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