Is the Internet civilization’s greatest coordinated movement or a mass outpouring of random content? Has it enhanced or diluted the quality of artistic output? And is that translating into true artistry? Join me for a conversation with Virginia Heffernan, the much admired New York Times columnist about culture and new media, and author of the outstanding new book ‘Magic and Loss: The Internet As Art.” Welcome to Uprising with Scott Goodson. For more ideas on Uprising and movements, cultural movements and movement marketing, follow Uprising!!! on Facebook. We’ll continue to publish brand-new columns on a regular basis. Hey, do us a favor and please give Uprising!!! a review on iTunes. Scott Goodson is the author of best-selling book ‘Uprising: how to build a brand and change the world by sparking cultural movements,’ available on Amazon.com. Scott has helped create and build some of the world’s most iconic brands. He is founder of StrawberryFrog the world’s first movement marketing agency.
Uprising Interview transcript
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Scott: Let’s start this episode of Uprising by asking you to connect to the internet. Now I know, this is a request that probably feels a lot like being asked to breathe. It’s not something you probably thought about a lot lately. But go ahead, just do it. Okay you’re connected. Now feel that. Are you experiencing something magical? You’re feeling great? Strong sense of happiness in this wonderful playground for learning and laughing? It’s addictive, highly addictive. Perhaps, actually some people say it’s enthralling. It lets you connect with people who see the world as you see the world. This is what the internet has become. From art to commerce, and everything in between. It’s this beautiful thing to open your eyes, to make your world bigger, break down barriers, smash open windows, bring you to Mars. Fill your heart and mind with all that is happening on the internet. Oh, what a great movement of humanity. Perhaps, the greatest movement ever. And that’s a conversation I’m having today with our guest Virginia Heffernan, a New York Times columnist about culture and new media, and most recently the author of an outstanding new book called, “Magic and Loss.” I love her writing, it’s so inspiring. So I hope you can join us for this conversation. So, to start the show, is the internet a mass outpouring of random content, or actually, a coordinated movement?
Virginia: I think coordinated movement sound like politics to me. Part of talking about the internet is settling on a metaphor for it. I think both of the things you said, well, random outpouring of content, sounds like we’re first treating the internet like the media, like a channel for content. And in that way, we’ve already distinguished ourselves from the people who see the internet as a weapon, or a place, or a game. So let’s just start by saying, you know, if we’re already agreeing to a metaphor, and the metaphor I choose is that it’s a work of art, a collective work of art. And so in some ways, if it’s a collective work of art, it doesn’t really matter. YouTube is my real touchstone for this. I thought when YouTube appeared, that as a TV critic I might publish reviews of the New York Times of individual pieces of internet television, and that sooner or later NYTimes.com could host all the quote television that ever appeared on the internet, because I was sure it would be a very limited supply. Then I saw YouTube, and it was as though all of us had been waiting our whole lives to upload clips of video to the internet. Where did all this stuff come from? It was more like we were all unearthing this civilization that had existed somehow and had been almost, you know it gets a little spooky, but almost pre-digitized. It was already anticipating being uploaded and consumed in a way of YouTube. So in that way, it’s very different from other arts that start, you know I think I say punk music or colorful painting begins in a certain place and expands outward. It doesn’t seem to come fully formed in huge numbers. You know you could count the number of punk songs at one point, and then there were more and more and more. Somehow with YouTube, it seems like there were never fewer than a million videos accessible on YouTube.
Scott: Virginia, I just want to ask, who were the first users of YouTube?
Virginia: Some of the first users of YouTube, and I hope I’m not distracting from your question, some of the first users of YouTube were old radar and sonar fans. There was a Geriatric1929, a lot of people call him “OG YouTube”. He’d been waiting since the war to have a means of communication that was this quick and he used video. He wasn’t all that literate, so he didn’t want to type and text. He just wanted to able to speak about his experiences. As soon as he saw YouTube, he hadn’t been even using the internet. He was like, “This is what I have been waiting for since I first was an engineer in the Second World War.”
Scott: How are we humans, influenced by the internet?
Virginia: A lot of us are influenced in the way we use and think about the internet by the first way we came to it. So the way you first beheld the internet, if you were using at work for Excel sheets, if you were using it for gaming, if you were using it to read the New York Times, if you’re using it to code, you have a whole different metaphor set to talk about this thing.
Scott: So how did you first come to experience the internet?
Virginia: I grew up in the town where Dartmouth College is, Hanover, New Hampshire. Colonial town, we were obsessed with the colonies and the fact that we live in a colonial town. And the president of the college has mostly been someone hospitable to the football team, and so on. But all of a sudden in the seventies, the school decided to raise its intellectual profile and they invited in Einstein’s assistant, John Kemeny, was also the author of the computer language BASIC to come be the president of the college. He had the ideas for our town, and the first one was that we would have an ARPANET era mainframe computer in the middle of town. You know, one of those rhinoceros computers that has plexiglass, bulletproof all around it. And he had to make a deal with the town, you know this town where we weren’t even entirely pro-electricity then. We were using woodstoves, and there was a lot of back to the landism. So, the agreement he made with the town was that he would give the local schoolchildren a lesson in computer coding, computer programming.
Scott: That was a deal with the town?
Virginia: It was a deal with the town, so that he could have the real estate to build this keywick computing center with the mainframe. We called it just “the computer” in those days, and then I wanted to take it home with me. The place closed at night, and I wanted to get access to it at home so someone showed me how with a computer and a coupler…
Scott: With a phone.
Virginia: With a phone, exactly, you could mash it into a coupler it would make the *mocking computer noise*.
Scott: How would you describe that in the book? I remember there was some funny language around the sound.
Virginia: Oh yeah, like squeal and crash.
Scott: *Laughs* Yeah squeal and crash.
Virginia: You want to do an impression of it, since we’re on audio? Could you do it?
Scott: Uh…*Squeal and crash noise attempt*…something like that?
Virginia: *Laughs* Exactly. So, anyways, I love that signal, that sound. It just sounded like all the information in the world crashing together. And I persuaded my parents to buy a phone, I mean buy a coupler. And, the so-called “dumb terminal” that became intelligent once you hooked it to, it’s a little like a Chromebook. It doesn’t know anything intrinsically, but if it hooks up to, in this case the mainframe or with the Chromebook, the cloud, you get all this power. I couldn’t just practice BASIC on it. I needed to connect to the sisfrogs so they could have showed me around. And a couple things, they showed me some games that were interesting and had Easter eggs. The beginning of thinking a lot of, I didn’t become a hacker obviously, but a lot of hackers were like, “Oh, cheating is gameplay.” You know?
Scott: Right, right.
Virginia: Half the Easter eggs are if I know this code and that makes me win, that’s as good as winning the old fashioned way. I didn’t come quite to that realization, but I was like, you maybe have felt this too, all these incredible workarounds for things that felt like they would take so much friction in the real world and access that I wouldn’t have had as a ten year old or eleven year old, suddenly were accessible to me. I could get the library’s card catalog, you know, bunch of things that would have taken days to work out were suddenly at my fingertips. And then, all these things socially that weren’t available were at my fingertips. On the internet, no one knows you’re a ten year old girl. I could go onto what eventually amounted to a chatroom, and talk about subjects that interested me without anyone elbowing me out of the conversation.
Scott: So you must have stumbled into a few chats that made you blush, probably prepared you very well for the life of a journalist in New York City.
Virginia: You’re just like, “How can I get a piece of this conversation?” and it’s fascinating. So with that, I was in a remote place. I was a girl. I had a quiet voice. I was socially awkward because I was a pre-teen, and all of a sudden I could be Athena! Not Virginia Heffernan that’s like, an awkward name for a kid, but Athena on the computer.
Scott: The goddess of war or whatever.
Virginia: Exactly! And I could talk about Led Zeppelin, that’s if I do something, or ergonomics, and compel people to listen to me. And if they were ignoring me, I didn’t see it.
Scott: It seems like the internet can bring you a lot of joy.
Virginia: I came up with my avatar day one, Athena. And, it became a massively multiplayer online role playing game in a matter of probably fifteen minutes after I logged on to this first chatroom.
Virginia: And there was no question to me, then and now, that’s what we’re doing here. We’re playing roles, we’re playing a game with roles, and we’re piloting away, awkwardly, each of us, but there are more than three billion of us through all these new tools that allow us to make very traditional things. Images, words, music, film, and design.
Scott: If you go back to my first question about random, random outpouring of content or this coordinated movement, and we talk about movements here because this is a show about uprisings and movements. But if you think about just the innate human, I don’t know, nature or desire for most part to connect with other human beings to improve our mind, to improve our environment. In a way, even though we may not be thinking about it, maybe there was at some point, someone who said, “Well, we should have a document that charts out the rights of man.” Those things were obviously innate as well. We can’t keep killing each other, so maybe in that respect it is a coordinated movement even though it’s not something that we’re aware of. It’s just intuitive, right?
Virginia: Right. The web, with the Jewish progressivism at work at Google, with the then vaguely fascist, you know, design of Apple, with some of the Christian companies in Texas, that ended up getting a stronghold. These kind of idealists managed to transform the internet from a military project, to a project of civilization and trade. It’s not an accident that early on in the eighties, well later in the eighties and nineties, Russians started doing the back end and the coding for a ton of companies. There was a way that we were using the same kind of technical skills and the same kind of aggression about an arms war. But now, around flushing out the internet eventually for commerce. Anyway, the long-short of it is, are things getting more or less beautiful?
Scott: Is the internet enhancing or diluting the quality of creative and artistic output?
Virginia: It’s interesting because you start with the idea of this incredible heterogeneity on something like YouTube, or Flickr, and Instagram is a great example of this, very quickly it tunnels into a slightly rotes pattern style and you have to look for more interesting things elsewhere. I should say this, and this is why I bawk at the idea that, oh I wish it could all look like medium or the guardian online or some perfect Swedish egg chair, whatever. When you think, “Why doesn’t everything look like this?” On the other hand, there are certain exchanges that make sure things don’t look like that on the Internet, namely that it has to be very, very, very brutally inclusive.
Scott: What are the beneficials sides of the internet?
Virginia: It’s interesting to me how much parents looking at their children looking at screens, what happens in that interaction where you say this can’t be good for them. In the early days of television, the spectacle of a kid watching TV had the opposite effect on their mothers. It wasn’t like “Oh no this is brain damage.” It literally was, “I cannot believe I can stop my kid from getting hurt without putting them in shackles.” And so, this was the best thing ever to happen to kids health. They’re sitting and laughing at Howdy Doody, and how bad can that be, and they’re not breaking their ankle in the creek or dying. One of the things we fault kids who use screens a lot for is “not paying attention,” because they’re not paying attention to us. I was on the subway platform the other day. People were using their phones, and I was looking at them. The woman in front of me was reading the Quran on her phone. Somebody else was playing a game, somebody else looked like they were texting or chatting, you know it’s a subway thing. They all looked kind of amused and engaged. So slightly in a perverse way, I put that on Facebook, how moving it is to see all these people in their mental spaces because you hear so much of how awful it is everyone is looking down at their phones. And now, you can call up the beautiful Quran in one finger, you can do all these other things. Someone rolled in on my Facebook post and said, well, he remembered the sixties and seventies in New York and how great it was because you could pick up a woman on the subway and make stolen glances with her across the track and then you could meet her, and it was sexual, it was exciting. And I thought, yeah you know I bet for the woman reading the Quran, she’s pretty happy that that’s not happening.
Scott: Yeah, really. Love this conversation Virginia. You are choosing to think positive about the internet instead of choosing to think negatively. That’s so great.
Virginia: One of the things that’s beneficial is that, let’s take Facebook birthdays. Birthdays, are kind of difficult in regular social space. It’s confusing. Executives had to keep track of all their clients’ birthdays, secretaries would keep track of them. For the person having the birthday, on the one hand, you want everyone to know and wish you a happy birthday. On the other hand, you don’t want to tell anyone. Wishing someone a happy birthday costs you almost nothing. It costs you exactly as much as it should cost to acknowledge that a friend of a friend survived another day on this planet. And for them, it makes them feel noticed and cared about. And it’s just this tiny feature of Facebook that solves this problem. And it’s hard to see why that’s a bad thing. But that is just a tiny detail in all the ways that Facebook is a juggernaut of our social lives, just acknowledging the existence of other people possible. The first thing would be the degree of activity on a very simple level that is really hard to argue. You had to really try to find a cynical component to that.
Scott: To me, social media really is a way of maintaining close proximity to friends who are spread out today. To me, it’s like this amazing experience where the world has become so small.
Virginia: At the same time, if it’s very important to you that you’re only getting the facts, and you really hate seeing a picture of someone that’s photoshopped, you feel deceived that they look younger than they really are, then Facebooking and social networking is probably not for you. It’s the same way that I like reading Tolkien, or I like reading Donna Tartt, or I like reading…
Scott: Well now you’re talking that we all take these facsimiles of ourselves anyway, these characters that don’t really reflect our soul and so forth…
Virginia: Yup, exactly. I don’t feel deceived, I’ll put it that way. You are probably not thinking, “Oh she’s a big liar because she doesn’t really have blonde hair.” On the other hand if you are, social space might be anxiety-provoking to you.
Scott: I think someone said, “Google can bring you back a hundred-thousand answers, but a librarian can bring you back the right one.” So, what are the good things?
Virginia: So the first thing is this kind of connection that I think that has the moral advantage of sparking compassion, sparking sympathy, sparking kinship, a feeling of kinship. Something that was incredibly moving, the fireworks are kind of internal. But, it always had this really guilty, buried feeling of having once in my life punched someone on the playground in the stomach, when I was a child. It really was because I was losing a game, and she was winning. It wasn’t that she had said something racist and I was doing something noble. I wanted the winning server square in foursquare, and she took it, so I was like, “I’m mad at you.”
I remembered it as happening in this particular way. So the friend, I have always been around her as if she saw this monster in me. Every time her name would come up on Facebook, it would be about someone who knows this monster in me. A different friend got in touch with me on Facebook, and she said, “Remember…blahblahblah…our childhood…” and we were talking and having a nice time. Then she said, “Oh, I’ve always been so sorry about what happened on the playground that one time.” I say, “Oh, when I hit this other friend?” And she said, “No, you hit me!”
Virginia: I said, “What?! I remember it so differently.” She said, “Yes, I pushed you out of the server square and I swore at you. You know, we were eight years old, I had it coming. You howled off and hit me in the stomach.” So I’m not sure what happened, except that I remember that experience with much less crushing guilt. We actually had this reconciliation that we would never have staged in person. It was too buried, you know? I never would have called her up thirty years later, thirty-five years later and said, “Let’s sit down and talk about this moment.” But that moment was one of those things that I would think in the middle of the night, “Is something wrong with me? Why can’t I lose?” I gotta learn!
Virginia: We were in Facebook chat, and we were sitting there. She’s in Australia, you know, or New Zealand, and both of us were like, “I have to admit I’m crying now, I’m crying thinking about it.” I just am sure, that if I hadn’t been on Facebook and I hadn’t seen a messenger thing come up from someone I didn’t know that well, I wouldn’t have had that conversation. There has been a lot of moral healing and setting the record straight around things that happened years and years ago. You know when an ex-girlfriend out of nowhere friends you on Facebook? Like someone you think you would have ignored at a party because there was so much pain. And all of sudden, she’s married, you’re married, there’s kids, and it says, “Hey! So and so wants to be your friend on Facebook.” And now that chapter, you know, it like we’re humans in the world together again.
The second thing which is related I just brought up, it makes all of us the self-invention that goes out online, that can be disturbing to some people, is interesting to people who like characters, like fantasy, like binge-watching like Downton Abbey. Is Mary really this kind of perfect person on Downton Abbey or is she someone else on Downton Abbey? Well, I like the little gap between who you are and who you present yourself. But, another paradoxical thing that has come out of it, I think you and I have this is common, is a renewed appreciation for life offline. So, there’s nothing like living in the clouds of the internet to make the real world seem so extraordinarily beautiful and trippy. I just read this thing about treating people who are addicted to their phones. Looking at this boring, this much space, sorry I’m holding up my hand to signal the Iphone screen…this much space with the apps which we see all the time. We live in that universe, and trying to get people addicted to that interface off it. They gave them a little subcutaneous LSD, a tiny dose. And suddenly, the people couldn’t care less what’s on their phones because the faces of people on the bus were so freakin bad.
*Scott and Virginia laugh together*
Scott: That is so funny.
Virginia: You can do that. We’re not so weak that we need the LSD to do that, right? It is really, really interesting to look out the window.
Scott: So a consensual hallucination experienced by you and me and billions of other people in every nation in the planet, that’s great.
Virginia: It’s more interesting, because I do it so infrequently. The fact that you get to look at other human faces during the day is a rare privilege. Like the way that listening to vinyl or going to live concerts became an incredible privilege after MP3s, if you really have a choice. People would rather have vinyl or live concerts. This idea that the Rolling Stones make more on vinyl, and on touring they make billions of dollars a year now as they are ready for their retirement homes, the “hay days” of their career. I think that’s an epiphenomenon of the internet. It’s just like, “Get me away. Get me away from this thing.”
Scott: So, the internet enhances our real experiences, doubles down on our genuinely sensory perception, but what about the dark side? Isn’t the internet also subversive?
Virginia: First of all, you never know where power is and it never works perfectly. So, let’s say that Google has managed to create this incredible surveillance machine in concern with Facebook to get us to keep one identity with a real name so that we can find our purchase record, it has one credit card attached to it. Our purchase records exists so that there’s enough data to find out that I’m going to be interested in this Madewell shirt that I was checking out on that you probably know more about than I do, consumer relationship management or whatever the dark arts of following you wherever you go, knowing where you have been, and so on.
Scott: Okay, I love how marketing is becoming “the dark side”. I suppose we have a lot to answer for.
Virginia: Even that is subvertible by the individual, you know, and also very inefficient ultimately. It’s not that bad that the Madewell shirt that I left in my cart comes up to follow me around. I either want it or I don’t. And if I don’t, I have a way of not buying it. But, knowing those limits are part of your self-creation, where they are part of your obligation in digital space to sort of sort that out. I think we can have faith in this thing we have created. But currently, I think we are kind of in a renaissance period, maybe a dark ages to come. There always has been. But it’s worth it to enjoy this current period of renaissance. There’s so many upsides to it. The strange unwillingness to acknowledge those upsides and the almost javert, obsessive desire to say the internet, in some vocabulary or not is bad for us and unhealthy for us. Even as three billion of us plus seem determined to stay on it and keep using it. Seems like a species of self-hatred and self- disgust that I can’t countenance.
Scott: Okay, so here’s another question. Does the internet make it easier to be a woman today, or harder?
Virginia: My approach to feminism comes from writers of the sixties and seventies, but I also think in a later version of feminism it’s been good. That feminist consciousness to the extent that it’s marginalized. There’s been a central language that’s rational and hegemonic. And there’s the peripheral language, like emotional, slippery and non-linear, the whole “women are irrational”. That plays really well on the internet. It sinks with the internet. It’s a new kind of speech that’s come up, which is the person who’s bothered by that or offended by that is now able to speak. It’s like a proliferation of speech. So that person is allowed to say she is offended, when she used to have to keep quiet about it. I made this very difficult-to-spot mistake in something I wrote that read as racist to someone that read it. I was quoting a tweet. The tweet itself seemed to contain some racist elements. It was like a frequency that I didn’t hear. Until people pushed back on me on Twitter, was that a curb on my free speech? I’m a New York Times journalist. They were allowed to say back to me on Twitter this little thing I would have never gotten. This little thing that made me suddenly aware of a whole universe and completely schooled me on it, until I had to be like, “You are absolutely right. I never understood that.” Does that mean less freedom on the internet? Maybe less freedom for me, because it’s horrible to be called a racist, or it feels like less freedom to me. But actually, I was allowed to publish whatever I wanted on a mainstream thing, and then twenty, fifty people were allowed to tell me where I got this detail wrong, where I got this nuance wrong. That sounds like freedom to me. It also sounds like freedoms from the margins. Freedom for women, freedom for minorities that haven’t been allowed to speak in a public forum with the same amount of authority, and now they can.
Scott: The book, now, what motivated you to write it? What was the thinking behind it? It was a wonderful read.
Virginia: The thing that inspired me to write the book is, I wanted to say, “What if we imagined that this was a creative process and not a diseased process? What would that look like?” So the book is an effort to do that. At the same time, I’m not a Bolshevik for the digital revolution. The word Loss is in the title for a reason. I think MP3 compression lost a lot of something in music that made music important and resonant to me, and trying to take the measure of that loss and fully grieve for the experiences that I miss. I started to use a compass again because one, I’m perpetually disoriented, and two, I think living in the satellite by a GPS is disorienting me further. I want to use a compass that connects to the pulls of the earth, magnets! How crazy that there’s analog technology…
Scott: It’s not accurate. It’s off a little bit, just a little bit.
Virginia: It’s off a little bit, really? Well, that’s cool! Look, why do you even know that?
Scott: Just a teeny bit.
Virginia: You know, anyone I’ve told this to says, “Why don’t you just use the one on your phone?” And I’m saying, “That’s the point!”
Scott: That’s the point. Exactly.
Virginia: I do feel like I’ve lost a lot of things. I realized without a datebook in my life and if I was going to do everything on mobile pay, just having leather, having tanned leather in my life.
Scott: You can be happy that last year was the biggest year for pencils, ever.
Virginia: Yes! Yes!
Scott: So, it’s not disappearing.
Virginia: I love this stuff, I know! It was preservationism first, and you thought, oh these nostalgics are like making sure penmanship survives. But then there was a physical longing, the motor-memory of sharpening a pencil. And that’s another beautiful way of the culture expresses itself in that constant dialectic. Abstraction, earth, it’s like Plato and Aristotle. You know, Plato points up, and that’s beautiful abstraction, and Aristotle is like, “The truth is right here.”
Scott: Virginia, I just have to say, you are one of the most inspiring writers that I’ve read in a long time. And, just the way you think about the internet makes me feel great. Most people talk about the internet being this dangerous subversive place. When I read your words, actually, it just reminds me about the potential.
Virginia: Thank you very much Scott. It’s a great show, and it’s great to talk to you.
Scott: Yeah, great to talk to you as well. Thank you for joining our uprising today, and listening to our show. If you missed the show, or if you want to find out more about who was on, or if you want to learn more about how to create your own uprising, please go to uprisingmovements.com. You can also download this uprising program on Itunes.