On The Couch with Daniel Kolitz

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Daniel Kolitz

The daily life of an internet writer is not always a glamorous one. For today’s subject, it is filled with writing internet humor on analogue notebooks, isolating oneself from the bustling Brooklyn arts scene while remaining in the heart of its youthful core of Bushwick, and most of all, self-doubting to the point of near obsession, only to come out on top, newly minted internet phenomenon in hand. In our long and rambling conversation, due in part to the writer’s modest dismissal of his obviously intimate knowledge about the intersection of internet and literary communities, we delved into the quiet ennui that accompanies the inevitable and unstoppable pervasiveness of technology into our everyday lives, the many intricate communities that made up a somewhat literary blogging scene in the mid-aughts, as well as the constant pressure to perform in social media online. Daniel Kolitz, illustrious internet author of The Data Drive, as well as the creator of The Printed Internet, may be the closest that the “millennial” generation has to a New Journalist.

What’s your day job?

I’ll tell you that off the record. It’s funny, a few articles have said about me, “He refuses to divulge where he works.” Which makes it sound like either I’m a drug dealer or like, an arms dealer. But then someone in my office found that and sent it around.

You wanted to meet in person, and not do the interview over the phone. That seems antithetical to the detached nature of your internet projects.

I’m not really involved in the internet too much. For someone who’s written so much about the internet; I have a Twitter, but I’ve only tweeted a handful of times, most of which have been about this site launching, or the fact that I hate tweeting. I can’t write Facebook statuses anymore, they make me really anxious. I’m anti-Kindle, I read physical books. I’m not good at talking on the phone. I hate GChat. I’ve always been scared of GChat, because it seemed like people were having very high level, witty conversations on there, and I’m like, “I can’t operate at that level on a regular day,” so I just wouldn’t do that.

Is that why Facebook makes you anxious? Because it demands you to be the most witty at all times?

Yeah. Well, sometimes I’ll want to post a song to Facebook, and I’ll ask, “What motivation will people assign to me posting this song? Am I trying too hard? Is this almost middle school-ish in trying to create my identity through whatever pop-punk song I’m listening to at the moment?” And I did that! I posted an All Dogs song a week ago, just a week to an article, and I just had a panic attack.

Your teens are twenties are basically entirely on the internet. When did you join Facebook?

I joined Facebook in 2006. I remember it was a winter break that everyone was getting on Facebook.

How has your usage and understanding of it evolved? That seems to have informed The Data Drive to some extent. Right now it’s a very current incarnation of Facebook, dominated by media. But it didn’t used to be that.

It certainly wasn’t always that. I was trying to think back to what websites I read in high school, what media was going around, and I guess I would check Pitchfork periodically, but mostly I would use Facebook to flirt with girls in my class, or post a lot of bad jokes. My favorite thing to do with Facebook when I was younger was take pictures with my shitty flip phone of my friends in secret and post those all online. I’ve been trying to think and write about that, that weird period before cell phone technology got really good, there’s this art to the shitty grainy cell phone pictures. It was certainly less than a corporatized environment. You’ll see often, people who will go back through people’s archives and it’s humiliating. It’s really embarrasing.

It’s like surveillance art! So you don’t use Facebook a lot?

I should clarify to say that I’m a huge Facebook user. If we combine all the hours a day that I spend flipping through it, I’m probably on it one or two hours, but I don’t post anything. That’s probably worse, because I feel like this strange outsider who can’t participate in what seems like a very passionate culture of link-sharing and opinion-having, but I feel completely outside of that. I feel insane that I think other people are insane. It’s very hard for me. I think this is my outlet for all this information I’m taking in. Instead of actively participating in it, I’m sort of putting it out in this way. Although, I don’t know what I’m going to do now, because I’m never making a collage again. So now it’s just going to be building up inside of me with no end. I’m going to have to start posting to Facebook I guess.

The Data Drive
Screenshot from The Data Drive.

What inspired you to create collages in the first place? Before this, you did a blog of online collages called The Printed Internet.

I used to have a Tumblr called “Back Left Litz”, which was a nickname that I gave myself in high school, because I sat in the back left of a car on the way to Canada. Once I got to college, I told people to call me that, as a joke, and it kind of worked. So that Tumblr was my first exposure to real internet culture. It was almost like a women’s studies minor—I was not really cognizant of that whole world before I joined Tumblr. I joined to be a part of music Tumblr, I wanted to write about music, but I didn’t really realize the intersections between social justice and all of those things when I was just listening to music. I got a real schooling in that and made a lot of friends and became a frequent Tumblr user. Even then, I would do these parodies of the music writing scene, and then slowly I stopped writing about music on that blog, and I started doing these weird screenshot web art things. One example is that I posted a little essay under a YouTube video of a Russian kid playing a guitar solo from 2008 wondering about where he was now and what he was doing. So I liked playing with the internet in that way. Then I graduated college and I was very embarrassed of everything I had written on that old blog, so I made everything private. I knew I wanted to mess around with the internet, and I also knew I wanted to do something that involved scanning or visual stuff. The other problem was that I didn’t know how to use Photoshop, so I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do. So right around the time I conceived the idea for this blog I was laid off from my job, giving me ample time to cut and paste this blog into existence.

It has a very artistic aesthetic.

To me it looks very grungy. It was all trial and error. I didn’t know what they were going to look like. I remember I wrote all of the pieces, and the week before the blog was set to go up, I had to sit down and collage them. So I don’t even know how I was going to make that happen. In and of themselves they don’t look that interesting, they just kind of look like shitty cutouts, but the transfiguring magic of the scanner that adds the beauty. What’s funny is that it depends on the scanner. So I got a new printer when my old printer stopped working, and it just didn’t look that great, so I had to go and revive this old broken printer that I use now exclusively as a scanner.

I’m really interested in this phenomenon where everyone in a creative field is doing everything right now—nobody is just a writer, or just a comedian…

So I don’t have any kind of path, I’m still seeking a path. But I agree with that. I think, from when I was younger, the idea that the publishing industry was dying was so drilled into my head that I was like, “I can’t just be a straightforward writer,” which is what I’d be interested in when I was younger. I have a friend named Eric Sweder who’s just starting at NYU’s MFA program, and all he does is write these short stories, spend four months on each one, I really admire that. I’m too afraid to do that. I’m interested in doing as many different kinds of things as possible. When I was originally using Tumblr, I found it interesting that it seemed like there were a couple of different communities; there were music writers, alt lit, New York media. I think, like everyone, I am trying to put as many feelers out into as many different fields as possible and seeing what sticks. I don’t know how much longer I can do this for, I have a lot of anxiety and I think in many ways, The Data Drive was a monument to the last period of my life where I had a lot of free time, I wasn’t that worried about money or my future. Now I think a lot about my future and I think about what I’m going to actually do in the future that will ensure that I don’t have to work a job that I despise. Before The Data Drive, I spent eight months researching the regulatory history of Adderall and interviewing serious doctors, scholars of the FDA, getting FOIA requests.

Do you think that the internet has increased your anxiety?

Well, yes, the internet has made me much more anxious, because I’m much more cognizant of what other people are doing. This is kind of an obvious answer, but you can go online and it’s basically just a distilled stream of everyone you know’s professional accomplishments, which can be its own source of anxiety. On the other hand, the internet does makes learning things much easier. It makes certain things seem more obtainable. I could learn a language, or programming, or how to play the guitar, none of which I’ve actually tried to do. Ostensibly, the internet is a “democracy”—make sure they know I used air quotes—and if you produce content at a high quality, it can circulate among a huge audience. So that feeling is exciting, but also creates anxiety.

Do you see any difference between how your generation uses the internet and some kind of old guard? You spoke of the “music writing scene” on Tumblr, for example.

So in the early days of Tumblr, there were a lot of us on there. We were like, young scrappy wannabe music critics, which is the silliest thing in the world, and Mark Richardson was on there, and he was sort of like the father figure of early music critic Tumblr. He would follow these young people and like their posts. And over the years, many of those people were hired by him. So that was kind of cool. So when I first joined Tumblr, I would follow these older writers who I wanted to like me. You could just join the conversation instantly. I remember how thrilling it was to be younger and be involved in conversations with people who were my elders, in their thirties and forties, and who knew what they were talking about. I would never directly join the conversation, I would just write oblique, semi-fictional commentary on the conversation, which in retrospect, it was almost like satirizing a squabble within the podiatrist community—it was so limited.

Why did you choose to have so many external sites, and less Facebook statuses?

Well, I think that part of the reason the site is so saturated with media is that I wanted to have as many different components as possible. I kind of wish that I had more straightforward Facebook statuses; there was a lot I wish I could have done but there just wasn’t time for it. I really felt at a certain point like I could sit there for the rest of my life and be collaging this universe. I wonder if Twitter has absorbed joke-making or personal updates, but Twitter has its own weird pressures, because you often are being followed and performing for people who you don’t know personally. So Facebook is interesting because it’s this big hodge-poge of friends, family, acquaintences, professional contacts, and so there are unique pressures to that.

Are you planning on doing anything else with Useless Press? How did you start working with them?

About two years ago, I was doing The Printed Internet, and Adrian Chen reached out to me to do something called the IRL Club, and I went up and did it, and I was really bad. I was deeply ashamed of that performance. And that’s like the fifth Google result for my name, and it’s just me bombing. I had lost my notes directly before going on stage, and everyone thought it was a bit, I kept saying, “Has anyone seen my notes?” Cut to a year later, I’m deep into investigating the history of Adderall and being a complete psycho loner in my room, I haven’t posted anything online, feeling pretty bad about myself. He reaches out and asks me if I want to do an interactive version of my own blog, and I say yes, and he puts me in touch wtih Sam Lavigne, who’s a programmer. Sam was like, “Be as ambitious as possible.” He’s a genius, he just graduated from NYU Tisch’s programming school. We have no direct plans to do anything together in the immediate future, but I’ve been coming up with a few ideas. I’d like to do a dating app.

How would you describe the mission of Useless Press?

With the exception of a few websites like Clickhole, very few websites are devoted to bringing joy to people and being entertaining and being funny and interesting, and not just people seizing on the hottest controversy or story of the day. So they’re just trying to make stuff that breaks the mold, and breaks away from regular internet content.

For some reason, the act of writing now is just so intimately tied up with the feel a pen makes on a piece of paper that I can only do it in that way. It’s an insurance policy against my tendency to break computers, so I don’t lose everything. It’s also a way to escape the internet. Even if I bought one of those programs that blocks out the web, I would still probably be going on Tinder, I’d find a way.

Did you intend to create a takedown of new media in The Data Drive? Was there any specific website you wanted to parody?

Well, The Printed Internet was that. The initial idea was just to make fun of internet writing. There was less of that at the time, now I think the listicle parody is a standard format that people use, but the idea then was to make fun of internet content. I was really bored of that when I started The Data Drive. There’s really not a lot to say about internet content except, “Oh, this is stupid and exists only to make money.” There isn’t that much there. So that, in a way, is where this half-baked plot about Zuckerberg escaping came in, because I was like, “What can I do that isn’t just making fun of Buzzfeed lists.” In many ways, these websites on The Data Drive, they all sound like me. It’s not me making fun of their content, necessarily, it’s me using them to tell these types of stories to advance this narrative that the project has. That said, there’s still some of the classic, “Listicles are dumb, teens, trends are dumb.” What’s depressing is that I have access to the analytics and I can see who’s looking at what, and only a very small minority of people really explore the site. Not that I can blame them for not spending an hour clicking around this website. But my favorite one to write was one that I doubt many people even saw, which was this interview at New York Magazine—although it didn’t have to be New York Magazine, it could have been any publication. I wasn’t making fun of them, I was just like, “Who would publish an interview between this TV show runner?” It was just an extremely strange interview between a TV show runner, and from there I spun off and wrote a Netflix page for the TV show, and I put together an AV Club recap of that thing. I don’t consider myself a humor writer, but what I realized is that bad humor just sounds like weird lies. Something that actually works, you can tell that it’s funny. There’s a certain type of writing where you’re like, “These are just a collection of untruths.” I also handwrite everything, which is not an affectation, I promise. For some reason, the act of writing now is just so intimately tied up with the feel a pen makes on a piece of paper that I can only do it in that way. It’s an insurance policy against my tendency to break computers, so I don’t lose everything. It’s also a way to escape the internet. Even if I bought one of those programs that blocks out the web, I would still probably be going on Tinder, I’d find a way. It feels like its own world, distinct from my laptop.

Who do you consider your biggest influences?

Yeah, Sam Lipsyte I love. In the past few years, I’ve gotten into a very particular kind of writer who has a very verbose, eye-popping prose style. They’ve all led me to one another through interviews and such—Barry Hannah, Nicholson Baker.

Do you have a goal at the moment?

I’m too old to just straight up blogging for free. I wasn’t paid for The Data Drive, and there were points halfway through where I was like, “Why am I doing this?” I have friends who are being paid to write for a living, I have siblings who are in medical school, and I am sitting here at 2 AM on a Friday night making these collages for free. Then that would pass, and I’d be pretty happy. I am happy, as a whole with the project. But in terms of what I want to embark on, there are a couple things. I realize I need to have one project I’m working on to get anything done, but right now the goal is to freelance, hoping to do some research-driven reporting.