by Eileen Isagon Skyers
This interview accompanies the 9th edition of Rhizome’s Seven On Seven conference, which convenes leading artists and technologists for high-level collaborations. It was conducted in conversation with Nozlee Samadzadeh, engineer at Vox Media and editor at The Morning News, and Bunny Rogers, an artist and poet living and working in Stockholm, Sweden. On the occasion of their first meeting, we sat down in Samadzadeh’s Williamsburg home to chat about what might transpire from their collaboration. View the full list of participants here.
Eileen Isagon Skyers: Today’s the first day you two are meeting, in person. But you’ve already had some dialogue online?
Bunny Rogers: Mmm-hmm [affirmative].
Nozlee Samadzadeh: Yeah.
EIS: Let’s focus a little bit on your process: how you are each approaching one another’s work, what sort of ideas you might have, or materials or things of that nature.
NS: I think it’s interesting that you used the word “materials” because I think for the past two hours, we’ve been swapping thoughts on mediums that we have worked in. We spent a really long time talking about Young Adult novels we had encountered in our childhoods and the commonalities therein. There are a bunch of books on the table, because Bunny brought a bunch of books, and I pulled books off my shelves during our conversation, so I think we’re in some formative idea-share, or thought sharing stages, right now.
EIS: Were there any crossovers between the books you each tended towards?
NS: This is dumb, but Bunny mentioned a book from the seminal American Girl doll catalogues that I think any American young woman of a certain age would have encountered. I was like, “Oh yes, obviously I know the thing that you’re referring to,” which is maybe a non-impressive example.
EIS: Bunny, did you have all of these copies of Flowers for Algernon that you brought? Why so many?
BR: I guess I collect book covers. In particular, I really fell in love with the first edition cover for Flowers for Algernon and then I guess that made me want to discover more. I start from one direction with a collection, and then ultimately I just want everything. I guess these are all different book covers that were appealing to me.
EIS: Nozlee, can you tell me a bit about growing up in Oklahoma? What was that like, and how did that influence your relationship with food?
NS: I think it’s worth mentioning I think, my family ended up there. My parents were professors, and that was the job they got. My parents are both Iranian immigrants, and I think finding themselves raising three daughters in this state was very interesting for all of us. I didn’t love it for a long time, but now, having made my home in the Northeast, I appreciate knowing what the middle of the country is and knowing what the names of the states are. Culturally, I think it has value. I’m capable of seeing a Trump voter as a human being, because I know a lot of them, which may or may not be valuable. More abstractly, I have an appreciation for the culinary culture of the Midwest, while also being a dual citizen, with everything that entails.
EIS: Do you visit Iran frequently?
NS: I’ve only been once, as a kid.
EIS: Is it possible for you to share a little bit more about how you got into code, and your current work with Vox Media?
NS: Yeah, totally. Programming is a skill I’ve had for most of my life. Both my parents are computer science professors, so as a bored twelve year old, I sat in on my mom’s day long C workshop and started from there. When I went to college, I very self-consciously wanted to make sure that I was doing both code-related things and non-code related things. I eventually ended up studying art history and computer science, and then after graduation, spent a really long time not doing anything program related at all. I think my experience had been very typical of the experience of women, which is that it was fairly unwelcoming. Not a culture that felt like a lot of fun. I worked at a design firm. I was a food editor for awhile as a freelance writer…then a woman I met had a lot of faith in me and said, “Obviously you’re a programmer. You have all these skills. Why aren’t you doing this?” I was like, “Well maybe you’re right.” I had realized that a more diverse culture was growing here, and that I could be a part of it. My first job in programming was at a company that made magazine iOS apps. From there, it made sense to go to Vox where I work on the editor that people use to write stories.
EIS: The software?
NS: The CMS. Yeah, the software that people use to write articles.
EIS: Cool. Don’t you have a number of outlets under the Vox umbrella? like Eater, Curbed…
NS: Yeah, yeah––Racked, Polygon, The Verge.
EIS: Interesting. How does it feel to be a constituent to this larger entity, that is sort of shifting, or driving, the way we consume media? I feel like it’s a really powerful position to be in, right now, considering the skepticism everyone feels toward news in the present day.
NS: Bunny and I were just actually talking about the idea that code itself is pretty amoral. It exists. It does something. I think the intention that you give it when you’re writing it is very important. I don’t speak for all of Vox Media, but I think we put a lot of thought into the way our work is presented, and the way that the software is presented, to inspire that confidence in readers that this is good data, this is trustworthy.
EIS: How do you feel about comment culture as it relates to literature—the consumption of words, and media in that sense?
NS: Community management is a really hard job. I know people whose entire job is to help shape and inform communities. I think it’s really powerful and, honestly, really difficult. I have so many opinions about this that I could not possibly fit into the scope of this interview.
EIS: It would be its own essay of sorts.
NS: I think that people have gotten worse at talking to each other about their opinions maybe in the last twelve months on Twitter. It’s tough to see, but it’s also hard to know how to shape discourse in that way, without simply doing your best personally.
EIS: Because it’s just a massive community to try to manage.
NS: Well, yeah. It’s really hard to tell someone, “you’re doing a bad job at thinking about this.” You’re equating “I don’t like it” with “it is bad.”
EIS: Bunny, I’m somewhat familiar with your work, but let’s start from the beginning either way: could you share a little bit about where, and how, you grew up on the internet?
BR: My family got a computer when I was six or seven. Then they got AOL when I was seven or eight, so I guess it started with AOL and AOL Kids. Then I guess I jumped from AOL Kids, Art Forms, to Neopets and was pretty committed to Neopets for the next three or four years. I was in Texas the majority of that time period, but after we moved to New York, I guess that was the late phase of the Neopets era. Then I moved on to Furcadia, which was a furry role-playing game. I don’t know if I’d call it a game.
EIS: You have an avatar on this page?
BR: Yeah. Then Second Life later on. I just moved from character to character while growing up. It was always a component in my life. I guess that’s how I would describe growing up online.
EIS: Having an avatar to channel your personhood onto?
BR: Right. Having an outlet that I could count on being there.
EIS: If we’re all implicated this logic of social networks today, do you feel that people from radically different social or economic strata approach those networks differently?
BR: Social media today is very different from the platforms that I was using when I was a kid—where I was talking to people older than me, or younger, or from different parts of the world, not knowing anything about them and not wanting to. It was unspoken. Especially on Second Life and Furcadia, I would find that there was an understanding that you didn’t ask about someone’s first life, or real life. It’s very different now, or it feels different, where most of my time online is on my email or on Facebook or on Twitter.
EIS: Where anonymity isn’t really as much of a factor.
BR: Right, yeah. Where you’re building up that identity. There’s just as much artifice, but it’s attached to the same name on all platforms.
EIS: So that you can be “optimally searchable.”
BR: Right. Yeah.
EIS: What do you feel like the web offers people, emotionally or intellectually, while growing up?
BR: Today, it seems like it would be very stressful. But I’m very grateful that I had access to these alternate worlds when I was a kid. It feels like what the internet provided to me when I was younger, which was an outlet of fantasy, isn’t available in the same way today. Almost the opposite maybe. I have friends that were on Myspace who interacted with different people from all over the country, or all over the world. You could really break away from the people you knew at school, and I wonder if it still feels like that today.
EIS: If that’s even a possibility.
BR: Yeah. I wonder about that sometimes.
EIS: I read that your Twitter feed essentially re-posts all of your Facebook posts since 2008. I was interested in your feelings toward Facebook’s “memories” feature that reminds you of what you’ve posted several years prior.
BR: It’s funny that you bring that up because Nozlee showed me this app today, what is it called?
BR: Timehop. I was somewhat horrified because you can check it every single day and it will tell you…well, it will show you photos that you took on that day, Tweets that you posted on that day, and it will even show text messages.
EIS: Wow. Across platforms?
BR: Yeah, across all of them. When Nozlee told me about this and said that she uses it frequently, I felt very guilty of consciously…not doing it. Like I was going out of my way to forget things that I could very easily remember, or revisit, if I wanted to. I don’t know how I feel about the “Memories” feature. It’s like it’s not so confrontational that it upsets me or makes me feel one way or the other, but if they were to increase volume…
EIS: The volume of memories; a cache they can bring forward.
BR: I guess eventually that will be inevitable. I guess I’m going to be on Timehop one way or the other, at some point.
EIS: I was logged onto Facebook once and it read, “Facebook cares about your memories,” or something like this. That’s such a strange phrase, because they’re mine, and Facebook can’t have them. Maybe, in a sense, Facebook does care about these memories because they’re part of an algorithm that they benefit from.
BR: “Thank you for your memories.”
NS: I’ve had a Facebook account for eleven years and a Twitter account for ten years. That’s a lot of stuff. That’s a lot of thought that I’ve put into it.
BR: A lot of free content.
NS: Yeah, yeah. It’s strange to think that this stuff has been on their servers for that long and will continue to be until it’s not. Probably when it’s not, it will wink out very quickly. As if it never existed.
EIS: Oh man. That’s really stressful.
NS: Don’t worry, they do care about your memories.