When WWW Trumps IRL: Why it’s now impossible to pretend the internet is somehow less real

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Mainstream tech writing has until recently played coy with the online/offline divide, maintaining them as separate spheres. Offline was IRL – “In Real Life” – and online was a different realm, slightly unreal. There was a lingering feeling that it didn’t really count. But the 2016 election, the first to take place in the shadow of a fully flowered, generally accessible social web, has changed the expectations for tech criticism. It’s now impossible, perhaps even irresponsible, to pretend the internet is somehow less real simply because it’s predominately made of bits instead of atoms. It’s clear now that to understand our current cultural moment, you have to understand the internet too, and on its own terms.

Two books released in the last year illustrate this critical fracture. Virginia Heffernan’s acclaimed Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, published in the summer of 2016 – or as I like to call it, The Before Times – considers the digital world from a primarily aesthetic perspective, and in doing so ignores its social and political realities. On the other hand, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner, is more willing to grapple with the full spectrum of human realities present online, from different perspectives and with different levels of success.

Despite its grand title, in Magic and Loss: The Internet As Art, Heffernan isn’t actually writing about the internet: she’s writing about the aesthetics of digital technology, primarily interfaces and user experience design, or “UX.” She’s more interested in the design of the smartphone game Monument Valley and the design of the iPod than the technical protocols that allow networked systems to function. Heffernan argues that digital technologies, and the internet as a whole, are best described as “representational art,” and are robbing us of meaningful human connection. This is a fundamentally shallow reading of networked technology and the culture that has grown up within it.

Heffernan’s argument that the internet offers only representational connection neuters the history of connection that is at the core of the modern internet, to say nothing of the modern social web. Heffernan draws a bright line around digital culture that is immediately recognizable as pop culture: smart phone apps, virtual reality games, blogs devoted to perfume reviews, YouTube covers of well known songs, mp3s of Top 40 adult contemporary. Heffernan’s aestheticization of the internet, like Web 2.0-era business books, are exercises in translation: they are efforts to render the web recognizable to people who don’t live there, to transform it into a tool, a prefab Special Economic Zone set up for business innovation but nothing that will scare your customers or your investors away. Heffernan wants to aestheticize the internet and, in so doing, anesthetizes it, missing the ugly, the offensive, the cruel and the disruptive aspects of the internet’s present moment

Magic and Loss’s weakest point, though, isn’t Heffernan’s fault: it’s just bad timing. Published in June of 2016, Heffernan was writing before the crisis-laden lead-up to the U.S. presidential election. Donald Trump had not yet accepted the Republican party’s nomination. WikiLeaks had not yet released the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. “Fake news” wasn’t a thing. GamerGate was still a minor skirmish in an embarrassingly geeky corner of the web. Though they were increasingly an everyday fact of life for people who set up housekeeping on the social web, the ugliest parts of the internet hadn’t yet become an inflamed boil on the body politic, as they would in September, October and November. It’s not surprising that Heffernan doesn’t address them. But the events surrounding the U.S. election now make her choice to focus primarily on the aesthetic dimensions of digital technology to the exclusion of the political, seem a glaring omission rather than an intellectual choice.

We can no longer act like the internet and all the networked digital technologies that run on and around it somehow ‘do not count’

Heffernan’s treatment of Twitter and Facebook, the behemoths of the social web, is oddly cursory. The evolution of FaceBook’s News Feed or the impact of the anti-chronological turn in social media would appear to provide poor fodder for a book primarily interested in the internet as “representational art.” Heffernan saddles the vibrant social media network Twitter with the backhanded compliment of “poetic,” compares it to the “admiring Bog” of the Emily Dickinson poem, and insists that it is primarily a “publisher.” She touches briefly on hashtags and humour, but leaves what is powerful and compelling about these networks unexplained. Where she might have addressed the communitarian nature of social media virality, or weirdness of “late night twitter,” or the “Eastern Standard Tribe”-type socializing that can make your social group suddenly a whole time-zone wide, Heffernan prefers to quote 19th century philosophers to make the unnecessary argument that brevity does not preclude profundity.

But Twitter and Facebook are interesting, powerful locations of sociality and culture not because of their structural similarities to Emersonian aphorisms or Pascal’s fragmentary Pensées, but because of what they are, who uses them and how they function today. The free speech absolutism of Twitter, Facebook’s internal crises regarding its role in the public sphere, the harvesting and sale of their users’ data, as well as the ways they’ve changed the publication and editorial strategies of major news organizations for maximum shareability, have had an undeniable impact on the practice of politics, journalism and everyday social relationships.

In contrast, Phillips and Milner’s The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online focuses on the social play and power at the core of the current internet, and explicitly acknowledges the everything-at-once nature of it. Phillips and Milner use the tools of folklore studies to unpack memes, trolling and the deep weirdness of the social web – some of the most omnipresent features of our digital moment. The ambivalence at the core of their analysis focuses on what the previous generation of business-friendly-internet books might have framed as the social web’s “yes and” nature: incredible collaboration projects like Wikipedia and spectacularly obscene collectively generated memes featuring Donald Duck and the Berenstain Bears; the freedom that anonymous self-expression can engender and the harassment it sometimes allows; the connectivity the internet allows and the disturbingly antisocial behaviour that connectivity can sometimes encourage.

Phillips and Milner are deeply knowledgeable about their subject, and make strong arguments for the social and political value of scholarly attention devoted to what might appear to be opaque in-jokes passed around imgur (pizza hair Beyoncé, anyone?). This is unsurprising given their recent publishing history: Phillips’s previous book, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, was one of the first major books to take the study of the socially grey internet seriously. Milner’s The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media tackled memes in a similarly rigorous way.

By approaching their topic from folklore studies, Phillips and Milner never have to apologize for or obscure the everyday insanity of their subject, something that previous generations of internet criticism have often been forced to do. In the heady days of the early social web, writers like Clay Shirky and Cass Sunstein wrote optimistic, business-adjacent books such as Here Comes Everybody and Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. These books sold the internet as good for business, a combination marketplace/research and development lab/art rave where you, too, could take advantage of the “wisdom of the crowd” – for free! – to harness emergent trends and enrich your life, your intellect and your wallet. To make this argument to the public at large, though, some of the weirder and worse aspects of the social web had to be kicked under the rug: the bizarrely offensive culture factories of bodybuilding.com and later 4chan, white nationalist and neo-Nazi message boards like Stormfront, which predated Wikipedia, or the vicious harassment campaigns waged against women and minorities since they first arrived on the internet. It’s worth noting that many of the Web 2.0 boosters, despite hailing from academia, maintained a healthy side-hustle in business consulting.

Phillips and Milner aren’t here to sell you a consulting package. They’re here to make sure you don’t buy the story that the internet is all good or all bad, or all anything. Like any realm of human endeavour, the social web produces the beautiful, the horrible, the boring and the bizarre, sometimes simultaneously. Phillips and Milner argue that by starting at the margins, and doing what they call, after anthropologist Mary Douglas, the “dirt work,” we can learn more about how the social internet is creating and impacting culture, including political culture. The margins reveal the centre, and “how much fracture the center obscures.” Anyone attempting to grasp the current moment and the internet’s role in it would do well to have Phillips and Milner as their guides.

The 2016 U.S. election represents a watershed moment for the way we as a broad society understand networked technologies. We can no longer act like the internet and all the networked digital technologies that run on and around it somehow “don’t count.” Its harms and virtues are as real as anything occurring offline, and the positions that “it’s just the internet” and “you can just sign off and it will go away” are no longer defensible. In order to be useful, tech criticism must represent an honest attempt to wrangle with the whole of what we have wrought through digital technology, not simply an effort to mash the internet into a familiar anodyne box.