National Post (National Edition) - - BOOKS & WRITERS -

that is at the core of the mod­ern in­ter­net, to say noth­ing of the mod­ern so­cial web. Hef­fer­nan draws a bright line around dig­i­tal cul­ture that is im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able as pop cul­ture: smart phone apps, vir­tual re­al­ity games, blogs de­voted to per­fume re­views, YouTube cov­ers of well known songs, mp3s of Top 40 adult con­tem­po­rary. Hef­fer­nan’s aes­theti­ciza­tion of the in­ter­net, like Web 2.0-era busi­ness books, are ex­er­cises in trans­la­tion: they are ef­forts to ren­der the web rec­og­niz­able to peo­ple who don’t live there, to trans­form it into a tool, a pre­fab Spe­cial Eco­nomic Zone set up for busi­ness in­no­va­tion but noth­ing that will scare your cus­tomers or your in­vestors away. Hef­fer­nan wants to aes­theti­cize the in­ter­net, and, in so do­ing, anes­thetizes it, miss­ing the ugly, the of­fen­sive, the cruel and the dis­rup­tive as­pects of the in­ter­net’s present mo­ment.

Magic and Loss’s weak­est point, though, isn’t Hef­fer­nan’s fault: it’s just bad tim­ing. Pub­lished in June of 2016, Hef­fer­nan was writ­ing be­fore the cri­sis-laden lead-up to the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Don­ald Trump had not yet ac­cepted the Repub­li­can party’s nom­i­na­tion. Wik­iLeaks had not yet re­leased the hacked emails of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign chair­man. “Fake news” wasn’t a thing. GamerGate was still a mi­nor skir­mish in an em­bar­rass­ingly geeky cor­ner of the web. Though they were in­creas­ingly an ev­ery­day fact of life for peo­ple who set up house­keep­ing on the so­cial web, the ugli­est parts Tribe”-type so­cial­iz­ing that can make your so­cial group sud­denly a whole time-zone wide, Hef­fer­nan prefers to quote 19th cen­tury philoso­phers to make the un­nec­es­sary ar­gu­ment that brevity does not pre­clude pro­fun­dity.

But Twit­ter and Face­book are in­ter­est­ing, pow­er­ful lo­ca­tions of so­cial­ity and cul­ture not be­cause of their struc­tural sim­i­lar­i­ties to Emer­so­nian apho­risms or Pas­cal’s frag­men­tary Pen­sées, but be­cause of what they are, who uses them and how they func­tion to­day. The free speech ab­so­lutism of Twit­ter, Face­book’s in­ter­nal crises re­gard­ing its role in the pub­lic sphere, the har­vest­ing and sale of their users’ data, as well as the ways they’ve changed the pub­li­ca­tion and edi­to­rial strate­gies of ma­jor news or­ga­ni­za­tions for max­i­mum share­abil­ity, have had an un­de­ni­able im­pact on the prac­tice of pol­i­tics, jour­nal­ism and ev­ery­day so­cial re­la­tion­ships.

In con­trast, Phillips and Mil­ner’s The Am­biva­lent In­ter­net: Mis­chief, Odd­ity and An­tag­o­nism On­line fo­cuses on the so­cial play and power at the core of the cur­rent in­ter­net, and ex­plic­itly ac­knowl­edges the ev­ery­thing-at-once na­ture of it. Phillips and Mil­ner use the tools of folk­lore stud­ies to un­pack memes, trolling and the deep weird­ness of the so­cial web – some of the most om­nipresent fea­tures of our dig­i­tal mo­ment. The am­biva­lence at the core of their anal­y­sis fo­cuses on what the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of busi­ness-friendly-in­ter­net books might have framed ev­ery­day in­san­ity of their sub­ject, some­thing that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of in­ter­net crit­i­cism have of­ten been forced to do. In the heady days of the early so­cial web, writ­ers like Clay Shirky and Cass Sun­stein wrote op­ti­mistic, busi­ness-ad­ja­cent books such as Here Comes Ev­ery­body and In­fo­topia: How Many Minds Pro­duce Knowl­edge. These books sold the in­ter­net as good for busi­ness, a com­bi­na­tion mar­ket­place/ re­search and de­vel­op­ment lab/art rave where you too could take ad­van­tage of the “wis­dom of the crowd” – for free! – to har­ness emer­gent trends and en­rich your life, your in­tel­lect and your wal­let. To make this ar­gu­ment to the pub­lic at large, though, some of the weirder and worse as­pects of the so­cial web had to be kicked un­der the rug: the bizarrely of­fen­sive cul­ture fac­to­ries of body­build­ing. com and later 4chan, white na­tion­al­ist and neo-Nazi mes­sage boards like Storm­front, which pre­dated Wikipedia, or the vi­cious ha­rass­ment cam­paigns waged against women and mi­nori­ties since they first ar­rived on the in­ter­net. It’s worth not­ing that many of the Web 2.0 boost­ers, de­spite hail­ing from academia, main­tained a healthy side hus­tle in busi­ness con­sult­ing.

Phillips and Mil­ner aren’t here to sell you a con­sult­ing pack­age. They’re here to make sure you don’t buy the story that the in­ter­net is all good or all bad, or all any­thing. Like any realm of hu­man en­deav­our, the so­cial web pro­duces the beau­ti­ful, the hor­ri­ble, the bor­ing and

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