The Internet Isn't Rotting Your Brain — It's the Fullest Expression of Humanity
Go fearlessly into the Internet, but not blindly, says Virginia Heffernan – each corner of digital culture has its best practices. Not learning them is a disrespect.
Virginia Heffernan writes regularly about digital culture for The New York Times Magazine. In 2005, Heffernan (with co-writer Mike Albo) published the cult comic novel The Underminer. In 2002, she received her PhD in English Literature from Harvard.
Virginia Heffernan: The book does have some pragmatic and concrete suggestions. The first is stop hating ourselves for participating in digital culture. It's a real drag on our health and our immune system to spend our time on our phones or on our laptops or in other kinds of digital space using GPS technology thinking that there's something wrong with us for doing it. So that's the first thing that the book really asks people to do it just for an hour or two imagine the Internet is not a neurotoxin, it's not causing brain damage. It's an opportunity and an opportunity to use wholeheartedly, to use with confidence, to use with dignity, to use with all of your humanity. Now each of the forms has its own constraints. So if you're using text online to show up to consumers or to meet your friends then there are certain considerations and they're the considerations that poets have made sense of.
One of the most beautiful things I've ever heard said about how poets construct their sentences, their phrases, their lines is that - this is Helen Vendler the great critic of poetry. She says that every moment after every word any word can follow it next. So in the gap between two words you give the impression or the illusion that any word is possible. And the reader should feel just a slight, slight micron intake of breath like what could come next. So for companies showing up online, surprise, delight. How do you use that little space between words so that you don't – say you are leveraging a cliché like at the end of the day, maybe it's at the end of the millennium, maybe it's a different word there other than day.
When you think of beautiful slogans that capture something in our minds, they're surprising; they're delightful. They're I didn't expect it to go in that direction. And the same is true for Twitter. When you look at political candidates that have used Twitter well, like I must say Donald Trump, you don't know what he's going to say next. He has us in suspense all the time and that suspense is very important. I think brands have had a hard time building suspense because it's nerve-racking a little bit to take those kinds of risks, but it's necessary. As for images, learn the vernacular of a place like Instagram. It's not easy. I just tried the other night to learn the idiom of Twitch, to learn to read a thread as they say on Twitch and most of the vocabulary was entirely new to me. I didn't realize that grill [ph] is a girl, that when Melania Trump was described as salt that that was an illusion to an Angelina Jolie movie from 2010. That this kind of shorthand you don't look at that kind of shorthanded say on Instagram, the grammar of Instagram whether you use filters or not, the move to no filter away from the very highly aestheticized use of the latter filters. That's something that brands should know and are required to know. The third form I talk about is design. So one of the interesting hallmarks of design online is that the expedient design on the World Wide Web, that junkie non-design that you see on some of the early services like Yahoo and AOL that is really determined to read the reader, so while you're involved in it it's collecting data from you and it's trying like a souk, like an open market to kind of pick your pocket at every turn and you have to be on guard against it. That's an experience that's some Internet users like or at least tolerate in order to try to get the resources at those sites.
Then you look at the use of apps that have resurrected Japanese design, Italian design, Scandinavian design and some of the troupes of the 20th century that were associated with higher art. So recognizing that split is very, very important and recognizing also that there's an elitist and a populist split. You spend all your time on apps then you have no exposure to the vocabulary that generated the campaign of Donald Trump or that makes Red Bull such a compelling brand. You don't touch the id of people; you live entirely on these beautiful removed apps and you're missing something from the human experience. So figuring out a way with designed to show up online and maybe show up on mobile is a challenge for brands and for new businesses.
The other parts of the book treat music, treat video, which is obviously an extremely compelling part of the Internet partly because video dis graphed so well onto ads, but YouTube has a grammar almost like nothing else. It can be very opaque. It needs to be studied. You need digital natives or at least people who are like really emotionally drawn to YouTube and Snapchat in order to use it properly and with proper respect for how it works. It's extraordinary to me that a campaign will drop into a form out of nowhere, or you see brands doing this on Twitter all the time, without any understanding of how hash tags work or tagging works. And then at last music. Music is a world of its own and it's probably worth taking a look at the chapter on music at least to understand all the ups and downs of it, but typically digital visual culture and text culture is silent. We don't like unwanted sound on the Internet. We don't like unwanted sound from our phones. We're always being asked to silence them and so music has to be a powerful experience and also a live experience.
Companies that have embraced the return of live culture in the form of conferences, concerts, are doing well; they're embracing the future, that maker culture, foodism, all those things that can't be digitized that like a live concert are the future. The pushback on the Internet is the future.
Virginia Heffernan has been hooked on the Internet since she first heard the sour-lemon screechy tones of dial-up back in 1979, and believes it to be among mankind’s great masterpieces. The journalist and author has watched digital culture evolve into a fully-fledged civilization that is richly detailed, with corners and compartments that are as different as all the world’s tribes. Heffernan doesn’t see the Internet as a "neurotoxin" and she urges people to stop feeling guilty about using apps and websites, as if they’re a cheat from real-world living; a way to waste time but not to spend it. She cares not whether people go online for business or leisure, only that they dive in wholeheartedly, use it with confidence and learn the lingo, style, and constraints of whatever platform they choose to be a part of. Business must be brave; individuals even braver. Don’t just mill around the sanitized designs of apps like Instagram and e-commerce sites, she says, wade in further to websites and platforms that feel foreign to experience the full humanity of a community that is different from you – but will adopt you if you drop the right syntax. Don’t half-ass it; become a digital native. Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet.
Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet.
"They" has taken on a not-so-new meaning lately. This earned it the scrutiny it needed to win.
- Merriam-Webster has announced "they" as the word of the year.
- The selection was based on a marked increase in traffic to the online dictionary page.
- Runners up included "quid pro quo" and "crawdad."
A review of the global "wall" that divides rich from poor.
- Trump's border wall is only one puzzle piece of a global picture.
- Similar anxieties are raising similar border defenses elsewhere.
- This map shows how, as a result, "the West" is in fact one large gated community.
Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.
- Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
- Over the years, Facebook's hands-off ad policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its political ads.
- Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.
LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.
The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.
LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy
According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.
LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.
In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."
What Facebook’s policy risks
Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.
But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.
"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.
Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism
To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.
It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.
But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.