Oh I was so intimidated to meet Virginia Heffernan for the first time. She was a cultural critic at the New York Times and writing about YouTube in a way that no one else was. About its communities, content niches, the aesthetic of the first wave of user content. In a manner which was academically-informed but not stuffy. Critiquing but not judging. I imagined she lived in Brooklyn, lived some cool life and really, really wanted her to like me, even though I was sure she’d think I was just a big nerd.
So, it turned out that she did live in Brooklyn. Lived a cool life but was also a big nerd. And not just tolerated my fanboy love of YouTube but we grooved about technology, avatars, adolescence and all things Internet. A great friendship was born and I’m thrilled almost a decade later to ask her Five Questions. Virginia recently wrote Magic and Loss, an amazing and well-received book about the Internet as art.
Hunter Walk: The Internet moves at fruit fly generational cycles – always evolving. When you sat down to write Magic and Loss, how did reconcile what you wanted to say with the traditional cycles of book publishing timelines?
Virginia Heffernan: Part of the reason for the development of critical theory—literary theory, art theory—in the 20th century is that critics recognized that without it all they were doing was generating just one more reading of a specific work. I wanted, with Magic and Loss, to leave off individual reviews and prognostications about the market, or one digital service or another—except to prove a larger point. The book’s case about design—that elegant app design is a reproof to the junky non-design of the open Web, which is built to pick your pocket and read YOU even when you think you’re reading IT—that argument, if true, should hold up even with Yahoo’s demise, the ascendancy of Pokemon Go and new styles in Bitmoji. I aimed to identify the tectonics of digital culture, its logic, rather than keep pace with the play of surfaces. However lovely those surfaces can be.
HW: I have a theory that each generation of teenagers needs a new online space to call their own. That is, each group of 13-17 year olds will birth a successful social platform, even if they’re also participating in legacy products. Is this consistent at all with your POV?
VH: Absolutely. The mandate for adolescence is to do something that mystifies your parents, and ideally entirely illegible to them. I knew my kids were up to something good with Minecraft when I saw the interface and it looked like visual noise to me—the way skiffle music, rock, disco, punk, hip-hop sounded like noise to my grandparents and parents.
HW: As a kid, you had the geographic serendipity to grow up in Hanover, New Hampshire, one of the first towns wired to the Internet. Would you have found a path to tech-oriented journalism and culture regardless or is there an alternate reality where Virginia Heffernan had a totally different future?
VH: I’m not sure. I wonder this all the time. Before I joined Conference XYZ on Dartmouth’s time-sharing system, I was already drawn to electronic games like Merlin and Simon, and something called TEAMMATE, a proto-computer I got at Sears. I loved non-linear “electronics,” and my grandfather, Lyle W. Coffey, had introduced cable television in Appalachia before it was even in New York, on the grounds that country people needed entertainment and escape more than people in cities, who had parties and Broadway and all manner of diversions. So I knew tech was good for people in rural areas, like me.
I also loved telephones, and even the kind of pranks that—had I been more skilled—might have turned in phone phreaking, a hacker gateway drug beloved of Jobs and the Woz. CB and ham radio also seemed very exciting, though I was too young for them. And I loved penpals and mail-order stuff from the back of comic books. I think I liked networks, fantasy games like D&D, surprising connections across time and space, non-linear systems, and digital culture before it was called that. So even without Conference XYZ I might have found another way through the looking glass.
HW: We first met when you were a columnist at the New York Times and, from my perspective, understood YouTube’s community better than anyone outside of our team. Do you recall what attracted you to study YouTube and what hooked you?
VH: That meeting with you was really exciting—because I remember just nodding as everything clicked. I’m not sure what kicked it off, but I’d been writing about TV for so long—and wondering why ratings and quality seemed to be falling off so steeply, on shows that cost a fortune to make. Then I saw the video “guitar,” in which Funtwo plays “Canon Rock” in a video that broke all the rules of television. And I realized I had been longing to see behind the canned illusions of TV—the multiple cameras, the mandatory body shapes and ethnicities, the lighting, the three acts. I wanted to see something like a kid in Seoul playing guitar in his room that I wasn’t quite supposed to see.
Think of “lonelygirl15″—what a wonderful fakeout. It looked like other girls keeping kind of teasing video diaries. You expected something unwholesome, but with “lonelygirl15” you got a serialized, scripted adventure that played on the audience’s curiosity about YouTube generally. WHAT WAS ALL THIS VIDEO? I still don’t know! And that’s what keeps me coming back. The sheer size and eccentricity of that video clearinghouse. It’s mind-boggling.
HW: As a parent, how have you introduced your children to the Internet? For them it’s always been a given that all the world’s information is available at all times. What does this mean for kids in general vs our generations?
VH: I don’t know, and I’m glad I don’t! We all love to muse about how things have changed but the small stuff—dinner hour looking different than it did in the 70s and 80s, more kids having expensive phones earlier—is not where the change really lies. The move to much greater abstraction and densely symbolic experience (when it happens with capitalism, say, which supplanted feudalism, or the move from gold to paper and then electronic money) is so tremendous with the Internet that I don’t even know how to measure or conceive of the psychic changes we’re undergoing.
My kids’ experience of the Internet is relentlessly creative and progressive and, at best, illegible to me. I spoke about Minecraft’s illegibilty. The same is true for AR and Pokemon GO. They picked it up fast and quickly started speaking a language with their friends that I couldn’t understand. But in other ways, I recognize their path through the culture. My son found Weird Al Yankovic and Monty Python on YouTube at (almost) 11. He worked around the superheroes and cartoons dominating movie theaters; it wasn’t his thing. That was a canny way through the culture on his own terms, and he was only able to pilot it using the Internet.
My daughter loves to make avatars of all kinds. She doesn’t play Wii games so much as make new avatars and give them new names. Because avatar creation is so important to me—creating some that are fantasy and at least one that is both authoritative and authentic—I do talk with her about her choices. There’s a big element of roleplay to them—she likes appearing as a boy, as a black woman, as a gigantic adult. But then why did my son make his headshot for Google a kind of corporate power-pose—with his arms behind his head, as if leaning back at a giant desk? We discussed this—and I got it. It’s the equivalent of decking yourself out in armor in Second Life. What better move for a preteen who feels vulnerable and is trying to give himself courage and confidence? But they are clearly inventing new forms.
I’ve been surprised to see how much my son and his friends write together in Google Docs, for instance. They make brackets or write stories and comment on them, and sometimes just chat in the docs! That reminds me a lot of ConferenceXYZ — how everything has a chat element. On an app called QuizUp my son discovered someone in Lithuania with his exact three areas of expertise—Tintin, How I Met Your Mother, and WWI—and it was like MAGIC to find this person. How in the world? When I see the kids getting to that state of awe, I know they’re in the pocket. I love to see it.
You can order Virginia’s book Magic & Loss: The Internet as Art RIGHT NOW.