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Amanda Hess - Users

Amanda Hess - Users

A new column at Slate about how people use the internet


With this interview I’m taking a bit of a departure from the site’s premise since Amanda’s new column at Slate is her real job. Who cares though, because Amanda is great!

Amanda has been covering serious issues with great care for years, and I’m always impressed by how well researched and sourced her articles are. When I heard that she had a new column centered on the internet I was really curious about how she would approach it, and knew I had to talk to her about it for the site.

Okay, so I want to ask you about your new column, Users. First, how does having a column work? Is this your main thing now? How much time do you devote to this, and how much time do you spend writing other things outside of the column?

It’s all really new to me also. I was freelancing for a long time, and I was freelancing mostly for Slate. Then I got a full time job at Slate and I started freelancing other places less, but still doing it. Now, I have my job at Slate and I’m also contributing to the New York Times Magazine infrequently over the year. That will probably be the extent of the freelancing that I do this year.

And then within Slate is everything you do going to fall under this Users category, or are you still going to be doing XX Factor and stuff like that?

At least for now, I’m trying for it all to be Users, because it’s so natural and easy for me to have a take about feminism and women. I’m trying not to do it, like at all, for a while at least. Maybe I’ll circle back to it later, but I’m trying to force myself to have ideas about the internet.

That’s interesting because part of my next question was how you ended up moving to Users; but, just watching your work, I kind of assumed that that it was a progression from XX Factor being really broad to you exploring women on the internet, and women’s experiences on the internet, and starting the transition that way. Is that right?

Umm, no.

I mean, sort of. It was a lot more specific than that. It was actually an idea that was conceived of by my editors as something that they wanted more coverage of. And it was pretty obvious that I’d gotten kind of tired of writing about women all the time. But I think you’re right. Like, if you’ve read any of the things I’ve written in this category, a lot of them could have been written for Double X because they have some gender component to them.

Like, the first thing I wrote was about why suicide prevention online doesn’t adequately reach young men. It’s funny because that’s very much a story about gender, but it wouldn’t really work that well in Double X because Double X is about women even though it’s usually about, sort of, gender more widely.

What else have I written that’s sort of gender-y? Oh, I wrote something about the eggplant emoji that’s about sex on the internet, which is something that I’ve written about for a while.

So, I think they saw this opportunity for me to do something that I had been doing for a while, but that was a little bit of a departure from it too.

That’s interesting. I guess I kind of saw the emoji one as having to do with sex, but I also thought of it as being really similar, conceptually, to the thing you wrote about how, “You’re welcome,” became super snarky because it was kind of about the evolution of language. It’s just that one evolved before the internet, and one evolved after.

Yeah, and that one ended up being about women too. [laughs] This is actually one of the reasons that I was not really interested in writing dedicatedly about feminism anymore, or women, or whatever it was that I was writing about before. I think it’s really interesting and important for people to write about that stuff off the lady pages. You know what I mean?

Off the what pages?

Off the “lady pages.” Not for a female-specific audience. But, also, much of the reason I’ve been writing about that is because I’m so used to seeing things in that way. So that’s where my analysis tends to go, and it’s something I’m really trying to to work on. To expand it. But a lot of times if I need to have an interesting idea about something on the internet there’s going to be some gender component to it. For now at least

Given that, where do you see Users fitting in in overall tech reporting, or even just Slate’s tech or internet culture pieces? Have you kind of identified a space that you want to carve out for yourself?

That’s a great question. So, I don’t… I’m trying to figure out things that I don’t write about.

Sometimes that’s the easiest way. You can see something and be like, “I wouldn’t cover that,” to get down to it.

So, I actually didn’t come up with this name - I’m trying to remember who at Slate came up this name, “Users.” I think it might have been Julia Turner, our editor in chief. But, it’s actually been really useful, because I’m trying to focus on how people actually use the internet; as opposed to, like, people who are creating the spaces on the internet, or the culture of Silicon Valley or something. I don’t write about that stuff. And I don’t write about, like, new phones or anything like that. Unless a new phone is creating a crazy new way that people have relationships with each other.

Are you going to cover that heartbeat thing in the Apple watch?

Umm… no. Probably not.

So, there are a lot of places that sort of do both of those things. The Daily Dot does those things really well, and also writes about, you know, strange things that are happening on the internet. One of the challenges that I’ve personally found in writing about this stuff is, like, writing about internet controversies. Or, like, weird places on the internet that resonate beyond themselves in some way. So it’s not just like, “weird people doing weird stuff,” or weird obsessions. [Things] that say something about how the world is changing.

Do you have any favorite niche spaces right now? Anything that’s really interesting to you, or that you think is home to something new, or you can’t stop looking at?

That’s a good question.

I don’t think - yet - that anything I’ve written about has come from me being actually personally interested in anything, or being drawn to a part of the internet, with the probable exception of the story that I wrote about One Direction conspiracy theories. Which is, like, a personal interest of mine. It tends to come about from just talking to people. Like, I’ll find a person - and usually it’s someone who I know who is plugged into the internet in some way that I’m not.

Like this guy, this wonderful guy, emailed me a few months ago, right after I had started doing this [column]. He emailed me to say that he liked my work, but that something I had written about gamergate he thought I had gotten it wrong. I had, like, misinterpreted the motivations of gamergate people. Usually, I would not respond to that email. But because I was just starting this thing I was like, “I am definitely responding to this e-mail and seeing what this guy knows about gamergate that I don’t.” And and it turns out the answer is, “a lot.” But at some point I had a conversation with him that was like, “So, even though I really appreciate you laying this out for me, I’m not interested in writing about gamergate. I find it really boring. But, maybe there are some other things that you are paying attention to on the internet that would be interesting for me. So, he’s become a really good source, just, pointing out some places where he hangs out. I’m still trying to get to that point of what they mean about, you know, humanity or whatever, but he’s been a really good source.

And I’m also just cravenly asking anyone if they know teenagers who will email me and tell me what they do.

I always thought you were pretty plugged into that teen beat.

Well, I’m like twenty-nine now. You know, I keep getting older and teenagers stay the same age. People who I might have talked to who were seventeen a few years ago aren’t teenagers anymore. They can be a good bridge to younger people, but you really have to keep getting new sources if you write about teenagers.

I forgot about that. So, do you think you’re going to become the type of person that spends a lot of time in these niche sites, or is it mostly, like, an academic interest to you where people will direct you to them and you’ll look at them enough to write a story but you won’t spend a whole lot of time crawling through these communities? Or trying every new app that comes out to see what’s happening on it?

Right, or will I become a part of them? Will I become so interested in the community that I become part of it? I don’t think so. I have to say that I’m not a super social person, in general.

I have my friends who I gchat. And I have my co-workers who I Slack with. And I have my boyfriend who I text. [But,] I don’t have a big… You pointed this out. Like, I just tweet less and less. So, I don’t think that I have the same relationship with internet communities as like a lot of people that I end up writing about.

As for the app stuff, it’s really hard. I don’t know how, but somehow all the P.R. people instantly figured out that I was writing about the internet now; so, every new app that comes out, I get a pitch about. And it’s, like, for the first time in my life my phone is full and I have to start deleting apps. It’s hard to know what to even spend time on because there are so many of them. Like, I got this pitch from this woman the other day who – And they have their little packet how to make it not about the app, but it makes no sense. She was like, “I have this guy who wants to talk about how emojis are too limited, and they’re going to limit our, you know, emotional capabilities in conversation.” But, he really made his app where you can, like, put graffiti on photos.

And, it doesn’t really make sense, but, also, he designed Koi Pond, which is one of my favorite apps. It’s, like, for relaxation. This is showing you how old I am; because, I don’t want the graffiti app, I want the relaxation app. There are fish swimming in a pond, and you can move little things and it makes little rippling water noises and the fish scatter. And they slowly come back. I’m sort of interested in that space, so I might end up interviewing him sometime in the future.

[At this point I started talking about that cat app, and I’ve decided to spare you all from having to read about how I can’t make my cats happy.]

For that stuff, it seems like you would kind of wait until something’s mature enough, and then you’ll hear about people are using it in kind of a new way. You don’t really want to cover a brand new app, right? Like, you to see how people have kind of incorporated it into their lives.

Unless, I mean, so the idea of having a column, I guess, is that it’s about you having an idea about something. So, I guess I can see… maybe inspiration will strike with something new, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Oh yeah, since it’s a column, how often do you have to write it? I’ve heard some criticism of columns from a few people that the rate you have to produce it just ensures that you’re going to be at some point like, “Oh God, I just need anything!” And it sets you up for embarrassing retrospectives later.

Yeah, like I’ll write something offensive? Yeah, uhhh, I don’t know. I mean, it’s interesting; because, when I was doing the Double X stuff, there were some times when I was just blogging where I was like, “Here’s a video that is gender related.” But there’s actually not a lot of news in the “woman space,” you know? So, everything that I was writing was something that had some kind of take on it. And sometimes it wasn’t even new. And sometimes, like, it was bad. And sometimes it wasn’t bad. And I think the fast pace sort of forced me to do some things I wouldn’t have done otherwise that ended up being good. And, also, the opposite happened sometimes.

One of the things that I’m hoping to be better at as a person - as a journalist – is things that are longer than the column length. So, like, a feature length thing, I think is more difficult for me to wrap my mind around about what ideas should be that length and have that amount of investment in them. I’m hoping to figure that out.

One thing I feel kind of comes through in some of your posts, I guess in general and from Users, is that technology is kind of letting us work through things that we’ve always had to work through, but a little bit more publicly. Or, at least maybe more observably. I don’t know if it’s right to say it’s public if it’s anonymous or semi-anonymous.

How do you think that technology has helped make behaviors and urges more visible?

That’s a really difficult question. I tend to agree with Nathan Jurgensen. Do you know who he is? He’s a sociologist who writes about the internet, and he has promoted this idea called “digital dualism” which [debunks] the idea that online and offline lives are separate things.

It’s difficult to believe that, as I do, and also think that there’s anything new and interesting in writing about different technologies. And some people, I think, do that really well. And I don’t think I’m really one of those people. So the things that I often end up writing about – that are about the culture of the internet – they don’t really… They don’t tend to interact much with how it’s different than it used to be. Do you know what I mean?

It’s more like – and this is not something I’ve actually thought about, but I’m articulating just now – it’s more like reporting on the internet like it’s a place. And it doesn’t tend to really specifically have a commentary or a critique about how it’s different from before we had the internet or how it’s different when we’re not on the internet much at all. I guess. Maybe I’m wrong. Am I wrong?

I don’t think so. I mean, it’s an interesting question. It kind of comes up in the piece about diagnosing mental disorders and whether internet [disorders] are different or do they just allow us different manifestations of existing problems? One thing is it seems like things happen faster on the internet because we always have access to it. Is the fact that behaviors are accelerated novel or not? Maybe that’s a significant question?

Yeah. I think you’re right, and I don’t know. That’s a good example of a thing that I wrote about, “whether disorders are different online.” Because that’s like a classic Amanda Hess thing where, like, I don’t say whether they are or not, and I don’t know.

I don’t know if they’re different.

I know that one guy thinks they are and one guy thinks they’re not, really. But I have no idea if we should see them as different things. But, I do agree with you that it’s a really interesting question. I’m probably not going to answer it. But hopefully I can illuminate the question in some way. That’s usually my goal.

I think that makes sense. I think that’s kind of like the best anybody can do a lot of the time.