Today, we're going to talk about whether the internet is Good or Bad for society.
Ha ha. Just kidding. If you want to read another article arguing the merits of the internet, please close your laptop, drive to a beautiful lake, and jump in. When you return to your desk, cheeks still flush from the clear, cold water, open your laptop back up and watch all of the poet Steve Roggenbuck’s YouTube videos in a row.
I wish everyone on the internet had done this last month when Jonathan Franzen set off the latest round of "Is The Internet Good Or Evil?" in the Guardian with a diatribe against Twitter and blogs, excerpted from his newest book. The cruel trick is that "the internet sucks" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every high-profile denunciation flows into a terrible, howling chorus of Twitter power users and technoutopian thinkfluencers falling over each other to smugly rebut the heretic—and suddenly the internet does suck.
Twenty-six-year-old Roggenbuck, a self-declared “internet poet,” is the antidote. Since 2010 Roggenbuck has been an obsessive user of Twitter, Facebook and multiple Tumblrs, but his best work is his YouTube videos. In these videos, he spews hysterical riffs and one-liners of wildly varying comprehensibility to a camera he points at himself, usually to the backing of an exhilarating electronic soundtrack, usually somewhere beautiful outside.
His most popular video is "make something beautiful before you are dead." I first saw it two years ago on a friend’s Tumblr and I was struck by Roggenbuck's raw vlogger solipsism, which would be grating if it weren’t backed up by equally raw virtuosity. The video starts quietly. Roggenbuck's in a room, affecting a piercing nasal midwestern twang as he muses to the camera about how he's "going to find the best deal."
It's a parody of every boring YouTube video blog you've seen, which Roggenbuck sets up only to explode seconds later in a dizzying epiphany. Suddenly he's outside in the woods, still holding his camera, popping out from bushes, shouting "two words, Jackass: Dog the Bounty Hunter," swinging an enormous tree branch and berating a dead tree stump for not being alive. Roggenbuck appears to have just broken out from a dark basement where he'd been imprisoned from a young age, raised entirely on AOL chatrooms, reality TV and Monster Energy Drinks. He's exhilaratingly callous about his own body, holding his camera inches from face despite a pretty intense outbreak of acne, at times so excited by his own words that the camera jerks crazily up and down with every cheesy self-help exhortation. When Roggenbuck yells "Get me in control of ABC Family and I will fuck this country up" while sprinting through a drizzly field to a dubstep soundtrack you feel like you're watching neurons firing and forging strange connections in real time. It's a selfie of the soul.
As impressive as the video is the outpouring of adoration in comments under "make something beautiful before you are dead." Most YouTube comments are petri dishes of cutting-edge hate speech, but a community of ebullient Roggenbuck worshipers has turned his comments sections into a virtual self-help seminar. Writes Levi Oesterman:
I found this on Tumblr this morning. Today was going to be an average day, and then I found this. And that last minute gave me goosebumps and made me tear up. And today is going to be a fucking amazing day. And every day after that. Thank you so much, I will play that last minute every morning.
Like Franzen or critic Sherry Turkel, Roggenbuck wants to foster real human connection and celebrate the unique and the individual in the face of data-driven distraction and crowd-based logic. But instead of putting on the brakes, Roggenbuck applies a poetic courage and weirdness to the very object of his critique: social media.
“Ezra Pound was an asshole, but he said a couple wise things,” Roggenbuck wrote to me in an email. “One of them was that ‘Great Literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.' If we’re trying to move people in only 140 characters, or 6 seconds, or 500x500 pixels, our language must be charged with meaning. In that sense, the internet is a game that only poets can win. What I’m trying to do is get more poets-in the-romantic-sense to use these platforms.”
A typical Roggenbuck poem pairs classically romantic exhortations—seize the moment! Be kind to others! Live life to the fullest!—with references to Pinterest, #YOLO and Beliebers, highlighting the timeless human passions that underpin even the most superficial internet fad. “I’m interested in marketing, but I’m mostly interested in marketing the moon,” he says in his poem “An Internet Bard at Last,” sounding like celebrity social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk, one of his heroes, impersonating Ralph Waldo Emerson, another of his heroes.
Steve Roggenbuck would horrify the Jonathan Franzens of the world. Poetry is supposed to be serious and introspective—the opposite of the superficial, buzzing, electronic hellscape that critics imagine the internet to be. According Roggenbuck’s own creation myth, he's a product of that polarity: As an MFA student, he began to focus on the internet after one of his instructors commented on his misspelled, dashed-off-seeming poems, "save this for your blog." (He dropped out of the MFA program.)
But "save this for your blog" isn't quite the insult an MFA professor might image. New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman (!) recently wrote about how poetry was once passed among networks of elites, "allow[ing] people both to discuss sensitive topics elliptically and to demonstrate their cleverness." Elliptical demonstrations of cleverness: Imagine what they would have thought of Tumblr! And the internet is more than just a staging ground—it's a huge source of inspiration and material for young artists, poets, technologists and writers.
The poet Kenneth Goldsmith wrote in The New Yorker a few weeks ago about the rise of found text, anonymous collaboration and other poetic techniques inspired by online life. Artists are using them to puzzle over "the quantity of language that surrounds us, and… how difficult it is to render meaning from such excess." Roggenbuck comes from a vibrant scene of internet poets who act as digital street artists, seeding unlikely spaces of the web with their work, weaving profound moments into (or creating them out of) the ticker-tape torrent of status updates and Instagram pics.
Goldsmith in The New Yorker, highlights one of my favorite Tumblrs, The Jogging, which churns out weird, meme-like images contributed by a far-flung network of content creators. It's a good example of artists becoming what Goldsmith calls—unfortunately, but accurately—"meme machines." Or take @Horse_ebooks, the Twitter account that many assumed to be a spambot serendipitously creating weird found poetry, and that became, over its three-year run, an internet sensation.
(As it turned out, a BuzzFeed employee had been behind @Horse_ebooks for the bulk of its existence, meticulously hand-crafting each tweet. The reveal was a huge disappointment to many, but I think it was a pretty clever subversion of the impulse people have to celebrate the gradual encroachment of robots into human domains, whether it's taking care of the elderly, making cars or poetry. The robot @Horse_ebooks was beloved because it tweeted better and funnier tweets than any human. But—ha!—it was actually a human the whole time. Victory over The Machines!)
Where other internet artists play with raw information, Roggenbuck’s more interested in how that information flows. Going viral is transcendental for Roggenbuck, as he explains in “Going viral spiritually: The mechanics of the Upward Spiral.” His poetry is just the start of this process: He spins clips of his videos into GIFs that he posts on his popular tumblr and image macros he posts to his Facebook page, multiplying, diverting and spreading his work. Ultimately, Roggenbuck shows how being unselfconsciously weird and funny can help us live online without being reduced to an avatar or a screen name.
“He brings expressivity to poetry by writing (and reading) as if he can’t control these constant outbursts of feeling,” says the art critic Brian Droitcour, a fan. “So much of our everyday contact happens through machines that can’t express affect and people keep coming up with ways to put in there, to find substitutes for gesture and tone of voice and facial expression that can be transmitted through the screen... So I think the most interesting artists and poets working online are developing ways of expressing a bodily presence within the network.”
Even a "bodily presence" is no real substitute for the physical body, and Roggenbuck has been increasingly moving his act offline. This summer he started a vegan activism blog and announced the creation of “Boost House,” an artist residency/vegan co-op thing run out of a big house he’s going to rent in Maine. Boost House, he claims, “will revive youth interest in literature by fusing poetry to a broader cultural purpose of creating positive social change, and trying hard to help others.” (Still, he remains curiously unknown outside his fans and the online lit blogs. I really thought he'd blow up by now.)
In this way, Roggenbuck continues to confound both critics and boosters of the internet. Roggenbuck's weird tweets and funny Tumblr updates aren't destroying society or liberating oppressed people. They're the visible artifacts of a real, human network that Roggenbuck has skillfully created and nurtured, enabled and constrained by the tools an entire generation has now grown up with. In his manifesto "We, The Web Kids," the Polish writer Piotr Czerki sums up the ethos of Roggenbuck's generation: "We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it. If we were to tell our bildungsroman to you, the analog, we could say there was a natural Internet aspect to every single experience that has shaped us."
Anyone who wants to understand the internet generation would do well to pay attention to Roggenbuck's oeuvre. It can be hard to get past Roggenbuck's aggressive naivety and goofy schtick, which can come across like the twee mirror to the strident net freedom diatribes of Wikileaks fanatics and hacktvists. You could say he's way too uncritical about the incentives embedded in the technologies he uses—created by huge corporations whose exact goal is to encourage the sharing he craves—and how that might negatively affect his work. But this is just to point out that are as many flaws in the the structures of the internet as there are in the people embedded in them. The best of Roggenbuck's work shows there's equally as much promise.