AH: I’m Amanda Hess and I’m a critic-at-large at the New York Times, where I write about internet and pop culture.
JO: I am Jenny Odell and I am a writer and lecturer in art at Stanford.
AG: Cool. Well, thank you both so much for being here. We’ll start off with a question that I’m asking all of our guests. What does being on the internet in 2020 feel like to you?
AH: To me it feels like work and procrastination at the same time, if that makes any sense? Two things that are supposed to be kind of opposed to one another and that both don’t feel super great but to me they feel really linked online, in that it actually is helpful to my job if I am messing around on Twitter and posting something stupid that people like and then share and then follow me and then at some later date see work that I post there. So they’re just both really intertwined to me right now in a way that is not particularly appealing.
AG: I’m sure that’s a relatable feeling. Thank you. And how about you, Jenny?
JO: I would say that the internet, particularly right now, it feels like a porthole that’s really easy to open and really hard to close. And when you open it, it’s like you could see anything. Like you could see something amazing—I mean, you will, you’ll see something amazing, you’ll see something horrible and tragic, you’ll see something that makes you cry, you know. It’s like fantastic and terrifying and all these things at the same time, which I think has always been true. But right now, you know, it’s the sort of means through which I am connected to other places and people. And so I just have this feeling sometimes of trepidation before I go there, where I’m like, what am I going to see and how hard is it going to be for me to step away from it? Because at any time I can open it and I know that there is all of that on the other side and it’s like seductive and scary at the same time.
AG: Yeah, I definitely feel that. Great, thank you. So I think today we’ll certainly be covering a broad range of your work but I think we’ll probably be focusing mainly on the work that you’ve both done in and around the internet. And so I think for context it would be helpful if you could fill our listeners in a little bit about the work that you do specifically that’s focused on the internet. So starting with Amanda could you tell us a little bit about what you focus on in your writing and your video series at the New York Times?
AH: Sure. So I am a critic-at-large at the Times, which means that I don’t have a particular discipline that I write about, but really I tend to write about popular culture and internet culture. So I am looking at artifacts on the internet in a roughly kind of similar way to the way that our movie critics might watch a film. But of course material on the internet is really, really different from stuff that is sort of produced in this more traditional way. So my approach is affected by that too. And so most of the time I’m writing for the newspaper and for the website, but I also make a video series once in a while that’s called Internetting With Amanda Hess, and it’s my attempt to kind of assess material on the internet closer to its own terms. And that means it’s hypervisual and there’s a collage aspect to it.
AG: Great, thanks, yeah. And I think the video series is a really interesting experiment in exactly what you are saying, in that it combines your voice as a writer but also just the inherently visual nature of the internet. So that’s really interesting, thank you. And, Jenny, could you give us just kind of a brief synopsis of—I know that’s really hard to do—of your bestselling book, How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, which came out in 2019? Could you just briefly tell us what the book is about?
JO: Yeah, it is difficult to summarize actually on purpose, which is part of the thing I’m trying to address in the book. But I would say it’s sort of one half defining and disengaging from the attention economy online, so you know that’s everything from social media to the kind of cult of personal branding, advertising things like that. And then the second half is trying to offer you something else to reengage with, and it just so happens in my case it was ecology and bioregionalism and like a lot of bird watching. And so it’s this kind of – it’s like a very strange self-help-y not self-help book. And I think it talks a lot about the internet, but I think maybe more importantly it was just occasioned by a moment in 2016 after the election, and also after the Ghost Ship Fire, which happened here in Oakland where I live, in which a lot of people passed away. It was kind of like my moment of reckoning with my relationship to the internet and to social media in particular and trying to find some kind of balance there—like some way of engaging but also not like wanting to like move to the woods or something and just like leave it all behind.
AG: Okay, great thank you so much. So let’s get into it. So you’ve both been quite critical of the internet in your work, and we’ll definitely get into that. But I think you both also recognize the internet as a source of creativity to some degree. And I’d love to first talk about some of the possibilities for creativity and artistic expression that the internet does hold for us, in addition to all of the terribleness and dread that it contains. Amanda, as a journalist and a critic, as you were just describing, you’ve written about many new forms of creative expression that have cropped up because of how the internet is designed and how it works as a medium—everything from memes to YouTube videos to Bitmoji and people who are writing novels out of emoji, and one example that really jumped out to me was when you wrote in 2017 about sort of a surprising trend or development in how digital videos are being made and consumed. And I’m quoting you here, you wrote that, “We’re living in the golden age of the silent video. Though we may still pop headphones in to watch a YouTube rant, social media has cultivated its own mute visual culture.” So I’m curious about, what are some of your favorite examples of creativity on the internet that you’ve observed.
AH: Yeah. I mean I guess I would just start by saying that one of the reasons that I like writing about internet culture in particular at the Times is that so much of what the New York Times covers is based on this traditional hierarchy of artistic and commercial worth. So we cover these big blockbuster movies, we cover celebrities—I have covered celebrities—prestige television, Broadway shows. And it’s not that creativity on the internet is a meritocratic medium, but it is this alternate way of assigning worth that I think opens up new things for us to pay attention to. And so a lot of the stuff that I end up writing about would not be considered art or even internet art, but it is at this juncture between things that people create and things that people consume or that people do. So I think one of my favorite things that I’ve written about in the past couple years is they’re known as “hands-only” videos, and they’re really popular in cooking videos. So Buzzfeed I think is the classic outlet that has popularized these videos. But they also stretch to other kind of craft-oriented sites. And you’re not seeing a person’s face in the video; you’re really just seeing their hands at work, and they become these kind of disembodied hands. Often in horror movies or something, we’ll see a disembodied hand, and it’s something that has a mind of its own and it’s working against the host. It’s working against the body. And on the internet they have this other kind of persona, which is that it’s like they represent the creativity of the person. And so those are really interesting to me. And I don’t think anyone would call like a Facebook craft video art, necessarily, but it’s definitely worth examining. So love the hands videos. The rise of these kind of mute videos is related to that, too, which is often when we’re scrolling on Facebook or Twitter, when we used to go on the subway, we might not have headphones or anything but we’re interested in watching like a visual, moving medium. And so a lot of content producers have created these ways to communicate without using sound that is just one example of how the internet can often function as a kind of throwback to this like very old kind of medium. And you do see in internet videos just some of the classic tropes of early silent films, whether it’s like putting babies in front of the camera and letting babies do what babies do. You don’t have to have a voice over to explain what they’re doing; it’s just like they’re an interesting subject for a silent film. Like there are a lot of cats and dogs in early silent films—obviously, also on the internet.
AG: Yeah, definitely. And the silent film is an interesting example too of people kind of adapting to some of the limitations of the technology, like being on the subway and knowing that people won’t be able to listen all the time. So it’s sort of like, well that will spur people to be more visually inventive and that kind of thing. So that’s super interesting. And, Jenny, you’re an artist, in addition to being a writer, who has used the internet really as kind of a material or a resource in your artistic work. So I’m curious about what first attracted you to making what you refer to as internet art?
JO: Yeah, you know I think that maybe it’s relevant here to mention that I was an English major in undergrad.
AG: Oh, nice.
JO: And so I went to art school for my grad degree, but I have always had this approach of kind of like collecting – kind of like quoting, right, like collecting bits of existing information and rearranging them. I’ve always enjoyed doing that in whatever context. And so the internet is sort of made for someone like that to make stuff. So in grad school I got really excited about making these collages out of screenshots from Google Earth, which I did for many years after that. And I was really exhilarated by the fact that it was free material mostly and that I could sort of find whatever I wanted. And I’ve always found it very appealing, this idea that the newness that the artist brings is in the arrangement, and not necessarily in the kind of like Jackson Pollack throwing a bunch of paint on a blank canvas. And I find that it’s also great for my students, who are often not art majors. It’s a really approachable art form for them because they already think in this kind of collage-y way and they’re very familiar with the vernacular of online imagery. And so for someone who hasn’t made art before, I think it can be a really nice in to that way of working.
AG: Yeah, that’s interesting. And I think it’s possible that some of our listeners might not necessarily know what internet art is or looks like, so I’m wondering, if you could just kind of briefly describe one of the pieces that you’ve made? A couple that jumped out to me from your website, just I guess based on my own weird internet fascinations, but you have a piece called People Younger than Me Explaining How to Do Things, and then you have another one called Primer, and both of those just out of your whole archive just really jumped out at me. Would you be willing to explain one of those: What you’re doing, what you’re going for anything along those lines?
JO: Yeah. So in 2013 I made a piece called People Younger Than Me Explaining How to Do Things. Which was a collection of screen shots from YouTube tutorials by people who were younger than me, pretty often children or teenagers. And it could be anything from like brushing your teeth, getting ready for school, peeling a grapefruit, doing a backflip on a trampoline, how to break up with someone—just like really anything. And I am not sure how I got on that topic but I just remember being fascinated with like the overall trope and the sort of like authoritative tone that they would take on with the backdrop of like a very domestic backdrop of a childhood bedroom. And I was kind of like wondering where they learned that tone from. And it seemed like maybe other videos obviously but even things like just TV and then also thinking about like who are they imagining this – who are they imagining to be the audience for this video? Like who is this anonymous public that they’re addressing in this very kind of authoritative way? And so I think collecting all of them together and putting them in a grid with these kinds of subtitles—it’s similar to a lot of other pieces I’ve done, where you kind of can start to see patterns or make general observations when you collect enough of something. I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily anything like scientific about what I’m doing, but it is an invitation to just like consider this kind of very specific behavior.
AG: Yeah. I mean that project too kind of reminds me a little bit of something that I know I’ve heard Amanda say about youth culture on the internet and the way that I think your project, Jenny, it’s tapping into the way in which the youth can find a sense of sort of authority on the internet that maybe they don’t have in other domains of culture, right, like kids in their bedroom who are teaching you how to break up, how to do anything that you need to learn how to do. So I’m wondering, Amanda, if you would have anything to add about the way that young people are able to use the internet to make creative content in a way that’s pretty different than they would have been able to do with something like film?
AH: Yeah. I mean I think it’s interesting that for teenagers they don’t just have this greater access to online forms of expression; they have a kind of advantage on people like me who are older than that. And I’ve been thinking about it recently in terms of quarantine, where there are all of these online forms of expression, I think principally YouTube and TikTok, that were really formed by teenagers in their bedrooms and in this kind of societal lockdown that they have where like they don’t actually have a lot of space to work in. They can’t go anywhere they want without their parents driving them somewhere, and all of a sudden everybody else is in this same situation. And these forums, I think especially TikTok, were kind of created to cater to that situation. So you see the TikToks that are just people who are playing like three different characters and they’re representing a different character by like putting a washcloth on their head, and that’s it, they become the second character. So there is, yeah, there is this opportunity for this youth culture to thrive in a way that someone like me, who hasn’t been a teenager in many years, can only kind of watch and record in awe in some ways.
AG: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that at all really, that the teenager’s bedroom has always kind of been a space of quarantine in a sense, and so they’re many steps ahead of us in that respect. So we’ve been talking about creativity and the word “content” has come up a lot, and I’m kind of wondering, you know, I think both of you write extensively about how we think, when we’re doing stuff on the internet, that we’re inhabiting this kind of free space of creative play. But of course there are always these corporations behind that. And I think to me the word “content,” it has kind of a tone of almost like PR or something that feels, I don’t know, kind of cheap or false compared to truly creative material. And so I’d love to hear you both talk about that word “content,” and I think, Amanda, I’m thinking particularly about your piece about the kind of the hellscape of these pop-up experiences that was happening a couple summers ago, like the Museum of Ice Cream in New York and L.A., which were these kind of temporary spaces where social media quote/unquote “creators” can go to basically take selfies against ice cream related backdrops, and you can dive into a pool of sprinkles and take a Boomerang or whatever. And you wrote, and I’m quoting you here, “The Museum of Ice Cream’s Pint Shop (now closed) was only ‘creative’ insofar as taking photographs inside a store creates a kind of content.” And so I’m wondering, Amanda, if you see a difference between something that’s really creative on the internet and the kind of “content” that feels almost like mass produced for social media?
AH: I mean I think one of the most vexing parts of my job is that those two things often feel so intimately intertwined. I mean something like the Museum of Ice Cream at least for me is—it’s just on this very extreme end, where it becomes obvious what’s going on when you actually physically go to one of the spaces and you see the slackened faces of people in there, because you’re really, you’re waiting for these various photo opportunities. And the distinction between like the vibe within those places and how boring it is, and the production that comes out of it, which are these like joyful photos, is really interesting. But I’m also not someone who’s very good at taking a joyful photo and posing for anything. I don’t know if for me there’s always a very clear line between creativity and content. But I do know that it’s something that it feels like the platforms take advantage of the ambiguity of it. Especially for people who, you know, hope to have some kind of career based on creating things for the internet, there is this kind of dangling of rewards. You know, you always hear about the YouTube creators or like the Instagram influencers who make like a million dollars a year or something. And then there are all of these other people who are just strung along by this idea that maybe they could make money, but also this idea that like what they’re doing is in and of itself like representative of what they want to be doing, or of what a creative life is or a worthwhile life. I do think it’s really mixed up on the internet a lot of times.
AG: Yeah, definitely. And I think that to me what feels particularly insidious about some of those places that are explicitly meant to lure people in to take photographs, et cetera, is that you know the content that is being created is essentially user-generated PR for the brand. So people, whether they realize it or not, are being conscripted into essentially advertising [for the company sponsoring the space]. But I think you’re right that that line is really, really hard to navigate. Jenny, do you have anything you would want to add about content and how you think about it in relation to art and creativity?
JO: Yeah. I mean I think you can definitely see this slippery slope that Amanda’s talking about when you look at like museum exhibitions that maybe weren’t meant to be set up cynically as a photo op but turn into that. So I’m thinking about this exhibition years ago in Palo Alto. So I took my students on a field trip there, and it was a show by Team Lab, which is a collective from Japan that does these immersive digital installations that are really amazing and beautiful. And for someone like me, I like them because they often involve like things growing, and they’re slow, and there will be like a projection of waves that has never repeated itself, or something very poetic like that. But there were a couple of rooms in particular that had just basically become like Instagram rooms, and there was one that had flowers like projected on all of the walls and the floor and the ceiling, and they’re all growing, and it was just like there was a line to get in because people just all wanted that photo that they had seen on Instagram. You know, there are so many art installations that you can think of that are like this. And I’m actually glad that I took my students there because then we could talk about this phenomena. But that’s an example of something that, you know, it’s not the Museum of Ice Cream, or it wasn’t supposed to be. But I feel like a lot of public attention directed at any one thing can potentially turn it into that. And I wrote a really short thing for New York Magazine earlier this year, I think, about what happens when it’s like wildflowers, like an ecologically protected area and all of these people are descending on it to take the same photo where there’s catastrophic consequences. So it’s like, yeah, it is this kind of like spectrum between: Is someone going to a place or consuming something as an experience, or are they consuming it as a product?
AH: Yeah, there is, I mean there is something just disquieting about the very branding of the term “experience,” or any other free experience that a person could have. But one of the most disquieting things I think that I found when I was writing about those Instagram museums was one that I went to called 29Rooms which was—it’s created by the women’s website Refinery29, and it cost me something like $60 to go to something like that. And I mean the New York Times paid for me to go, but it cost a person like 60 bucks, and when I was there I found out that at first, like in the first few years of the iteration of this, it was free because it was so obviously something that was benefiting Refinery29 in an equal or greater way than it was the people going, because it’s such an obvious branding experience. And so this flip from, you know, even just enticing someone to engage in branding for free to demanding that they pay for it, and people gladly doing it because they can feel like they can brand themselves in some way adjacent to the thing, I think, is an interesting development.
AG: Yeah. And I think just even the concept of free. I mean maybe this can lead us into the concept of the attention economy that you write about extensively, Jenny, but that notion that you’re going in quote/unquote “for free,” it’s like you’re still kind of producing value or giving value to the company in some way. So those lines get so confusing and kind of mind bending. So it might be a good moment now to actually ask you, Jenny: you used that phrase “the attention economy” in the subtitle of your book, and some people might be familiar with it but some people also might not. So could you just give us a brief definition of what you mean by the attention economy?
JO: Sure. So I’m using it pretty much the same way as others have before me, in terms of just like, it’s any economy where attention is currency. So that predates the internet, you know, advertising—the entire history of advertising is the attention economy. But now with things like social media, I think, there is this idea of social capital obviously, like numerical measures of “likes” and followers and just kind of accumulations of attention—it’s like a form of power and currency. And then on top of that, you have this layer of companies that are kind of mining that and creating structures that extract as much attention from a user as possible. So that could be the amount of engagement or amount of time spent.
AG: Right. And I wonder just to make kind of a concrete connection… because I think to me it feels like, Amanda, what you were talking about with the 29Rooms, that feels like kind of a clear manifestation of the attention economy in some sense. Does that just – I mean does that make sense to you, Amanda, as being an example of the more abstract theory that Jenny’s talking about and, if so, can you make that connection?
AH: I mean I do think the attention economy has helped to obscure and maybe invert worth in all of these different ways. Or maybe to capture our own worth and labor for, you know, in exchange for a bit of novelty or entertainment. And one of the most kind of striking things about it is that we are volunteering so much of our time and our energy, and someone’s making money off of that, and rarely is it us.
JO: And so it just feels like something that’s a little bit parasitic on these inherent just desires to connect and feel like part of a community.
AH: There is something that’s come up for me recently that’s just shown this distinction of when, you know, just kind of normal human behavior gets run through that machine. And so right now there are not a lot of ways that I connect with other people that are not on the internet. But there is this one way, which is that in New York every night at 7:00 pm, everybody claps and like screams and bangs stuff, and that’s for thanking the first responders, people who are responding to the Coronavirus. But it’s also just for the rest of us who are not doing anything, and this is the thing that we do, and it’s how I see my neighbors. Like I recognize my neighbors more from seeing them come out at 7:00 every night than I ever did when we could wander freely. And it’s just really nice. But it’s also something that exists in a different kind of form on social media, where it’s been promoted by like strategic marketing firms who have emailed different publications telling them to publicize it, and there’s a hashtag that’s like #clapbecausewecare, which really flattens it. It’s not that I don’t care, and it’s not that nobody cares—obviously we care—but it’s this really kind of spontaneous, interesting form of expression that’s kind of flattened into a kind of smug thing on social media. I saw that the Salesforce Tower had changed the top of the tower to have this video of hands clapping, like the tower is clapping, that made me feel just like so icky and terrible. But you really just can’t take away from me that at 7:00 tonight, I’m going to go outside and I’m going to feel like my community still exists and it’s great. But it has just been this really stark difference in how I experience it online and off.
JO: So, Amanda, I read the piece that you wrote about the clapping yesterday and I thought it was so beautiful. And it was making me think about – ‘cause when you’re describing the difference between experiencing it and then like watching or posting a video of it online, I was walking around my neighborhood a couple weeks ago, and there was this kid who was basically having an electric bass concert in front of his house, like he was just sitting on a little stool and he was playing like Shuggie Otis—like he had a little speaker and he was like playing on the bass. And there were a handful of people all extremely spaced out like in the middle of the street. And I just happened to be walking by. And I first off was like, oh, this is this kind of beautiful moment and that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise. And also like my instinct was to reach into my pocket and immediately start taking a video because, Amanda, as you say in your article, it could be the most interesting thing that’s happened all day, like it’s understandable to want to like record that and share it and be like, look at this thing that happened. But also I felt gross about—I mean I didn’t, but I was thinking about, why? What’s the difference between me standing here and experiencing this and then the sort of like Instagram square version of it that I would be putting into the world? And I thought about it a lot, and I think the difference for me is partially like, if I’m posting that it is a little bit smug and it is a little bit like oh, you know, like here is this interesting thing I saw today and I want to just sit there and wait for people to like it or something, I don’t know. Or even things like people putting [teddy] bears in their windows, like people have been putting bears in their windows here, and I would be so sad if I saw a bear on the Salesforce tower.
AH: Yeah. I mean there is such a powerful urge to share stuff like that I think comes from a good place. But I find that whenever I go to share something, I go on Twitter or Instagram, I’m thinking about how to put it, and the way I’m thinking about how to put it is not totally about the best way for me to express what I want to say. It’s like there’s a part of me, that’s probably the majority part, that’s like, how can I put this that will have some kind of traction, so that people will like it and share it? Even though that’s so insane and stupid. There’s no reason for it, but it’s so ingrained in that process it’s difficult to get outside of it.
JO: You feel like you’re packaging it almost.
JO: Like I feel like I’m my own social media manager when I think that way.
AG: Right. And I mean it reminds me of what you said at the very beginning, Amanda, about how it is kind of part of your job, right, there is an economic imperative to package things in the right way because maybe you’ll get engagement from the posts, and then you’ll get followers, and your profile will rise, so there’s that kind of economic imperative. But something else that I’m hearing from what you’re saying, and something that I find just really, I don’t know, just really difficult to think through about the internet and the attention economy is the way that it’s designed to kind of gin up these feelings in us that become addictive—whether it’s feelings of outrage or feelings of joy and pride. And then of course places like Salesforce co-opt them and start making ads about them. It just reminded me that there are sections in your book, Jenny, where you write about just the terrible experience of feeling your emotions getting worked up online, but then that becomes kind of addictive. It’s really difficult to step away from a heated Facebook thread about the latest political outrage, or from Instagrams of bears in the window or people clapping for the essential workers. Is there anything you want to say about those addictive feelings that the attention economy sort of traffics in or runs on?
JO: Yeah. I mean I think it kind of actually goes back to what I was saying at the beginning about the porthole. I think that’s why it’s so hard to close the porthole, because you open it you’re going to have all these emotions that I don’t know, it’s kind of interesting to me like how—I’m not a psychologist, but emotions seem really seductive no matter what they are. Like if you’re angry you want to stay angry. If you’re happy you want to stay happy. And so it’s like logically, right, I can’t explain to myself why I am doing this thing that I recently saw described as “doom scrolling,” which is where you’re just like scrolling, like I’m opening the porthole and I’m going in, and I’m just going to see just – I’m going to be horrified. And then I’m horrified and I’m like yes, give me more horror. Like that doesn’t make any sense from a logical point of view, but like there I am and it’s like hour two, and I didn’t maybe make a totally intentional decision to still be there. I think there’s a really interesting spectrum between habitual behavior and what you would call intentional behavior, and there’s a lot of space in between. But I find that the attention economy really plays on the habitual side, where you kind of find yourself somewhere. Like I am amazed at how effective this Chrome extension is that I downloaded a while ago called Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator. It just makes your newsfeed go away. Everything else is still there. It’s replaced by a quote about like taking control of your mind or something. And I now I barely go on Facebook. I still will go to find the address for—well, not now, but the address for an event or something like that, and then I get my information and I leave. And it’s such an illustration of how before I eradicated my newsfeed it had that effect, right? And I could talk about it all day—oh, I hate the newsfeed—and then as soon as I encounter it, it’s like I get totally sucked in and it’s playing on all of my emotions and it’s playing all these videos and it’s just grabbing my attention. So I think that it’s really a force to be reckoned with.
AG: Amanda, does that resonate with you at all, that experience? I find that something that I’ve observed about a lot of your writing is that it seems like you’re starting from a place of curiosity about sort of your own habits, both mental and physical, and scrolling and everything, and then you kind of move from there. So I’m wondering whether Jenny’s description of the doom scroll or some of these other phenomena resonate with how you’ve been thinking and feeling lately?
AH: Yeah, I mean I think one of the most insidious things about the way that the internet is set up is that it does feel, it can feel so self motivated and self directed, and it can feel so grassroots and crowd sourced, when really it’s all ultimately in the service of something else, and it’s set up that way in ways that are obscured from us. I mean one of the things that I’ve thought a lot about is how not just brands work on the internet, but how everyone is made complicit in that and how it’s sort of set up for us all to cultivate our own personal brands. Which is this interesting kind of inversion of the typical branding process. If you think of the way a typical corporate brand works, it works by trying to humanize a product. And a personal brand works in this opposite way—it works to commodify a person, and this is supposed to be like an exciting thing that we can all do. I was thinking that the idea of a personal brand, when it was coined it was in the 90s and this writer named Tom Peters wrote about this concept. And he presented it in this way, that was like this great opportunity, like you don’t have to work for a company anymore because you will be the company. You can advertise yourself, you can differentiate yourself from other human brands, and you can live this kind of like free existence outside of the corporate structure. This is like around the time – this is like Dilbert era, Office Space era, like “the man” had this very kind of white collar, corporate appearance. And now we are kind of—we’re living in this economy that Tom Peters had foreseen, and it’s the gig economy, and it seems like now more than ever we are working in service of corporations, it’s just that we’ve been freed from health insurance or retirement contributions or whatever. And of course especially now, those jobs are among the most at risk because they’re putting people, you know, they’re the people who are going out and delivering groceries or delivering medications or whatever. And so there’s just this—there’s such an insidious way that something is presented when really it’s not about serving us at all. It’s about serving corporations. That’s just, it’s so—it’s just so pervasive in so much of our online experience.
AG: Definitely. I find that I just keep laughing, but it’s this really like cynical, sad laugh.
AH: Yeah. There was a moment when I was trying to fix my online personal brand, because when you Googled me, Google would port in the Wikipedia page of Amanda Hesser, who is another writer who has worked for the New York Times who is not me. She writes like very delightful things about cooking. And she’s great, but we’re different people. And so I went to Google’s online IT chat thing, which is made up of volunteers who are working for some kind of like digital badges or clout. And I was like, can anyone help me? When you Google me, it ports in the information for Amanda Hesser, and that’s not even my name, so maybe we could stop it from doing that? And everyone, all the answers were like, you need to become more famous. Like you need to have more information about yourself on Google for it to recognize you. Which is really depressing. But I think like now that I work for the New York Times I have maybe succeeded in my information, in putting out more and better information about myself, and now when I Google me, I come up. But it’s just so sad that that’s the solution. Like in order to be recognized as a person, you need to give us more and more.
AG: Yeah. Jenny, do you have any thoughts about that idea of personal branding?
JO: I wish you could see my facial expression. I was just like wow, my eyes are like popping out of my head. That sounds like my worst nightmare. I mean it’s just—I mean some of it’s a personality thing, but I really love the idea of just like temporarily becoming invisible or just kind of receding from the world for a while, kind of like on my own terms. Obviously like the circumstances of my life are such that I can afford to do that. But I think part of what horrifies me so much about the idea of the personal brand is this feeling of overexposure. Like everything you have is on the table, and I sort of worry about interiority. I teach a class on internet art once a year, and I think it was last year I had my students give presentations on, it’s called internet niche phenomena. It just means I want them to notice some weird thing or behavior or whatever online that they don’t think anyone else knows about. And someone did their presentation on how Instagram influencers—I may be getting this wrong—but it was people who are really big on Instagram who went to Fashion Week. And then the student had observed that their YouTube videos, as opposed to their Instagram, had basically like not bloopers but seemed very honest. So it would be a video of them in their hotel room being like, well I went to Fashion Week and I didn’t get invited to anything and I’m just here in my hotel room. You know? And so we were talking about it in class, and I was like, well if that’s the sort of backstage, then what’s the actual backstage? Is there one? I don’t know. Right? And so as someone who, you know, I happen to very much prize interiority and reflection, and the kinds of thoughts and processes that aren’t externalized to the world. And maybe are not even like fully conscious to you as a person. That [theft or lack of interiority] really scares me.
AG: Yeah, definitely. Okay. So I do want to kind of start heading toward wrapping up. I mean I feel like we could keep going down so many rabbit holes. But what you are addressing about interiority, Jenny, I think one of the really interesting claims that you make throughout the book is that attention is really fundamental to politics. It’s fundamental to taking care of the world and changing the world for the better. I think often when we hear the word “attention,” it’s in this kind of productivity gospel: like, develop your attention so you can be a better worker. But if you think about it more expansively, [attention] is really crucial to all the good things in the world. And you talk about a strategy called “refusal in place” as one way out of the attention economy, or one way to exist maybe more humanely within it. And earlier in this conversation, you had said that your book is sort of like a non self-self self-help book. So I’m wondering if you could talk about that concept of “refusal in place” and how we can think about possibly adopting it?
JO: Yeah. I think it has to do a lot with almost like paying attention to your attention. Like being able to pull back mentally and psychologically, as opposed to like literally exiting the political situation all together because that is irresponsible. I mean I think a lot of people want to be helpful. And so I have found that the attention economy, I think it trades on a really specific and shallow form of attention. Even like what you were saying about productivity gospel: attention in that context is also considered to be pretty consistent, like it’s just this one thing that can be directed at different things at different times. Whereas I really feel that there are different forms and shapes of attention. It’s like something that I had thought about a lot as an artist, and I have experienced other art works that have helped me develop other forms of attention that are maybe slower or just different, have a different tone. And I think that being able to cultivate those forms of attention and then actually direct them at your own interactions with the attention economy can be one way of kind of refusing to participate as asked. Maybe you’re sort of participating a little bit the wrong way, like you’re making yourself into a shape that doesn’t quite fit, or you’re watching yourself watch ads, or you’re looking at the ads critically instead of just having them go straight into your brain. In all of these cases, I think, there’s just a layer of removal between you and the sort of knee-jerk reaction and type of attention that the attention economy assumes that you have.
AG: Right, yeah definitely, that’s great. Amanda, is there sort of a healthy way to use the internet, or do we need to log off entirely? Are we all lost causes? How do you think about the hygiene of your brain and your attention in its relationship to the internet and social media?
AH: I mean I find it really, really difficult, even as someone who is ostensibly doing this professionally, in that there will be times when I’m scrolling through Instagram and I realize like months later that I had followed someone for some story that I was writing about influencers or something and never stopped following them. And then they just became a part of my routine. And I would be interested in what they were wearing and like what kind of [unclear] they’re using or whatever. And sometimes it will literally be months before I realize that. So I mean I actually have to tell you, Jenny, your book is the book that got away from me because I’ve been wanting to read it for a while and I went to a couple of bookstores early this year that didn’t have it—which I think is great for you, congratulations—they were out of stock. And then I finally found it at my local bookstore about a month ago, and I read the first chapter, and then I left it at work and then I never went back to work, and so I’ve been waiting. I’ve been thinking that I don’t want to give up. It feels like giving up to order a new one ‘cause I’m like oh, I’ll go back [to the office]. But I’m really interested in reading your book about what I can do. But I do think that one of the most difficult things is that often participating does feel like resisting, it can feel like resisting in ways even when it’s not. I’ve written about political engagement on social media, and it really does feel like we have such great influence online; it feels like we’re so close to candidates and that we have a lot of say. Certainly more than we could have on cable news or something like that. But so often it’s directed either into this cult of personality that’s really about propping up the candidate as opposed to how politics in democracy should work, which is like compelling candidates to understand what we need and what our issues are.
I’ve written a bit about the way that political organization and activity on the internet and on social media can take on the contours of other kinds of fandoms that thrive there. So people who go online with an interest in participating in the political process are often kind of pushed into these modes of engagement that are similar to what you see with fans of Taylor Swift or Kayne West. And so those kinds of engagements, they can feel like democracy in that there are many people who are participating, but ultimately they can serve to create these cults of personality around the candidates in a way that makes them actually less accountable to us because the candidates often in these fandoms are turned into these kind of celebrity figures. Obviously President Trump is the biggest example of this, where you see his head like photoshopped onto a gladiator’s body; he’s literally turned into this untouchable, authoritarian kind of figure, but you see it with other candidates too. You see it with Hillary kind of turned into this sassy mom character, or you see it with Bernie Sanders… The most interesting meme to me to come out of the 2016 election was Bernie vs. Hillary on the issues. And the way that the meme worked is that it compared Bernie and Hillary on the issues, but the issues were something like Nintendo games, or like Lord of the Rings. And so it painted Bernie as someone who is like very nerdy and cool and understanding, and Hillary as someone who was not knowledgeable, and was a bitch, basically. And so whether or not you agree with Bernie Sanders or with Hillary Clinton, that mode of engagement is really about focusing on aesthetic and in-group ties. Whereas real grassroots democracy would need to be focused on like creating coalitions and pushing candidates to listen to constituents, as opposed to constituents turning the candidate into a kind of celebrity. So with politics on social media, you know it often just really feels participatory but it’s in many ways ultimately non democratic.
When it came to writing about Joe Biden I was like, the thing I had to write about Joe Biden was like there’s no online grassroots like activity around this candidate. There’s just not—it doesn’t really exist, and as we’ve now seen he is the presumptive Democratic nominee and he has this very traditional kind of pull, which is that he was the vice-president of a very popular Democratic president. And that’s just more powerful.
AG: I think Elizabeth Warren’s kind of an interesting example, where there was so much really passionate, performative online fandom [around her], and if you spend a ton of time on Twitter and Instagram, you would think that Elizabeth Warren ran away with the nomination, but you know, she fizzled out pretty quickly. So there’s this strange disjuncture between the visibility that a candidate might get through their fandoms online and the actual material exercise of politics.
AH: Right. No, that’s absolutely true. And it’s also probably true that turning Elizabeth Warren into like a Hermione Granger figure may be really intoxicating and appealing to a small group of people, but not to the hundreds and millions of Americans who would be voting in the election, so there is a way that it can be self-defeating too.
So I do think there’s a way of maybe consuming or participating on the internet while also keeping one eye off of it and just understanding the context that you’re working in and that it is a particular context and it’s not everything can maybe be helpful. But I think ultimately these platforms have so much power, and that’s something that I think people are aware of now more after the 2016 election. But that has not yet sort of materialized into an actual political response, which is what I think we need to solve some of these problems and to break some of the monopolies on our attention. So yeah. I don’t know what to do. I’m excited to read your book, Jenny.
AG: It’s funny just given how the internet makes us feel like we can access anything when there’s a physical object that we don’t have access to. I had the same issue, where my copy of Jenny’s book is left in my office at Columbia campus. I was trying to prepare this morning and I was like, I don’t have the book, like the physical book you know, but I can get anything else that I want on the internet. So in a way it’s comforting to run up against those kinds of physical limits every now and then.
Okay, so I think just to close off we’re asking everyone a closing question, and the question is pointing forward. So what do you think is the next big question that we need to be asking or reckoning with in terms of how we use the internet and think about the internet? Jenny, do you want to start?
JO: Sure. I think an interesting question to look at would be how to use the internet to strengthen local ties, because I think a lot of folks are going to be thinking about their communities and things like businesses closing and people out of jobs. I mean we’re already seeing kind of an upsurge in interest in things like mutual aid networks, so I think that would be interesting: like, what are good and healthy ways of using the internet to help with that?
AG: Yeah, that’s a great point. And how about you, Amanda?
AH: I mean I always find that when I try to forecast something that will happen, it never does. But what I would like to see happen is a greater ability to literally see the power structures that we’re dealing with when we’re on social media. All of these companies claim to be very interested in transparency, but obviously they are not. I think if there were strategies for making that stuff more visceral, I would be interested in that.
AG: Yeah, that would be very helpful.
JO: If you were to go down that route I would really, really recommend talking to Wendy Liu who just, I think her book published today, Abolish Silicon Valley. The subtitle is How to – I have it right here on my desk. How to Liberate Technology From Capitalism.
AH: That sounds great. I can’t wait to read that.
JO: Yeah, it’s pretty like hard hitting and doesn’t cut any corners. It made me feel like my book was too vague; like it’s very much just calling a spade a spade.
AG: Well, I think it’s good to have many books that approach the question from different angles. But that sounds super interesting so thank you. I think that’s good for now. I mean this was super interesting and I feel like I could definitely keep going down the road of many questions but I think that was really, really great and I appreciate it so much.
JO: Can I add a plug for bird nature cams? Just because we’re talking about the internet and attention.
JO: Especially now that I’m inside a lot, I tend to have one of the tabs in my browser is usually one of three bird cams. So there’s an eagle in Iowa that I found on Explore.org; there are some nesting osprey in Richmond, which is actually really close to here. And then there are some Peregrine falcons that live in the tower at UC Berkeley, and they’re all nesting. So I think the eagle has just hatched, which is very exciting. And so I like to kind of just leave it on in the background and occasionally check on it, because I find it really interesting as it’s something else that you check on but it feels very different. It’s just a bird that’s just there. And for me it’s been a reminder of just time, like time is passing: when you check on it at night, it’s dark. When you check on it at sunrise, it’s sunrise, I mean depending on what time zone it’s in. I’ve been recommending that to people who are spending a lot of time online or have to spend a lot of time online—it’s just the little reminder of something that’s existing very much outside of the human time frame.
AG: Thank you. I love that. And that’s a really nice example of the internet actually facilitating something that’s natural, you know, witnessing the glory and splendor of the natural world in kind of a rare but nice way so that’s wonderful. Thank you.
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