When Online Procrastination Is Your Job

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Amanda Hess, a critic at large who writes about the internet, discussed the tech she’s using.

What tech tools are most important for doing your job?

Is logging off a tool? Signing out is important.

I cover the internet for my job, but I’m also very easily seduced by it, and that can be a dangerous combination. Procrastination can always be plausibly reframed as work. So I have technology that I use to mitigate other technology. Wearing an Apple Watch means that I don’t have to pick up my phone every time I get a Medicare scam call, which inevitably sucks me into scrolling mindlessly through every app on my phone. I have strapped an unsightly Apple product to my body in an attempt to keep another Apple product away from me. 🥴

You write about internet culture, which is a broad topic. How do you decide what to write about?

My beat is even wider than that: I’m a critic at large, which means I end up writing about television, music, movies, theater and books, too. My job is to identify themes across the culture, and I find myself investigating ideas more than platforms. I always have a few baby story ideas hanging around in my brain, and they steer my internet activity into one direction or another.

I do a lot of old-timey research. I read academic studies and nonfiction books, and most of them are not specifically about the internet. I want to draw links between Instagram branding and Naomi Klein, between YouTube conspiracy theorists and Richard Hofstadter, and between Hollywood’s insatiable thirst for sequels and social media’s infinite scroll. Google Scholar is a huge resource for me.

I’m often asked to explain what makes internet culture different from some previous mode of human experience, and the maybe boring answer is that it is not always so different. There is a temptation to overemphasize the novelty of internet culture, but our media, economic system and values did not spontaneously appear in, like, 1996. I sometimes think about the internet as a fun house mirror, a tool for stretching and magnifying existing dynamics.

How would you sum up the state of internet culture today compared with what it was in the 1990s, when the internet was just becoming a thing?

Back then, people on the internet thought that the internet was very good. At least, the most influential internet writers and architects did — the people who were setting the boundaries and terms for what it could be. Tech coverage was dominated by fan service and libertarian fantasy.

I think often about John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” in which he declared the internet “the new home of Mind” and wrote: “Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” That did not come to pass, obviously.

The links between the “home of Mind” and our bodily experience — whether it’s the shuttered local toy store that can’t compete with Amazon or the woman harassed by her ex on Facebook — have never been clearer. It’s still easy to be charmed and moved by the materials that actual human beings contribute to internet culture, but we’re more wary of the platforms they’re hosted on. The defining mood of internet culture is a lot more ambivalent.

What do you predict the internet will look like in five years?

I have no idea! I try to stay out of the prediction business. I do think that the fate of the internet is tied up with politics in a more urgent sense than other cultural products are. If Elizabeth Warren became president, we could see a significant rethinking of the power of the internet’s biggest platforms. Or we could see Amazon, Google and Facebook tighten their grip.

Outside of work, what tech product are you personally obsessed with?

Bitmoji. I have a very strong bond with my cartoon avatar. She has my nose and my glasses and my freckles and my forehead lines but she is not quite “me.” She’s probably a better version of me. I can honestly say that she’s expanded my emotional palette. She’s made it easier for me to express sadness and anger and tenderness. She’s made me more human. I will never leave her.

Deepfakes. Trolls. Misinformation. Fake reviews. Bots. These are just a few of the internet’s problems. Have we hit a low point or will things get better?

Oh, I think it could definitely get worse. Or maybe it’s hit a low point and also it will never get better? Something to think about!