I very much doubt the supreme irony that Virginia Heffernan’s excellent chronicle of the internet’s self-contained artistic logic comes in book form is lost on its author.
Heffernan tells us in the opening pages of “Magic and Loss” that “the art of the Internet and its rules came into view all at once and fully formed.”
The internet is very different from the physical world we are used to. The web’s logic and conventions, very much like the size of the thing itself, are impossible to lay out in terms that would be familiar to a traditionally educated consumer of any age.
We cannot see the internet in anything like the 3-D form that defines our cities and landscapes. And we cannot understand the internet using the texts, images, and sounds with which we linearly catalogue history and thought, numbers and science, and all of the world’s accumulated successes and failures.
The internet, in its inherent chaos, blows our conventional ways of understanding up.
In Heffernan’s book we are introduced to the profound ways that internet culture, or rather the simple presence of high-speed, cheap internet access, has altered our understanding of text, music, video, and photography.
We hear about the comically tragic reality that in YouTube’s earliest days the fastest growing part of the music business was the sale of ringtones sponsored in old cartel-like fashion by the quickly dying music labels. While reading this passage, readers of a certain age — call it anything between 22 and 32 — are likely to get a pang of nostalgia for that seemingly Wild West period a decade ago when the purchase of ringtones was something people not only did but did a lot.
This also, however, makes obvious how forcefully the internet has come into our lives, not because some technologists in Silicon Valley made it so but because the whole of the internet’s structure is a self-fulfilling reality.
Heffernan, who often references her childhood dabbling with computer code nerdery while growing up near Dartmouth College in the 1980s, gives us a layperson’s breakdown of the difference between code that is “read” or “write.” In many ways this is the crux of the book’s argument.
“Write” code happens as we experience our lives — forward forever, never to be re-worked. “Read” code can be re-worked, re-written, re-structured. All of the internet (except, as Heffernan notes, in, “its most secure, theoretical, and self-destroying corners, and mostly even there”) can be read and remade. The internet, then, gives us a thing we can necessarily never get in the real world of linear time: a true second chance.
And it is this “read” logic of the internet that makes the net a reality — an art — all its own.
The YouTube reality
The reader leaves “Magic and Loss” with a sense that Heffernan views YouTube as the platform most capable of delivering us the apotheosis of internet art.
The medium satiates our need to be passive viewers of other experiences, or to use the language of internet message boards, to lurk. But the vibrant, grotesque, illuminating, and overwhelming comment sections that accompany many YouTube videos also provide the social interaction that is the stuff of human existence. YouTube allows us to come and go as we please, a fantasy existence real life simply does not afford: In the physical world, we must sleep, we must wake, and so on.
YouTube also provides the ability to mediate a reality which the internet makes obvious has already been mediated to us.
The world wide web, Heffernan notes, is a crudely-designed commercial space more closely resembling the world’s most heavily-billboarded highway than an elegant platform for the next generation’s great minds.
“The Web is haphazardly planned,” Heffernan writes. “Its public spaces are mobbed, and urban decay abounds in broken links, ghost town sites, and abandoned projects. Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary. Bullies, hucksters, and trolls roam the streets. An entrenched population of rowdy, polyglot rabble dominates major sites.”
And while YouTube is certainly no exception to any of these pitfalls — and is in many ways the most vivid example of some of them — the platform has created among its viewers and creators, those who supply the platform with the content we consume so passively, a logic all its own.
Heffernan argues that YouTube is a place, above all else, for art. A place where weird, short videos of the Manhattan Bridge or people unpacking new video game consoles to see what’s in the box can thrive for reasons traditional media companies like Viacom would never be able to understand.
YouTube gives creators a freedom beyond what’s possible in other media. Beyoncé’s music videos made in the YouTube era have been inspired by Bettie Page movies, and explicitly so, left to be decoded by ever-scavenging viewers who crave the deconstruction of what a prior era’s television or film might have left as passive product placement.
The decision to pay homage to Bettie Page in her video for “Why Don’t You Love Me?” was made by Beyoncé and director Melina Matsouaks, not the label or sponsors. This sort of creative freedom is embedded in YouTube but a radical shift from what long held (and still holds) in mass-produced content.
Heffernan notes that YouTube, as a business, might not be as profitable as some at Google (or perhaps some investing in Google) might hope.
YouTube has launched an ad-free subscription service and every time the supposedly imminent death of the cable bundle is discussed, the streaming video platform is referenced as a future home for live sports among other things. But YouTube and other platforms are unique forms and not just replacements for existing services: Some might call YouTube “TV for the future,” as if this moniker didn’t already misunderstand that TV is TV and the internet is the internet. Netflix, for those of you wondering, is also not TV: it’s Netflix. (HBO, of course, figured this out first.)
The internet and our selves
To read “Magic and Loss” is to read an ambitious vision for where the internet fits into modern life, a condition that increasingly makes distinctions like “digital selves” seem outmoded: We are simply ourselves everywhere, whether offline or, increasingly, online.
“For however alien in appearance,” Heffernan writes, “the Internet is a cultural object visibly on a continuum with all the cultural artifacts that preceded it. It is not a break with history; neither is it ‘progress.’ It’s just what happened to be next. It is not outside human civilisation; it is a new a formidable iteration of that civilisation.”
It is not until the end of “Magic and Loss” that Heffernan, in a perhaps too-long closing chapter, gives us the outline of her philosophical framework, influenced heavily by Richard Rorty’s coolly comforting pragmatism inside of which we’re able to define for ourselves what matters and what does not. The important types of knowledge are not what the dusty books tell us but what feels right when we read, or see, or hear, or smell something that changes us.
In 2013, however, Heffernan indulged this internet-enabled ability to define reality perhaps too literally, writing for Yahoo that she was a creationist, with a catch: it isn’t that Heffernan literally believed “God created the earth” but that The Bible tells a better story than “The Origin of Species.” This was received about as well as you’d think.
And the internet is the ultimate vehicle for this kind of self-discovery. The internet is able to be everything and nothing to each of its users all at the same time.
Each person chooses their own way to experience the internet. I don’t read Reddit, which for many internet users is the only place worth visiting on the web. Many millions of internet users, in contrast, don’t read Business Insider, a site I write for to make a living.
Neither of these truths, however, makes either Reddit or Business Insider more legitimate than the other. Unlike the finite space and linear time of television, or radio, or books and printed newspapers, the internet exists and expands as each user sees fit. Every experience is fully-realised on its own terms.
And that there are infinite combinations of internet identities and realities, each of which are irrefutably true in their own ways, is why the medium works, why it thrives, why the internet is really not of this world but a world all its own.