part of in-studio pedagogy even if it’s not explicitly designed to be there. This makes me wonder, yet again, about how differences between online pedagogy and non-online pedagogy affect learning.

    I’m excited to see you demonstrate this on Wednesday!

  2. Emily, your practice exercise reminds me of all the times I got detention in middle school for spinning textbooks and letting them fly. Pen spinning sounds much safer. Also, I really appreciate that your post is an analysis of your experience as well as lesson in the pen spinning techniques. Thank you for the edification.

    The complex, ‘professional’ community formed around pen spinning is eye-opening. In a sense, activities that may normally be dismissed as trivial, such as yo-yo spinning(?) or vaping, can transform into professional or semi-professional endeavors through these virtual spaces. As the existence of professional gamers has been engraved in my mind since childhood, I did not appreciate the effect an online community can have on the importance/credibility of an activity. Virtual communities may have the power to give voice to those who would otherwise be underappreciated or marginalized.

    Your analysis of who forms the community was interesting as well. As we’ve seen with, re-appropriation of ‘middle school phenomena’ can lead to mass movements in pop and mainstream culture. I’m curious to see the history of pen spinning and whether the kids trying to impress their peers contributed to the formation of the virtual communities that exist today.

    Also, your take on pen spinning as a performance really resonated with me, and I wonder how that aspect of performance would change (or not change) once it becomes second nature to you and the people watching. When I see somebody spin their pen or do something equally technical as opposed to fidgeting with their hands, I think “oh cool.” But when they do it so (seemingly) naturally, I, for some reason, assume they are a professional writer/reporter or a boss figure. I’m thinking hard about why that could be.

  3. I really loved your focus on who makes up the learning audience of the pen-spinning community of practice. I also greatly appreciated Ben A’s callback to, because I think it’s super relevant here. I had heard of pen spinning and my impression of it was largely as a schoolyard fad (not meant pejoratively, but to imply its virality). As someone who also fidgets constantly as a nervous tic, but never has a good outlet except maybe doodling, I was surprised that your typology of learners did not include fidgeters. Maybe there’s overlap with all of those categories—or indeed maybe fidgeters is the supercategory that contains all of the above audiences! I’m curious if you saw people mentioning fidgeting/social anxiety or anything in the comments. I also find fidgeting helps me listen—if I don’t do something with my hands, e.g. while listening to lectures or podcasts, I get distracted by my thoughts. I’m curious if you found anyone who actually used it deliberately as a learning/listening aid. It was also quite cool to read about Anna’s piano recitations. I’m thinking about the variety of ways I’ve dealt with this, including a class in middle school where I break those big pink erasers into little pieces and rearrange them into pictures. I remember a particular class during which I rearranged the pieces into Pac-Man and one of the ghosts.

    As Ben A mentioned, I also really liked the way you analyzed it as a performance. I would never think to analyze fidgeting as a performance of social anxiety, but it definitely is—and pen spinning elevates it into a performance with an intended audience. It makes me wonder what people see and think when I’m fidgeting. Hopefully my body language otherwise signals engagement. I’ve also been thinking lately about how we perform things like gender in moments of distraction or unconscious behavior. I suppose that’s the whole point of Butler’s performativity concept, but I am always wondering how to break out of my rigid performative confines in those moments of unawareness. Maybe pen spinning is a way to start!

  4. I enjoyed this post, both for its contemplation of communities of (gestural) practice and for leaving open the question of how gestures like fidgeting or pen spinning perform. (I also appreciated your statement of mastery not of the thing itself, but of preparing *for* the thing, which is a rhetorical turn I’ll likely steal from you.) I’m struck by the apparent utility of pen spinning- of the disciplining of the body it requires, and how that discipline may translate to notions of “coolness” or “impressiveness.” I wonder about that utility thing though, about what it takes to make otherwise empty or awkward moments to have utility and, thus, be productive on some level. We’ve talked a lot in class about ways to resust a zeitgeist that, per Paglen et al, seeks to capitalize and ascribe value to smaller and ever smaller increments of time. Perhaps, on the flip side of your new practice, is a conception of fidgeting and awkward, useless gestures as insurgent acts?

  5. This makes me think about what practices, all of which take effort, commitment, become accepted as professional, and which fall into “other” categories, generally semiprofessional at best – feminine (crafting), cool (smoke tricks). What makes sports like baseball or games like chess acceptable, and not the grace of the pen-spinning kids you showed us in class? The explanation for why Guitar Hero is poo-pooed makes a little more sense: because it is derived from another practice and is, to summarize that essay we read, a “queering” of it, which is deemed unacceptable. There is also the question of a basis in recorded history. Certain practices are valued more because they have a recorded historical basis, or perhaps because they are said to grow skills that are valued in normative society (e.g. discipline over mind and body, fitness – though plenty of counterculture skills also display the former). Perhaps what is so gaspingly cool about middle school pen-spinning is that it spits in the face of the values you are supposed to be internalizing in middle school. The oppressive regime of middle school wants to shove certain values between your ears; pen-spinning displays an alternative set of values, ones which take just as much effort, talent, skill to master, just in a different way (part of that being to pretend it takes no effort at all). I think pen spinning is a cool form of fidgeting because it is a way of displaying that you are not paying attention; it is distracting – it is counter to what you are supposed to be doing. I like what you say about trying to find a new way to fidget. I think it is really interesting to try to draw mindfulness to this, and I am curious about what it means to learn how to fidget using a low-key art form, instead of (in my case), splitting split ends.

  6. Emily, the amount of discipline that this practice requires and that you’ve dedicated to it is awe-inspiring. Since your demo, I have tried many a time to get the Thumbaround to little success, and I found my need to accomplish something quickly and accomplish it well being extremely not met. I faced this same challenge with my own practice exercise – an exercise that made me come to terms with my own masculinity and ability to perform the “masc” task of tying a tie. I wonder what was the gender split among user/tutorial videos? Is the discourse surrounding this activity is that it is a “cool bro” activity, or is it something for everyone? I refer specifically to the specific community that practices pen spinning for professional/performance purposes. I wonder, also, since you mentioned that a specific community of practice is Anime fans (and the video you showed in class had features of Japanese pop culture), if the practice has been coded in some way as “quintessentially Asian” the way certain outfits or hairstyles have been coded. (Ex. the school girl and pigtails outfit, or the “Super Saiyan” hair).

    I am also extremely interested in the normalization of gestures, something that has implications all the way from little things like pen spinning to things like the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture. This reminds me of how Apple has patented the “screen pinch to zoom” motion. As a professional community of practice, can a pen spin move be owned and patented? As a community of practice that choose pen spinning as a mode of releasing social anxiety, can the gesture be normalized and integrated into everyday vernacular body language that it ultimately stops portraying social anxiety? Can the professionalizing of this practice take away or diminish the purpose it serves people who use to relief anxiety? In other words: can one community’s way of practicing change/improve/diminish the way another community chooses to practice? How can, in the dominant mode of engaging with a practice, can a different way of practicing be viewed as insurgent? I think this specifically is extremely important, since it creates a framework for thinking about activism in embodied practices and how communities who don’t necessarily have a platform to fight for their rights can subversively practice dominant acts in an insurgent manner (maybe this isn’t making any sense, but still).

    Finally, I think once again there is a valuable discussion of how pedagogy through online videos happens. With my practice/Anna’s/Ben S’s practices, for example, the level of success can fall on a spectrum between utter failure and complete success. However, with something like pen spinning, you either are successful or you’re sending a pen flying across the room. I also think your practice is interesting in that you cannot go “somewhere” that can teach you pen spinning, unlike going to a personal dresser or a school of cosmetology or a culinary arts school. In this special combination of something that is hard to receive instruction in other than through online videos and also require plenty of discipline, how can we make such practices accessible and inviting to people of all levels? Who is included, and who is excluded of these communities of practice you mention. I think my biggest question is to end with – how do we create new, non-dominant communities of practice? Thank you for all the questions this brings up!

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