Posted on October 12, 2016
The Internet is an art project. So says Virginia Heffernan in Magic and Loss — a treatise on Internet culture that likens the World Wide Web to a communal humanist effort. This kind of thinking is useful to explain, in part, why we never seem to be able to stop trying to explain the web and what it is doing to us. The Internet reflects us more than we would like to believe and we have organized our platforms, and our associated judgements of those spaces, with aesthetics and feelings that are not web-specific, but specific to the way create, and have always created, a collective consciousness.
The magic of the web, as we think of it in everyday terms — the communicating, the efficiency, the ease — is a practical and often lifeless way to explain the Internet, that drains it of its personality and excitement. Heffernan delights in the low and high culture that exists simultaneously online, from retro or hectic designs and interfaces of chatrooms to the coolly minimalistic and decidedly luxe graphics of new apps. The loss part is a rumination on what we’ve given up as we’ve left the analog world. But Heffernan frames this as an inevitability of technological shift, something to be expected as we move from one era to another. Things are always lost in the fire, but that loss doesn’t necessarily detract from the magic that replaces it. Also, we haven’t lost as much as we think: we’ve just moved it to another arena.
The pendulum of anxiety for the web swings from worrying about ephemerality to worrying about its permanence. Things disappear quickly — like on Twitter, where Heffernan points out, we obsessively read content that is oftentimes poignant and precise. Or, things stay forever — like your search results, which will never be truly scrubbed of the embarrassing thing about you that you wish didn’t exist. Moving through the building blocks of the internet — design, text, images, videos, and music — Heffernan talks about each as they exist within our lives, as much as how they exist online.
Outside of Heffernan, there’s an easy example of this: Minimalism has progressed from a design aesthetic to a life aesthetic, with people eschewing clutter in favour of the right possessions. As Mirelle Bernstein wrote in the Atlantic in March, being able to embrace a minimalistic approach is a privilege of its own kind. Detailing Marie Kondo’s (Japanese author whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up started a minimalist movement) advice to rid yourself of nostalgia, Bernstein notes that minimalism ignores a lot of the sentimentality we attach to items, especially when those items were hard to come by. She relates it to her and her parents’ experiences as immigrants: being able to throw out things you haven’t used in a while means you feel confident that you’ll be able to purchase and/or acquire those things when the time comes.
We can apply this to the Internet. In a world driven by search engine optimization, keywords, and advertising, your web efforts to make money need to be hidden. Anything conspicuous screams of desperation: click-baity content intended to drive traffic rather than quality. This too is a privilege. Existing on the web simply to exist is, in part, a luxury, signifying that you don’t need the attendant marketing push that so many others do. From a design perspective, the minimalist and ‘clean’ look aspires for a kind of simple elegance that aesthetics loaded with information, text, and animation,make tacky and complicated. Minimalism is a feeling — one of restraint and discipline — with an inherent judgement of superiority.
Social media functions in a similar way. Describing Beyonce’s social media presence, writer Jenna Wortham notes that Beyonce has been able to use social media to become more mysterious rather than less, an idea that is counterintuitive to the constant life-casting that many participate in online. However, this kind of self-restraint is particular to those who have an established personality and star power. People have to want to know about you for them to feel a lack of knowledge; absence only makes the heart grow fonder if the heart was hungry in the first place.
Since the web was created there have been anxieties about the anonymity of online interaction. People hide behind usernames and avatars. In the early days of AOL chat rooms and the more R-rated Chatroulette, such anonymizing aspects were suspected of covering a whole matter of sins. Today, existing online with such secrecy is a privilege, reserved for those unnaturally adept at concealing their tracks or completely abstaining from online activity. On October 3, a post on The New York Review of Books’ blog revealed the – allegedly – true identity of Elena Ferrante, an Italian writer who has managed to keep her identity a secret while becoming a beloved author. Most of her fan base does not want to know who Ferrante ‘really is’ and reacted with anger to the ‘outing.’ Ferrante had created a personal and deep connection with her readers that didn’t need to be bolstered by her identity or details of her life. In a crossover of a pre-digital age and the now wholly digital age, Ferrante kept her pen name in place by responding to (some) interview requests via email. As she stated in a 2014 interview, ‘I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed. Instead, I chose absence. More than 20 years ago I felt the burden of exposing myself in public. I wanted to detach myself from the finished story.’
Wortham echoes the sentiment behind this statement in her aforementioned piece on Beyonce. In thinking about online personalities, she sees the selective representation that Beyonce projects as an ‘illusion that feels intimate and real, a hologram self for us to interact with that, in theory, provides the actual Beyonce space to exist away from our prying eyes.’ Wortham notes that hierarchies and biases exist online, they’ve just been coded a different way. Social media has given room to create other selves, and perhaps, paradoxically, a way to preserve a sense of our true identity. It can be its own version of the pen name. While there have always been worries about the meretricious nature of social media as it applies to our personal lives, both Wortham and Heffernan seem to suggest that embracing, rather than fighting, this aspect can be more fulfilling. For Heffernan, it’s part of the delight — the mix of high and low — and the way we construct our culture and consciousness. For Wortham, it’s self-preservation: ‘We could instead use social media as a prism through which we can project only what we want others to see. We can save the rest for ourselves — our actual selves.’
Perhaps this is why we have worked to make certain online spaces look and feel a certain way. Lacking the physical markers we’ve come to associate with the experience we should expect, we’ve aestheticized spaces to evoke a first impression. Design serves a deeper purpose than just surface looks. From the classic air of the digital New York Times to the back-web of 4chan and Reddit, we have categorized the ‘type’ of people and conversations that happen online by the way these space look. While the mainstream revels in clean typeface, negative space, and intuitive navigation, those familiar with the web’s behind-the-scenes are comfortable delving into the messy threads filled with obvious bounding boxes, splashes of courier new, and self-direction.
A portion of this harkens back to the loss aspect that Heffernan explores. There’s something nostalgic in design that reminds us of Web 1.0 (pre social media). Heffernan weaves this throughout her narrative, revelling in the newness and excitement of the web and the sentimentally of what we’ve discarded, recalling hours-long phone conversations that were physically grounded by a telephone cord. But besides being able to move freely between the joys and yearnings that digitization creates in equal measure, the most impressive aspect of her book is that she so firmly conceives of the Internet as a cultural construct. Of course the web has aesthetic periods. It reflects any other time of our collective consciousness. Things move into and out of fashion within the web like anywhere else, and perhaps we are now finding different ways to express the things we mislaid with digitization. There’s a lot to be gained in conceding that the Internet is as much a humanist endeavour as a technological one — and much of what is gained mitigates the loss.