On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, "Magic and Loss" author Virginia Heffernan discussed her new book and what happens when Twitter turns on you.
You can read some of the highlights from her interview with Peter at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: Thanks for joining us, Virginia Heffernan.
Virginia Heffernan: I'm happy to see you, not even just on the internet!
We were going back and forth, and I said, "Would you join us," you said, "Sure, let's talk to my PR person," you introduced me to your PR person, you said, "Peter and I are ‘internet close’ friends."
Well, I mean, why even bother saying "internet"?, Of course you're internet friends.
There's internet, and there's real life, and I think that's sort of what we're going to talk about.
But it's really cool to meet you. So you've got a book out, which is technically the reason you're here. But we want to talk about lots of stuff. Let's talk about the book.
"Magic and Loss."
Let's get that out of the way.
It's not a chore, it's just a thing. Explain in your words what this book is about.
"Magic and Loss" treats the internet as a massive work of art to which we're all always contributing. So everything counts. Every little eBay review, every message board post, every Facebook "Like" — those are all contributions to this massive work of art. So massive it really can be called a civilization.
So this is a social and art sort of criticism of the internet. Stuff that we sort of pass by and don't think about a lot on a day-to-day.
When I say the book "treats," I mean with the methodologies of the humanities— maybe that's an effort to sound technical, but really it's, you know, use the same vocabulary and part of your mind that you use to read a poem or admire a photograph, and bring that vibe to the internet as opposed to neuroscience or business acumen. It does not treat the internet as a possibility for SEO, for example. Or even as an engineering marvel.
It treats it like art.
If I describe this book as an academic treatment of the internet, that's going to freak people out.
Yeah, don't scare people.
Let's not say that.
Don't scare people.
But there is some smart language, and you refer to Wittgenstein and Richard Rorty, and stuff that I vaguely remember from college.
Things get fancy, but that's only to offset the fact that Angry Birds takes up so much of it. It's a lot about Angry Birds, let's face it, and so I dolled that up and mentioned some philosophers.
You fancified it up.
God, you gotta do it.
But knuckle-draggers like me can also read it, so …
Yeah. That was just catnip for the New York Review of Books crowd.
So, what's the "magic" part, what's the "loss" part?
The magic is a word from engineering from coders, you know, technologists who make things that are very, very complicated. Make a guess about how the internet really works and filters into your phone. And then things that are so complicated to create, but appear so simple and elegant and Jony Ive-esque that, you know, you can only call it magic. That's the magic part. I spend a lot of time kind of respecting that magic, because we pay a lot of attention to the internet as a site of pathology, and, like, chopped into fine pieces by a sous chef, our attention spans …
We either kind of ignore it, because it's just built into our day-to-day, or we say, "Oh, the internet caused terrorism, or the internet caused …"
Obesity. Or caused, you know, "Bowling Alone." I can't remember why we bowl alone, but it's something to do with the internet.
Super boring. And then occasionally, right, if you're in my crowd, we’ll celebrate the internet as this sort of business or technological marvel.
Right. You say, like, I can't believe I could paddle my app this way, or I can get — what's that thing? CRM? Customer Re-something, Reputation Management?
It's what you do if you're a big enterprise company and you want to sell more stuff.
Yeah. And your J.Crew ad follows you around everywhere you go, saying, like, "Remember this dress?" It happens to me a lot.
So that's the thing that I don't do in the book, is trumpet those features. But I do pay attention to the magic, try to sort out what effect has this had on our sensory, emotional lives to live in a new civilization.
And you're celebrating it. It's a good thing.
Magic is a good thing, but there's black magic, too. I talk a lot about MP3 compression being possibly an insult to music. What kind of devious things are that compression technology up to? And that leads to the loss.
Literally "lossy," right, if you're an audio nerd.
Literally lossy, I love that word "lossy" from engineering. It's like, there's something cute about it, and also painful about it.
You're losing stuff.
You're losing stuff. Now, you know, services like Tidal — Jay-Z's thing — trumpet lossless compression, but there's a lot of skepticism about whether that's possible. So trying to take the measure of that loss, not just in audio and music but in all the arts and what I think of as the building blocks of a civilization.
And that's sort of an idea that people are more comfortable with, right? That the internet and technology brings new things and then gets rid of things and destroys things. And I think most people are sort of comfortable with some notion of that.
It's been pretty devastating to all our analog totems. If you like compasses and sextants, the GPS technology has really seemingly made those obsolete.
If you like newsprint, if you like the smell of moldy bindings at a library, then that might be something that we're losing. On the other hand, civilizations supersede each other, and some of the book is a kind of cold assessment of why we have these nostalgic and especially sensory emotional, aesthetic attachments to certain effects of photography that we feel we're missing. But the gains far outweigh the losses.
So, this is a thinky, serious book that took you some amount of time to write about the internet. The internet and digital world is something that changes minute to minute, day to day. I write about it online, and I'm always worried that, "Oh, crap, this thing I wrote is actually now outdated," or I have a perception of the internet that has now changed. I'm behind. When you're writing a book like this, and you're really doing some serious thinking about something, how do you grapple with the notion that the thing you're talking about today may be gone by the time the book is out? In come cases, like, you're talking about like the visualizer on iTunes. Which is a thing that if you were listening to music in 2005, everyone knew what that was. I imagine there's an entire generation that has no idea what you're talking about.
Yeah. If you have anyone in that generation listening, and the visualizers, the super-trippy Jobs feature of iTunes that allowed you to basically see music in these, like, starbursts and stuff.
So, if you're at a party, or at work and not doing any work, eventually the screen would pop up and this sort of lava lamp sort of digital thing …
Okay, you all can imagine what [Kafka] is doing. His hand is making little starbursts. When you say "visualizer" to someone who was conscious before 2005, they often make these goggle-eyed starbursts with their hands. And that's exactly what it is. It sort of puts you in that, yeah, that groovy state of mind. But the visualizer passed, and that was one of the questions the editor asked about this book: What about things passing? But I think I show in the book that life is passing, but art lasts forever; there are certain tropes or memes that are profoundly in the code of the internet, and also in the way we've used it from the beginning, including creating handles, having your identity circle around the images and words, and even typography that you use on the internet. I got on the internet in 1979. In those days we were still trying to figure out, is it cuter to type in all-lowercase? Does that compromise your authority? Are mixed cases a little too proper? What about writing in all-caps? Like, does that make you a Trump person?
And a Lyndon LaRouche person? All-caps, by the way, is supposedly a way that some data organizations quantify your eligibility for a loan, if you use all-caps.
It makes you more or less? I'm assuming less.
Well, you know, I don't want to show prejudice.I don't want to shut people out, because, you know, loans are important.
So you're saying, "Look, there's parts, apps and programs, and things are going to come and go, but some of these ideas will continue through."
Absolutely. The visualizer section of the book is about something called synesthesia, you know, when your senses cross. There are people who say they can taste numbers and see sound. And Steve Jobs — not to just harp on Apple, but you know, was one of them. He thought at one point that he — you know, he did buy hallucinogens — felt a wheat field play Bach, or sing Bach, or something. So he basically was seeing Bach in the movement of the wheat.
This is a good book to read stoned.
You know, I like to think that really beholding the internet, sitting with the internet, feeling and palpating the internet, is a natural high.
That's a deft way of answering that.
[Laughs] I don't advocate drugs.
I was going through the index, and going, like, "Okay, what does Virginia have to say about Snapchat?" Because Snapchat really befuddles me right now. I feel a bunch of things about it, none of them are really great. But there's a handful of references to Snapchat, and I'm like, "All right, we'll get to that." And then what did you say about emoji? Because that's another thing. There's zero references to emoji, at least in the index. And I know you spend a bunch of time in the book saying like one of things the internet has done is moved us toward an image-based way of consumption. So I assume that has something with the way you think about Snapchat and emoji, but you tell me. What do you think about those two?
So, Snapchat. I am a promiscuous and kind of, maybe, insane adopter of new technologies. I wouldn't really say "early," because who knows what the crest is. For example, I don't know that there was an early way to adopt visualizer, because there wasn't a long tail of visualizer, it was just like …
It was just there.
Yeah, so I sort of hear about something like Friendster or Venmo, and I'm just like, "I gotta do that." So Snapchat — I was ready to do it, I'm 46, I was ready to start my whole cycle again and download Snapchat, and become a Snapchat person, and you know, cravenly try to get followers and …
… get in there, and be early. And I had this terrifying feeling — I don't know if you ever get this, maybe you're around my age, maybe you're like a lot younger — but I had this terrifying feeling that I had reached the edge of my capacity! Something in the interface ...
Yeah. It's super common.
Okay. It's almost got that Minecrafty thing of, like, this illegible to me. Wow.
And then the question is whether they did it intentionally or not, but it works as a velvet rope to keep you — I'm 44 — you, me and a bunch of other people out. And if you're 6, like my younger kid is, it's no big deal. He was showing me how to use the face swap the other day.
If you spend a lot of time on Facebook, as I do, you like to live in a retirement community, out to pasture with a lot of old people, because that lively, youthful spirit, fortunately, has left us alone on Facebook. You get to have reasoned debates — you know, Democrats and Republicans weighing in on their grandchildren, and you know, what they think of the election and mixed cases …
I'm sure you've gone back to Snapchat at this point, because it's such a big deal, you have to look at it.
What do you think of that aesthetic and the way people present to each other, or at least publicly?
I love the way that the culture is constantly surprising us. So if you think that YouTube is this repository for all these videos, and the things that we want from the internet begin to be short-form —you know, video that lasts forever, that's in those data storage places in the cloud that like lives on and lives on and lives on and will never die. So Snapchat suddenly is like, "What we need on the internet is more death." These are like ‘60s and ‘70s ideas about …
Because the stuff disappears.
… life against death, because the disappearing factor. I remember a little bit thinking, "Wow, there is no right-only place on the internet." You know, life is — and that's from coding too — but life is right-only. It keeps going forward. You can't read it, you can't pause or rewind it — yet. You can't search it, you can't archive it, and so on. But the internet is just like infinitely searchable and archivable. So what does Snapchat do in its infinite brilliance but make something that …
Breaks from that.
Sort of. Or, you know, three-quarters of the way. Vanishing, dying, decaying — stuff that doesn't last forever. And I think that that's a brilliant move. Part of the way that I adjust to the loss is that so many other people have felt it and addressed it in ingenious, ingenious ways, and this is why I think the collective wisdom is so much at work, because no one person could do all this. Pushing back on MP3 technology, for example, with the rise of live music and vinyl. We now assume that things are rolling towards greater and greater digitization. Mary Meeker's report said, "Of course, millennials expect their cars to be entirely connected. They expect them to be entirely connected, but do they want them to be entirely connected? Watch, they'll push back on that like they did … "
Or as a novelty, someone will create — well, actually, we've heard about this. The idea of driving your own car will be like a hobby.
Like growing out your mustache, and keeping your vinyl record collection.
And learning the ukulele and all that stuff. I mean, all that Williamsburg/Bushwicky kind of stuff. Butchering your own meat. Who would've known that butchering your own meat would become, in the heyday of Snapchat, the thing to do?
So there's a ton of stuff we can talk about for a very long time. Each one of these. Your book is divided up into tech, design, video, music ... And we can talk about all of those, it would take forever. You should buy the book and read the book. Is there one big idea that you want people to take away from this? Or is there something you want us to do when we're consuming the internet?
Yeah. I've been thinking about an article I read in The Atlantic a million years ago, that said there's never been a time that the bones of man haven't been found — prehistoric man — haven’t been found near the bones of a dog. Or a little proto-wolf, domesticated wolf. And the aqueducts of the internet have never been far from the frescos. The bones of the internet, the plumbing of the internet, the engineering of the internet, has always had all these cultural components near it. And for those of us who majored in the humanities — in history, in art history, in English, in, you know, social sciences — our tools, we don't have to go to general assembly to learn to code. You can still keep your head and remember those things you used to think about in college, and use those tools as a way to steady yourself in your internet life, get some distance from it, become a moral actor, and become an aesthetic actor, enjoy it, make choices.
Do you want us to sort of actively think about what i'm doing, when I'm using Instagram, when I'm using Facebook, when I'm watching Netflix? Or should I sort of let that stuff melt into the background?
I think savoring it is the way to go. For instance, Facebook, I've tried to follow widely, I try to befriend a lot of people, and as a result the mix on Facebook has turned into content that I would have paid for in other eras. There's a lot of really interesting essays, especially around this election, short essays by people that they are giving away and that you can mix it up with. That you can write back and respond to. And that's just if you like essays. If you like poetry, Twitter might be the place for you. If you like Snapchat, if you like video and new uses of video, Snapchat is really an extraordinary place. And I'm just talking about the social networks. For deeper interactions, the message boards are amazing, and also sometimes we forget that Wikipedia is a great gateway. You know, many of us are researchers, and we tend to disparage it by calling it "stalking," but if you're stalking the Romanovs, or you're stalking a subject that interests you — China — then you are doing research and reporting, and you are building a more powerful way of interacting with the world.
This is a book about the internet. You've made a living — or for many parts of your career — writing things that are primarily print, right? The New York Times, things that are about digital culture. When I'm reading your book, and you're talking about a specific YouTube artist you're following, I think, "Oh, I want to stop reading, I want to go to my computer, pull up this YouTube clip." Is there a specific challenge to writing about the internet in a print or print-like product?
Where you sort of assume — normally, if I was consuming this on the internet, I would obviously be stopping and clicking on a hyperlink, or going to Wikipedia and looking at this stuff myself.
It seems like there is definitely a three-dimensional product that has to be warehoused and shipped, the book, and the end of this. But, you know, the very day it was released, the audio book appeared, too, which is, you know, compresed technology.
Is that you? Is that your compressed voice?
I did the preface, but I spent the whole time trying to hide my lisp and getting scared about pronouncing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Fast-forward through the preface, because Candace Thaxton reads the rest of it, and she is smooooooth. Smooth smooth. So the audiobook came out that day, and so did the e-book. And, you know, the book itself had lived in a manuscript in Google Docs for a long time, and all my exchanges with the editor were, you know, electronic, in an email. So a lot of this was a digital production. And then for a kind of a different experience, I like criticism, so I wrote about television for a long time. You're not watching the show when you read television criticism. And I trained or whatever it's called, did a Ph.D. in English. I wanted to be a literary critic for a long time. So, writing off the page or writing away from things, there's something very challenging and interesting about conjuring an object that happens in another idiom, you know?
So your expectation is: Sit with me, read what I've written, think about it, don't get up in the middle of this and go to your laptop. Or you can, but ...
It is a little bit synesthetic — sense-crossing. I love to read perfume blogs, I love to read descriptions of things that I should be, or ultimately might be experiencing with another sense.
Whoa, you are much more evolved than I am. I can't read about wine, I want to drink the wine.
Yeah, liquor is a perfect example. Some people like scotch criticism or, you know, writing about wine.
I like scotch.
You like scotch? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, it would seem to be an esoteric taste, but you know, most of online writing, we thought that there'd be a lot of reporting in narrative at the beginning of the web. In fact, there is tons of what can only be called essays and criticism. People responding to a video or linking to a video, and it's amazing how infrequently people on Twitter actually click the links.You want the comment about, like, "Trump is so poor now, he might as well be a democrat" …
And that's enough. And then you retweet it.
Yes, and then you don't go to the link saying that he's run out of money.
A lot of people on Twitter are bots anyway, right? And that is a whole thing. But I remember when the web cropped up, and there was an expectation that writing and reading would be a different thing because of hyperlinks. And I think about that all the time when I write news stuff. I think,I don't need to do an inverted pyramid, I don't need to go and give you paragraphs of context, because I can just reference it and link to it, and the expectation is you sort of come with me. It is a different way of writing. You mentioned TV. This is where I first started reading you, when you were at Slate, and you did this great pop-culture-thinky criticism of TV. It was online, so there were two novel things. One, you were writing online, and there wasn't a lot of sophisticated stuff online, and then you were writing smart stuff about television — this was the late ’90s?
Yeah, that's right.
It was a novel idea. There weren't a lot of smart people writing thinky but reachable stuff about television, and now that's standard, right? That's table stakes.
It was funny, because as you say, I was writing online. I don't know if you have this experience, but I would say, "I wrote a piece for Salon," and [my parents] would say, like, "But did you really write it somewhere?" You know, if it appeared online, it was lesser. It might as well be that you wrote it in your diary. I mean, let's face it. You weren't published if you were on Something.com.
Or you go to someone and say, "I want to write about you." And they say, "Well, for the magazine?"
[Laughs] Yeah, for the real thing. Yeah.
They still say that.
They still kinda say that, that's true. I found that the alt-weeklies that are now, you know, largely out of business, but that were my dream to write for, like The Village Voice and so on, were such tough nuts to crack. I couldn't get an answer to my written, mailed queries to The Village Voice to save my life.
Got no time for you.
So I started writing for MTV and VH1. They needed a lot of patter. I mean patter is what we're doing right now, so I wrote some patter for some hosts and VJs, and then Jake Weisberg at Slate heard that I had been doing that, and also heard that I was fumbling around trying to finish my dissertation in English, and he thought that was a hilarious combination. Like, how could I be writing literary criticism and using MTV's printers to print out my dissertation, and doing this at the same time. So he thought it would be fun to try me on TV criticism, and I thought it was fun, too.
Do you ever think, "Oh, wow, I was a little early writing about TV. It'd be fun to be writing full-time about TV when everyone gets that this is the golden age and there's a million smart people you can have a dialogue with and bounce back and forth?" Or do you say, "Uh, I've done it, I'm done with TV."
You know, I like writing for critics, and maybe I'm just lazy but I like writing about things that easily fall apart in your hands. It's very, very challenging to say something new about a Keats poem, so generally in graduate school we were at least encouraged to write about, like, Victorian newspapers, because you could find little tropes and oddities that nobody knew about, where , Keats is just too well-written, he shuts you out. It's like the Apple interface.
I'm lost here. "The Sopranos" and "The Americans" — are they the well-wrought poem?
I was just gonna say, well-wrought, urn, not enough to say about it where, like, you see Flavor Flav on a weird VH1 thing trying to pick up his life and dating — I think he was dating Sylvester Stallone's ex-wife …
Very tall and blonde, yeah.
Yes. And just watching them, these two misfits trying to make a life together, it was like, you know, an incredible and, you know, quite depressing but quite moving movie, where trying to talk about the ingenious performances on "The Sopranos," at the time, I didn't think I could say anything new about it. We were just calling attention to the, you know, virtues of a reality show, or like the hidden anger in Rosie O'Donnell at the time. It was a way to make a living, and it was so much fun to be one of the only people writing about reality TV. One of the high points of my life, for sure.
So you did that at Slate, and then you moved to the Times, and then you made — especially given what you just said — a sort of natural transition to writing about the internet for the TImes, which again was a rare thing to have. It's really hard to remember now, but up until really a couple years ago, the TImes was very distinct from the internet, and carried itself that way. So to have someone like you saying, "Hey, this is what's on YouTube ..." was a thing.
Yes. The first time I saw Flavor Flav on that show — it wasn't quite a rehab show, it sort of more like "Big Brother" — the first time I saw that I thought, "Aw, this is like so incredible." I mean, I don't want to get too trippy, but it was like the unconscious of the culture coming through in all these ways. Like, what does failure look like? What had success looked like? What was this like black/white/tall/small relationship with this other has-been star? Brigitte Nielsen, right? I think that's her last name.
Yeah! Yeah, yeah.
And compared to that, that creamy resolution of a perfect MTV video, just like shut me out. It was like, you're not welcome here. And I wanted to be with the ragtag types. So when I first saw YouTube, I saw this video that this kid had made in his room. We now know that a lot of these videos are made by kids in their bedrooms. Backlit, horribly shot, you couldn't even see the kid's face, but he was playing this guitar solo — Pachelbel's Canon, in this complicated rock arrangement. I had the same Flavor Flav response! I was just like, "Who is he?!" How did he make this, how is it in my living room now, or you know, in my bedroom on my screen, and what the heck is he doing? Why did he do this? Why did he pull a cap over his face? Why did he take the time to upload it? Why is he showing this agro finger work but, you know, this completely demure face that he won't even show us?" I couldn't stop thinking about it.
Did the Times get what you wanted to do? Or did it seem like, "Oh, this is an oddity, this is a one-off, and now you'll get back to writing about a real thing."
Well Andrew Ross Sorkin launched a blog called DealBook on the same day that I launched a blog called Screens to write about online video. And as you can see, Screens left DealBook in the dust, and unfortunately Andrew Ross Sorkin is panhandling now with Flavor Flav …
I hope he can turn it around.
I know, I just worry about him. I worry about him.
I hope he catches a break.
I've been sending him money on charity sites. But anyway, Dealbook caught on and made sense for people, and showed up in people's inboxes. And Screens had like a slower burn, but it was really also fun to connect with, because I started thinking about Funtoo, this guitarist — there's a Japanese term, "charismahikki." It's a famous person who never leaves their house [hikkomori].
They're charismatic and they're a shut-in. So I liked that because I loved never leaving the house and yet — not fame, but writing and putting that out there for, you know, 500 angry commenters to pile on Slate. So I started to think there must be other people that wanted to be in digital space, but wanted to do it from their rooms, and sure enough! I published Screens, I've found them. I don't know if they had been Times readers, if they read A1, if they read Op-Ed. But they wanted to talk about this video and share their experiences with it, and that's still where I live, with that scene.
You live there. I think, like a lot of people, you were probably more engaged in Twitter at one point, and then pulled back for various reasons. You mentioned "piled on." You were piled on at one point. You wrote an essay about Christianity and religion and God.
Thanks, bringing it back. [Laughs]
Well yeah, it's in your book. I can bring it up.
No it's true.
Did that particular experience sort of make you rethink the way you want to interact in Twitter or digital media at all?
I kind of love this question because — and I'm gonna equivocate if you don't mind ...
Go for it.
For a long time, I've been such a kind of Bolshevik for the digital revolution, because I was really hoping to placate fears, and particularly in TImes Magazine readers that this was going to destroy everything, and show everyone how they could still have spy novels and they could still do crossword puzzles in digital space. So, I'd been saying that for a long time, and I'd been trying to encourage other writers to embrace the comments section, you know, embrace what they call at the Times — I mean at Slate — "The Fray." And finally find out who our readers were. And what they cared about.
Of course. And for a while, this was like if you were, if you were sort of cutting-edge thinking about the internet, this is what you said: It's an unalloyed good to be interacting with your readers, consumer, whatever. Of course you should do it.
It's objectively a better thing.
It's objectively a better thing, and consumer reviews on Amazon are a good thing, and, you know, just this "let a thousand flowers bloom." It's amazing how much a YouTube comment section loved it, thought there was hidden brilliance in it. And then the Twitter coliseum, but me in a body cast for six weeks. I read it, led with a story that I wrote, I thought it was a joke, but it didn't land, or I thought it was playful, but it didn't quite land.
It's hard to be funny on the internet sometimes.
Oh my god, it really is. Especially when it's overthought, you know? Like a nice one-liner is great, but …
You can screw up the one-liner, too.
Oh, that's true, you can screw up the one-liner. So they led with it, and that is a bad day. When they lead with a "what an idiot" link.
Yeah. You went into the spanking machine.
I went into the spanking machine. It was a bad time. But it wasn't a bad time, and I think the lesson I learned with Twitter, the thing I would have said pre-, you know, Twitter coliseum was, we all should sort of constantly subject our immune systems to the vox populi, to the word of the people. We shouldn't stay away from even white nationalism or even, you know, whatever form it takes.
Get in the mix. See what's what.
Get in the mix and see what's what. And afterward I realized that my avatar should not stay away from those things. You know, @page88 is my Twitter handle. She is really good at taking sniper fire for me, she just stays silent, sometimes she has witty comebacks, sometimes she says like, "Don't hurt me," but she's got a whole range of responses. Me — the person you're looking at in space with, like, a bloodstream and a heartbeat — isn't my Twitter handle, you know? It took me a long time to realize that.
And you're evolved enough that you can separate those two things? Because it seems logical, but I think the practical effect for most people is, "I just got insulted, I just got harassed."
Well if there's another effect of the book, a huge thing I say is, use the techniques, and some of us are very adept at this. Use the techniques of fiction and fiction writing. Your photograph is probably filtered if not Photoshop. You're a digital creation, and the things you say on Twitter are not the things you say in life. And that is a distinction that you can make, and that's where training in the humanities, in voice, in perspective, in point of view, and in kind of creating that character comes in supremely handy.
It seems like pretty heady stuff. But you'll see a lot of very earnest — "earnest" sounds like an insult — a lot of smart people leaning down and saying, "Twitter's not safe, I can't handle being insulted on Twitter." Or, not that I can't handle it; it's actually dangerous to participate.
I blame Jacob Weisberg, because that first piece I wrote for ... I was in my twenties, that first piece I wrote for Slate on Rosie O'Donnell turning dark on her show and gobbling candy in a weird way. I think the first comment on it was: "Virginia, does your mother have any children who don't have brain damage? I pity you." And, you know, my first thought went to Andrew, my brother who is free from brain damage, so my mother at least got one. So I went into Jake ready to resign, you know? I just was like, if someone said that harsh a thing about it, it must be idiocy. And Jacob — who was digital before I was — couldn't have been happier. So, you know, I made the split between me and my avatar not out of being evolved, but out of fear of pain. [Laughs]. I had a time where my Wikipedia entry was being kind of vandalized, and someone asked me this zen question which was, "What if you are not your Wikipedia entry? What if?"
Totally. What if you are not your first-page Google returns? What if you are not like a, you know, a mean comment on something. What if you can create this character who is villainous or who is powerful? My first online handle was Athena. I was 9, of course I called myself Athena. But you know, there's gotta be like an Athena person out there, you know, doing that. Taking sniper fire.
Yeah, this all sounds very reasonable to me. I was just talking to the Genius guys - Genius.com guys, and they were talking about an incident where someone felt they were threatened because people were critiquing her on Genius. I'm missing something. If you're publishing something, of course it can be criticized. If you don't want it criticized don't publish it.
Yeah. A lot of people are publishing without maybe quite being aware of that.
But then I'll talk to various smart people, and they'll say, "No no no, there is a difference between public space and private space, and you can have private space on the internet if you publish something that's technically public." I get confused.
When you mentioned the philosophers that I talk about, one of them is Richard Rorty. He identified as as philosopher, but some of the stuff he said could have been said in a self-help book: Make your private life beautiful, make your mental space beautiful, and your public life humane. And they're really different. And part of the way that Rorty, who was professor at UVA, bifurcated as you say, private and public life, really has influenced the way that I think of the internet.
This is a very evolved conversation. I'm a little worried. We should dumb it down.
I said self-help!
Should we talk about Yahoo?
You worked at Yahoo for a minute.
I worked at Yahoo for a minute.
I can predict how this story turns out.
Two long years, actually. And, you know that thing where Michael Pollan says you shouldn't eat anything your grandmother didn't recognize as food — you know, like a Tootsie Pop or whatever?
Yeah. Which sounds good if you have the ability to pick and choose your food.
Right, exactly. And I suddenly thought, like, "I think my grandmother did know a Tootsie Pop." That's the one with the Tootsie Roll inside? Oh, God, she definitely knew that. I sort of thought, maybe I shouldn't be working at a place where my grandmother wouldn't recognize as journalism. But it took me a while to realize that Yahoo News — and there are terrific, terrific reporters there, they've done actually a lot of great reporting that gets buried. But when media becomes — forget journalism, let's call it media. You know, I was writing for MTV first, so I knew that entertainment was part of the package. Media becomes marketing. So it really is just this content meant to attract more users to the Yahoo weather app. And when I realized that Yahoo was doing off-with-your-head firings — you know, you'd make some misstep, say something into a hot mic that was wrong — when I realized they were doing that, and there were no Floyd Abrams First Amendment lawyers that you could call on, that there was just literally no investment in the First Amendment anywhere, as far as the eye could see — then I sort of realized, because I had started as a fact checker at The New Yorker, oh this isn't journalism, there's no stake in doing this, because writing without fear or favor — you know, to entertain, inspire, inform — is not part of our mandate at all.
You're making stuff that goes on a page, and maybe there's an ad, or maybe it gets you into an app.
Right. You're making text assets that, when they turn to text liabilities — meaning they said, you know, the wrong thing, or they made an off joke — turned into something like bummer code that our coder leader CEO would dip in like, "Simpson, Simpson!" — you know, like Montgomery Burns — and say, "Heffernan, you're out."
And you got out before you got pushed out.
I got out. I was just on a contract. I didn't renew my contract after two years, and I also really think that Yahoo News, in spite of all that, has become an actual news operation. Unfortunately, some of its stories are buried, but there were some really, really terrific writers there.
Because logically Yahoo should stop paying people to write good stuff. There's no reason for them to do that, they can get it at other places.
I mean, the work was …
But they are creating good stuff, though.
They do create good stuff, and the work we did there was like they were eying us all the time to be, like, how can bots do this, how can bots do this. And so it had that Detroit factor of, like, you could be replaced, you could be replaced. I've been thinking that the United Auto Workers should really give a TED Talk about job retraining to people in journalism. Wouldn't that be a good idea?
Yeah, I always use the metaphor with my friends, like, this is what being a steelworker in like …
Oh, yeah, Allentown, you know?
In the ’70s. Like, you know what's coming.
Yeah. TImes Square, Allentown.
You know what's coming, and you can talk about retraining, you're probably not gonna get retrained.
Yeah. I mean, it doesn't matter that you, you know, ran the Paris bureau for 25 years. I do think actually that those unions could come and talk to us just about the sensory emotion — I keep saying this — but about the, you know, effects on the brain of …
I'm sure it sucks.
… having your work turned … Well, okay, you're sure it sucks, but you probably know a little bit what it's like. And sometimes I gotta hand it to them. Like an aggregator can sometimes be a good thing. And you know, the first reaction — and everyone has this — is like, if something might cost me my job, it has got to be a bad thing for the culture.
Again, if you're super elevated, you can say, "This is bad for me, and good for other people or my avatar ..." It can split yourself. But most people in the real world have a mortgage or kids or some sense of self-worth, and if that thing is taken from you, it doesn't really matter if the culture's advancing. And on an up note ...
I love it.
What's your next project after the book?
It's about anti-digital culture.
And, you know, all this material culture, including the return of book and printing, that have steadily been pushing back on the digital revolution, and surprising us.
So anti-digital culture is vinyl and cutting your own …
And live music and the Rolling Stones making a billion dollars touring in their sunset age. Way more than they made in the heyday.
Yeah, perpetual sunset, or the heyday of "Gimme Shelter." And why do we want to see people live? Why do we want to listen the man at TED Talks, why do we want to meet? I mean, you and I just met in person, and it was ...
Very exciting, right! And the value of that undigitizable experience has been jacked up by all our digital experience. It's, like, been teed up. So I think we're in this antithesis, like real pushback, real defiance, real rebellion kind of move to return to pencils and all that. And what is that like, what's it going to look like, what does it mean for the internet, what does it mean for that other weird thing called offline life?
And that'll be a book?
That's a book.
That's a book. And in the meantime, while I'm waiting for the next book, can I find you online somewhere?
You can find me occasionally in the New York Times, and often on Medium. I'm also writing for Politico and the LA Times.
And Twitter @page88.
Yeah, @page88. I mean, that's not really me, but you can see a confection I made up.
Virginia, thanks for coming in real life for this conversation.
It was awesome. If you guys like listening to this, well, you know how to get it ,because you're listening to it. But you can also find it on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play. And you can get Kara Swisher's show, Recode Decode, and Lauren Goode's Too Embarrassed to Ask. We have these conferences that are real-life experiences, you can get all of that at Recode Replay. Thanks to our sponsor Mack Weldon. Thanks to Digital Media who makes this all possible. Thanks again to Virginia. Remember that you can get "Magic and Loss" in hardcover. You can get it on Kindle. There's an audiobook somewhere, right Virginia?
There's an audiobook, exactly.
Google will help you find all this stuff.
You can try to spot my lisp in the preface.
I didn't hear the lisp. Thank you, Virginia. I'm Peter Kafka, I'll see you next week.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.