The Internet As Art: Creating A New Form Of Communication by Knowledge@Wharton
Virginia Heffernan on communication in the internet age
The internet links hundreds of millions of people to each other — and also to art in its myriad forms: music, video, pictures, text and so much more. It has helped people discover an inner creativity they might otherwise never have known they possessed. For author and former New York Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan, the internet is an art form of its own — a thesis she explores in her new book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.
In the internet age, how we communicate has changed in extraordinary ways, and these shifts have only accelerated over time. Heffernan joined the Knowledge@Wharton Show on Sirius XM channel 111 to discuss ways our everyday language has evolved such that the medium really has become the message.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: It is amazing how language, and how we talk and communicate with people, has changed remarkably within the last decade or two because of the influence of the internet and social media.
Virginia Heffernan: It’s extraordinary. As you said in your introduction, we are, almost without knowing it, making and consuming art. And by “we,” I mean the least likely people — the scientists, the businesspeople. Every time you post on Instagram, you are doing photography. You are distributing your photography; you are developing a photograph. You’re at times filtering and doctoring a photograph. That’s an art that people used to go to school for and really had to study. And yet we’ve all developed a knack for it.
Those of us who like Twitter also know how hard it is. You need the focus of a poet to get 140 characters to say something expressive and consequential. We don’t like to call it doing art. Maybe there’s something too twee about that. But we still are doing something that conforms to the rituals and patterns of making art.
Knowledge@Wharton: How much have these changes really taken away from language?
Heffernan: People love to decry the demise of language, but right now, we are in a period where language is proliferating. It used to seem that there would never be a brand new language. In fact, we’re seeing, first with emoticons and then with emoji — as you probably know, there are whole books now written in emoji — that we have a pictographic language that we are all inventing right now. Someone tried the other day to say, “Well, emoji just aren’t as expressive as the regular Roman letters we use.” And I thought, “Spoken like someone who has never had an emoji showdown on text!”
“Every time you post on Instagram, you are doing photography.… That’s an art that people used to go to school for and really had to study.”
Knowledge@Wharton: Realistically, I think it’s only going to get worse. Consider the change Facebook made recently to add emoji options as reactions to posts other than “liking” them. This is just going to ramp up.
Heffernan: Well, it’s only going to get worse or better. There’s nothing intrinsically worse or less literate about pictographic languages, like Chinese. In fact, some people consider them the height of literacy. And making up a new one means you have opportunities to forge new metaphors.
I remember the first time that, on the Fourth of July, someone sent me a British flag, the Union Jack emoji, with a gun next to it, pointing at it. Right? Fourth of July! That takes a little bit of time to get, and it also takes the mind of a poet, or a visual mind, in order to conceive it. It seems like a small thing, but you see it everywhere. You see a whole new idiom being invented in places like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook.
Saying that Twitter spells the death of poetry is like saying guitars spell the end of music. We have a format that invites everyone, ordinary people with no particular training in formal writing, to conform to a form that’s way tighter than haikus or sonnets.
Knowledge@Wharton: It’s just a different way of communicating. It’s the 21st century version of communication.
Heffernan: Absolutely. For those of us who take some interest in original speech or in creative speech, playful speech, we have all these different forums for it — even super-emotionally charged speech. There’s nothing neutered about language on the internet, which could have been another direction it could have gone – super-polite, super-careful. Anyone who has been to a YouTube comments section knows that there is nothing careful about that mob, polyglot language that some of us really appreciate.
Knowledge@Wharton: Your interest in this topic started early. How did it develop?
Heffernan: Like a lot of people a great deal younger than I am, I proceeded on two tracks. I studied humanities in school and did a Ph.D. in English, but as a child, there was an accident of computing history that landed a mainframe computer in my small New England hometown. A bunch of girls, including me, dialed in to that mainframe to see what was going on.
We soon discovered a chat room-style thing. It wasn’t even called the internet in those days. This was before MySpace, before Facebook. It was before Twitter. And we had no idea what we were doing, except that we were talking to people. We were using handles. Mine was “Athena.” I remember finding “Apollo” when I was 11, and talking a lot to Apollo. And we were doing something that has been written [straight] out of internet history — namely, creating digital culture. This is 1979 we’re talking about.
Knowledge@Wharton: Talk about the text aspect as well — because that’s how these companies really perceive what our language is now, and is going to be in the future.
Heffernan: Yes, and there’s nothing banal about the language on the internet. It’s inventive, it’s creative, it’s strange. If you don’t bring a certain amount of texture and frisson to what you’re saying on the internet, you can’t attract any attention — at least where marketing is concerned. That’s where you get authenticity. That’s where you get traction.
“You need the focus of a poet to get 140 characters [on Twitter] to say something expressive and consequential.”
I was comparing Donald Trump’s tweets to those of Ted Cruz and some of his opponents. Ted Cruz will say, “I’d like to thank Governor So-and-So for his endorsement.” But Trump is a really good Twitter player, whether we like it or not. He’ll say these hilarious things that sound like the pronouncements of a pharaoh. My favorite is, “America, if I’m elected, all our problems will be reversed!” That takes guts. And that takes a knowledge of how Twitter works, of what stands out from the noise. While the pollsters have been confused about the Trump candidacy, those of us who have followed him on Twitter for a long time haven’t been. He knows how to cut through the noise, and companies that do that can thrive, too.
Knowledge@Wharton: He does know how to play that game. But I will also say he probably has a lot of good people who help him with that as well.
Heffernan: Part of the difference between Trump’s candidacy and Obama’s presidency goes to the medium. The book really